I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me when I hear the word momo, I start to salivate with the thought of succulent hand made dumplings, traditionally filled with moist buffalo meat or pork, served with achar (Nepali version of chutney).
As the wedding season started full force in Turkey, I decided to reminisce about the time I spent in Nepal, since it coincided with the wedding season there.
I got invited to a dear friend’s wedding in Kathmandu last december (12/2010) . My friend Anil and I went to the same college in US. He was the first one to introduce me to momos (momo:cha), in his Medford apartment that we referred to as “the white house” after the Whyte street it was located on. He threw a momo party one night, that involved all the guests taking part in the preparation and cooking process. When it was time to eat, I was in heaven as I bit into each of these little morsels of tasty treasure. It was a pleasure to eat and a torture to see them dissapear at the same time. The effort and 2,5 hours spent on making them, led to momos dissapearing in 20 minutes. They were so addictive that, if you eat more than you should, you may end up with a lot of uncomfortable gas (I was told that on the day that I would fly, I should by all means avoid eating momos if I want to have a comfortable journey). Well… I decided that since I was visiting the land of momos, and don’t have to make them, I took every opportunity to eat momos as much as I could. No wonder why I returned from my trip with a whopping 1,5 extra kilos packed in my belly.
Before my trip, I started my research about the food culture of Nepal and to my surprise, found out that Nepali cuisine is quite extensive, thanks to it’s 101 ethnic groups. Since I only had time to visit Kathmandu, I decided to focus on Newari cuisine, the major ethnic society living in Kathmandu valley. Upon my arrival I realized that it was a difficult task due to the mixed food culture in Kathmandu, that had influences from all over, including India.
I met two other friends at Doha Airport who came over from France. Together took Qatar Airways, along with a horde of workers heading back home to Nepal. Upon arrival at Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport, I was aware that this trip was going to be unlike any other trips I took before. My first time visiting this part of the world, and I was lucky to have two locals as my guides, my dear friends Srijan & Anil. To top that off, we were invited to stay with Srijan and his parents at their beautiful suburban house in Chauni. Who could ask for a more local experience, right?
Nepal is blessed with a mild climate that allows a rich flora which leads to a vast variety of fruits and vegetables that are still produced using the natural agricultural systems. As for grains and legumes, besides rice; corn, wheat, lentils and chickpeas are commonly used in most dishes. The cuisine may be based on very basic ingredients but with the help of extensive use of spices, they never lack flavour.
The development of Nepali cuisine took many years, during which it got influenced by all the cultures of the ethnic groups. The main staple rice (bhat) is accompanied by lentils (dhal) and vegetables (tarkari) to make up the most basic dish of dhal-bhat-tarkari, that is eaten by anyone regardless of their income. This threesome is accompanied by achar of choice, and various meat dishes as the income levels increase. Depending on the religion of the person the meats can vary among, pork, buffalo or beef, chicken, fish and goat meat.
Nepali food is spicy for sure, and considering myself quite tolerant to spicy food, I didn’t want to take any risks and ordered “mild” at restaurants. Even mild contained a good deal of chilli peppers, that was enough to make me sweat and turn red. The spice that is widely used in cooking, that I avoided for a long time in my own diet (because it makes one really smelly) was fenugreek. In Turkey, the only place that fenugreek is used in is making of “çemen” (A popular mix of crushed fenugreek, pepper paste, tomato paste, walnuts, black pepper, olive oil, cumin, and garlic). Fenugreek is used in many of the curries, and it is known to fight the symptoms of common cold. While black pepper, cumin and chilli peppers can be found in most dishes. Let’s not forget the ginger, garlic, onion base that makes the foundation of all dishes. Another aromatic that is used is mustard oil, which in my opinion carries the dish to a whole new level.
Most of my food knowledge came from my friend Srijan’s mother, who was kind enough to share all her secrets with me. Every morning she went into the kitchen to prepare something traditional from scratch as I watched her, took pictures and notes. The common belief in Nepal is to eat warm food to keep the stomach at a comfortable level. This belief reflected on breakfast dishes as well. Typical breakfast items that I ate and learned to cook were, roti, wo, and purri. These were always accompanied by a warm dish of hot potato curry (aloo ko piro tarkari). Each day, after a warm and yummy breakfast, we were ready to hit the streets of Kathmandu to explore and eat the local food.
The house we stayed at was considered in the suburbs, so it took roughly 20 minutes to get to the city centre by car. Unfortunately we did not want to squeeze ourselves inside the electric tuk-tuks that fit about 20 people, most of whom were hanging out from the back door, we used taxis, which was exteremely cheap for those of us that came from Europe and America.
