Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Justified ancients of momo
Almost everyone in Dubai has access to the food that reminds them of home. One thing that always surprises me, however, is the shocking lack of Nepalese food. It’s like: Where are you from, sir? Oh, the Galapagos Islands? Wonderful! Darwin burgers this way. And you, sir? Nepal? Forget it mate, the airport’s over there.
So although my trip to Kathmandu wasn’t governed by my stomach (for once, as I had come to Nepal to do some voluntary work at some orphanages), I was looking forward to trying the local grub.
I hadn’t expected much of the food at the hostel I spent my first two nights in, though, and my suspicions were proved to be correct. The food was Nepali alright - something approaching the ubiquitous dahl baht tarkari or lentil soup with boiled rice with a simple vegetable curry - but it appeared to have been given the once-over by some kind of spice vacuum, rendering it utterly insipid.
The night I was sent to my host family - the completely brilliant Aryals - I went out to a touristy place called Bhojan Griha to meet up with the other volunteers in my group. The restaurant was in a stately building, once the home of the royal priest to the King of Nepal, and it was set up for tourist groups with set menus, music and traditional dancing.
And booze. Loads of lethal, 60 percent rice wine, in fact. I didn’t touch any of it myself, you understand, but the Everest lager did make me think more beers should be named after double-glazing firms (sorry, dodgy English gag).
First up was a plate of traditional Nepali murali makai, or popcorn to you and me. Yes, it was no different to the stuff enjoyed by lobotomised cinema-goers the world over, but it’s apparently a popular and nutritious snack in the rural areas of the Kathmandu valley. It was followed by something far more palatable - momos.
Momos are basically steamed dumplings made from thinly rolled flour-and-water dough stuffed with meat or vegetables, and quite often both. It doesn’t do momos justice to call them Nepali dim sum - that would be like saying pizza is just Italian cheese on toast. In any case, they almost certainly originally hail from Tibet, and are popular all over the eastern Himalayas. Anyone who’s had Russian pelmeni or overly-stuffed ravioli will know how good momos can be. I believe these ones were stuffed with minced pork and chopped onions, garlic and coriander. They were splashed with a fiery chilli sauce, which I couldn’t get enough of. It may be traditional comfort food for those long winter nights up in the mountains, but I could have carried on eating it through summer.
After badgering the waiters for extra momos, I took delivery of a thali dish, which was steadily filled with boiled rice, sauteed spinach with cumin, spicy mushrooms, cauliflower, and so-good-I-still-dream-about-them crispy pieces of mildly spiced fried trout. There were bowls of dahl and chicken curry to splash onto the rice, not to mention plates of zingy achar or vegetable pickle to give it that extra kick. Everything was combined and eaten by hand, but it could have been administered to me via a cement mixer and I’d still be happy.
Dessert was a simple affair - a bowl of sikarni, or sweetened yoghurt with chopped cherries - which rounded things off nicely.
The rest of my meals in Kathmandu were cooked by my host family, the Aryals. Like all the best home-cooked food, it was authentic, traditional, plentiful and made with special care and attention. The everyday staples of rice, dahl and curried vegetables were always present. Just before mealtimes, I would hear the familiar pounding of garlic, ginger and spices from the kitchen, and when the food was ready the flavours were every bit as resonant. Some days we'd have side dishes of cabbage with peanuts, or cauliflower and potatoes (like aloo gobi) cooked slowly with cumin, coriander and turmeric. On my final day, we had a plate of gundruk, a very traditional dish of fermented spinach-like leaves with a mildly acidic flavour.
I loved the food here, but what was just as good was the act of coming together around the table at the end of the day to eat, chat and listen to the Aryal’s special teenage son Sushant inquire as to whether I had lungs, or to wax lyrical about an imaginary American wrestler called “Big Foetus”. I didn’t want to spoil these precious moments by whipping my camera out and snapping the roti - I’ll leave the food paparazzi stuff for the restaurants, if you don’t mind. But just look at that kitchen and use your imagination.
Dubai doesn't know what it's missing.