Cooking lessons in Kathmandu

(Look! Hilary Makes is still a food blog sometimes!)

When it comes to travelling, one of my favourite things to do is discover the unique food and drink that make up the meals of those places. Here in Nepal, that means two main dishes: dal bhat and momos.

I have eaten countless amounts of both since the beginning of November, both as trekking fare and as dishes I find myself craving while in the city.

A momo stop along the Everest Base Camp trek.
A momo stop along the Everest Base Camp trek.

Let’s talk about dal bhat first. “Dal bhat” translates literally to mean “lentils” and “boiled rice.” When it comes to this dish, you never have the same meal twice. There are so man components to dal bhat, and as such, there seems to be endless combinations of the food-things you will find on your plate. First, there’s the basic vegetarian versus non-vegetarian option. The latter comes with a small meat curry, where the protein can range from chicken to buff to mutton. Then there’s the vegetable curry, which usually has potatoes and always mixed greens. From there, the seasonal vegetables take over, and I’ve found anything from peas to carrots to tomatoes in my curry.

Yummy vegetable curry
Yummy vegetable curry

It’s a fun mystery awaiting your plate. There’s also the consistent parts of dal bhat – a bowl of lentil soup (pressure cooked with turmeric and a garlic-ginger paste) and a whole pile (and I mean just a tonne) of steaming rice. Not for the faint of heart are the refills that come for all of the above. For the record, your answer to the question ‘would you like some more?’ should always be yes. Besides, it’s like our trekking guide, Gopal, puts it: “dal bhat power, 24 hours.” (Fun fact: the best dal bhat I have had so far was at a side-of-the-road, 11 p.m. dinner stop in the middle of a 12-hour bus ride to Janakpur).

Then there are the momos. The term “momo” already means a number of different things to me – it’s the name of Andrew Knapp’s world  famous border collie, as well as the Japanese word for “peach.” And now, it also means heavenly stuffed dumplings. Like dal bhat, the combinations are aplenty. There’s the savoury momos, with meat, mixed vegetables, potato and cheese (what I order when I am missing perogies) that can be served either steamed or fried. Then there’s the ridiculous dessert momos, the ones that make me giggle and gasp inquisitively when I see then on menus. The Snickers momos and the Mars momos, as well as other ones filled with any sort of chocolate (I most certainly intend to try these at least once before I leave Nepal).

The best momos I’ve had so far were bought in Bhaktapur, from a giant steamer outside a local restaurant. They were filled with seasoned pork, and, since I would always get them to go, would be plopped delicately into a small bag, the steam glossing out the plastic. A squirt of chili sauce for seasoning, and I was off, left to my own devices to discover a new part of the town in which I would eat my bag of dumplings and people watch. I would normally pop each morsel into my mouth in one bite, avoiding the rush of meat juices from running down my fingers.

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Coming to Nepal, I knew I wanted to learn how to make both dal bhat and momos. So earlier this month I took a cooking class from a Nepalese company called Social Tours, the group recommended by my travel bible, AKA Lonely Planet. I packed my camera and notebook in the morning, stomach growling in anticipation of my full-day of cooking lessons.

First up were the momos. There were two other Canadians, Ryan and Carmen, in the class, so alongside our instructor Sakun, I was in good company. Part of the cooking lessons experience was getting to go to a local market to choose and buy our ingredients. On we went down one of Thamel’s twisting alleyways, to a hole-in-the-wall shop.

We measured handfuls of red onions, cabbage, green onion, tomatoes, garlic, cilantro… cramming them into a fabric bag Sakun had brought along. I also picked up some spices to use at home – a 200 gram bag cost about 50 cents Canadian, and the deal was too good to refuse.

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I also bought a box of special momo masala spice, for the momo-making parties I’m already anticipating for the near future (like a sushi party, everyone brings a filling!).

Ryan, Carmen and I quickly learned the secret to a good mixed vegetable momo is to make sure everything is cut extra, extra finely. Sakun sent us each back to our cutting boards a number of times, demanding with a laugh that we chop things just a little more. I didn’t mind, though (then again, I wasn’t cutting the onions…), since I realized how much I’ve missed cooking since I started travelling. It felt good to be in a kitchen and making food again.

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Once our chopping satisfied master chef Sakun, it was time to make and roll out the momo dough. Six cups of flour and a cup-and-a-half of water was what was needed to make the casings for dozens of momos, and leftover dough was used to make chapati, another Nepali roti (bread). We took marble-sized pieces of dough and rolled it in our palms as though forming meatballs. Each ball was then rolled flat with a tiny rolling pin, and tossed onto a central plate for stuffing.

Carmen and Ryan learning how to perfectly crimp the momos
Carmen and Ryan learning how to perfectly crimp the momos

That was the fun/messy/tough part. Sakun patiently showed us how to make the crescent-shaped momos by crimping one side of the dough while holding in the filling with the thumb of our opposite hand. We also made the round momos (far more difficult), with the cute pinched together tops. Usually the different shapes are used to indicate whether a momo is vegetarian or not.

Predictably, eating remains my favourite part of momos. And eat we did. The best part of the meal was that we got to share it with the other Social Tours staff members, and watch their reactions as they took the first bites of our freshly made momos.

The finished product!
The finished product!

After a short lunchtime food coma break, it was time to make dal bhat. Sakun and I took another trip to the market, this time picking up potatoes, green beans, carrots and spinach. One of the essentials of dal bhat is the spice palette, and Sakun had a few jars of turmeric (for the dal), chili powder, cumin, coriander and fenugreek (I had never heard of this before) to season the different dishes. The dal bhat vegetables required considerably less chopping than the momos, and the entire process took about an hour.

Dal bhat ingredients
Dal bhat ingredients

In the end, the different dishes were the dal, the bhat, tarkari (vegetable curry), for saag (curried spinach), and achar (“pickle” made of tomatoes and delicious fresh green chillies). You’re left with a whole assortment of flavours and plates, all of which combine to make the delicious Nepalese speciality. I was still full from momos, but went back for seconds (remember the rule: always say ‘yes’ to more dal bhat)

All the components of dal bhat, together as one (starting in bottom right and going clockwise, there's the dal, vegetable curry, curried spinach, pickle, and carrots)
All the components of dal bhat, together as one (starting in bottom right and going clockwise, there’s the dal, vegetable curry, curried spinach, achar, and carrots)
Dinnertime! Happy as a clam.
Dinnertime! Happy as a clam.
Dal bhat
Dal bhat

I have the recipes for a variety of momos and the dal bhat now, and I can’t wait to re-create both when I get home!

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3 thoughts on “Cooking lessons in Kathmandu

  1. I love you and your blog, HD! So happy to see your smiling face … sign me up for your momo making party!! Woot woot. You are such a ‘dahling’ … Thanks for sharing this delicious post! Xo W

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