Once known as Kantipur; Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is the largest cultural city in the country. Located in a valley, Kathmandu has seen a rapid expansion in the last decade and became more cosmopolitan, without sacrificing the traditions that gives this beautiful city it’s character. The beautifully crafted pagodas and monumental stupas, are the remainders of the Golden Age architecture that are definitely worth a visit. The excuisite craftsmanship of Newaris, the original inhabitants of the valley is seen through all the historical sights, including the wooden carved window frames all over town.
During my visit, I went into many little temples, on each street that I passed, including the two major ones, Boudhanath Stupa and Swayambunath Stupa. As I entered through the gates of Boudhanath, my first morning in Kathmandu, the calm atmosphere and praying people along with “om mane pad me hum” chiming through the loud speakers, I felt cleansed and calm immediately. Although nobody really could explain to me exactly what the chime meant (click here for the wikipedia explanation), repeating it to myself while walking around the stupa, felt like meditation in itself. Locals and tourists alike were all walking in clockwise direction and praying while turning the prayer wheels located all around the walls of the stupa.
Being a bit unknowledgeable about Buddhism, visiting my first stupa, I was surprised to find out that the building does not have an inside part. In stupas all the praying takes place on the outside. The upper level of the temple is used as a classroom for educating the future Buddhist monks. Many little kids dressed in orange colored kasaya (traditional robes) with their prayer books were listening to their masters. It’s very common to see people on the street with red marks on their foreheads, between the two eyes. These pastes, called kumkum, made from sandalwood, are prepared every day and placed inside a bowl right outside of the temples on every street. Religious Buddhist Nepali, go to a temple near their house, every morning to smear this paste on their foreheads and pray. Kumkum represent the third eye, the inner wisdom. It is also considered as a protection from demons and evil. This stays with the individual all day long, until the dried paste falls off on it’s own.
Swayambunath, the most important stupa of Kathmandu was a bit different. There were two challanges. First of all in order to get to the temple, one had to climb 365 steps of stairs. The second challange was to stay clear of the monkeys all around. Also known as the Monkey temple , my only suggestion would be to not carry any food items with you. If you must, hide it well and do not feed the monkeys, other wise you have a high chance of getting attacked by them as they are merciless when they come in contact with food. To get away from the scary monkeys I almost ran the 365 steps. I was out of breath, but when I reached the top, the view was worth it. This is one of the best places to view all of Kathmandu valley.
As we headed towards the back side of the Stupa, we were greeted with another view of the mountain range behind and Tibetan prayer flags all around. There is also another shrine behind the stupa called Shantipur. The legend has it that, in this box-shaped temple, there is a living holy man that has been inside the box since 5th century and due to his gained immortality he will remain there until the people of Kathmandu needs his help. In fact this is the temple that students come, to pray before entering very important exams.
The City Center – Durbar Square and Thamel:
On our first morning in Kathmandu, after the calm visit to Boudhanath Stupa, we headed over to the busiest part of town called Indrachowk, the shopping center of the city. Indrachowk is probably crazier than any place I have ever seen, due to the traffic mess. Cars, bikes, people, scooters and other types of public transportation are coming from all over the place, which makes it a challange to cross the streets. (A very important note here: In Kathmandu, there are no traffic lights and if there is one , it does not work!) However if you wanted to buy any local items, this is the place to visit as the place is full of shops selling local goodies.
From Indrachowk, it’s only a 10 minute walk to go to Durbar Square, which is the main location of the Hanuman Palace, where the Malla Kings and the Shah Dynasty lived until 1886, when they moved to Narayanhiti Palace. The palace has taken it’s name from the statue of Hanuman, the monkey God, that protects the palace. The statue of the monkey is dressed in red coat and an umbrella. The palace houses three museums, Tribhuvan, Mahendra, and Birendra, that are dedicated to Shah rulers, are worth a visit to see the rich lifestyles of the Shah rulers.
My favourite place to eat lunch, near Durbar square was Tip Top’s Chat Corner. Along with Nepali delicacies it mainly focuses on South Indian cuisine. I found a dish that really tickled my taste buds. Dahi Puri Chat, originally a South Indian dish, that made its way into Nepali cuisine and became a popular street food. Tiny deep dough balls, that are cracked in one end, gets filled with a vegetable curry and it is served with yogurt and cilantro all over. These little fried morsels are consumed in one bite and the flavours explode in your mouth. First sweet, then spicy, and finally with the cooling effect of yogurt, your mouth completes a full flavour journey and is ready for a second one. It is one of those dishes that needs to be eaten fast, other wise the curry and yogurt makes the crispy fried dough soggy.
(To be continued…..)
Tip Top’s Chat Corner
Taleju Plaze, Makhan Tole, Kathmandu Nepal
For the best momo:cha
(Check out the link to see various locations)