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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The “I can’t believe it’s not Buddha” dinner: Feisty feta dip and (really, really good) pizza

A few months ago I recreated one of my favourite Sudbury restaurant dishes at home. My version of the Laughing Buddha’s chick pea salad garnered a number of comments from both local readers and those from elsewhere on the web. It also inspired a request:

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As expressed in my replied comment, I had never tried the feisty feta dip before, but am always looking for an excuse to try more food/visit the Laughing Buddha. Since September when I began my “initial testing” I have tried the feisty feta dip probably four times, and have purchased feta cheese almost the same amount, intending to one day recreate the promised dish. Every time I ate it at the Buddha, I would survey the people at my table – what do YOU think is in it?! What do you like?! I need to know because I am making my own version! Well, I finally got around to it.

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I really shouldn’t say that as if it were a real undertaking. This is one of the simplest appetizers I have ever created, and one of the most tasty, too. The ingredients were primarily ones I already had in my kitchen, and are common items you can get pretty much anywhere.

My one complaint about the Buddha’s original feisty feta dip was that it’s a little too, well, feisty. It was SPICY, holy smokes, and was perhaps deliberately made so in order to persuade you out of necessity to buy another beer (it worked) or have you request a pita re-stock. RE: beer. Despite not being at the Buddha, Jen, Ian and I stuck with the spirit of the place and tried out some new Ontario craft brews. The Smoked Oatmeal Stout tasted downright awful to me (but like Scotch to Jen and Ian, apparently), but I did enjoy my Crosswind Pale Ale from Lake of Bays Brewing Company in Baysville, wherever that is. (Unrelated, but I’m disappointed the local LCBO didn’t sell my new favourite beer, Muskoka Brewery’s Twice As Mad Tom IPA)

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Back to the feisty feta dip. I knew when I made my at-home version that I wanted to keep the consistency the same, but to take the heat down a notch. You know, so that I’m not sweating at the dinner table. I bulked up my dip with some plain yogurt – something that’s brilliantly effective at countering foods that scream hot, hot, heat.

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It turned out great! Please note, when you stick your fingers in the dip to sample it straight from the food processor, that taste will not be a good representation of the amount of bite the final product will eventually force you to bear. The heat builds as the dip sits, something Jen and I attribute to the “slow releasing jalapeno juices.” Also, re: pita. We used a bread maker pizza dough recipe, rolled it out, baked it, and sliced it up into little triangles. Obviously, you can also simply buy the pita.

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Thanks to Ian for making the unbelievable pizza: pesto, cheddar cheese, portobello mushroom, tomato, yellow pepper…the best.

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Buttercream icing breakfast biscuits

Sometimes cooking is an exercise in problem solving.

In case you hadn’t guessed by the bizarre name of this blog post, these biscuits were nothing more than an accidental experiment.

If you cook and bake enough (actually, even if you don’t I feel as though the mistake that follows is a pretty easy one to make), you are bound to mix-up ingredients once in awhile. Be it baking soda with powder, salt with sugar, they’re switch-ups you hopefully notice during the cooking process rather than the eating one. The mix-up this time around? Flour and icing sugar. Rookie Mistake (one that has happened before, in fact, almost a year ago to this day).

Here’s how it happened: Jen and I were in the midst of whipping up what seemed to be a pound of buttercream icing to use during our cake painting party. Having just moved into her and Ian’s house, I’m still familiarizing myself with where the baking ingredients are. When searching for icing sugar, Jen directed me to the smallest of baking canisters. Inside was the white powder, the likes of which I could only assume would become something sugary and delicious in a couple minutes time. So I started mixing, pouring powdery clouds of “icing sugar” into my mixing bowl, blending it with the butter and whipping cream my basic buttercream icing recipe requires. It wasn’t until Jen decided to sample the icing that I knew something was wrong (though I should have suspected something was up when the icing began to look more clumpy than smooth). I asked her if the icing was okay. She gave me a strange “I don’t know how to tell you this” look in return. The pigments in my skin got ready to paint my face a shade of “I’m sorry, I can’t really bake” red. Then, Jen said it: “so, I think that was flour, not icing sugar.”

And indeed it was. A cup of butter, about four cups of flour, and half a cup of whipping cream. All blended together to form the most rich of substances.

Now, we’re not ones to waste.

Jen tossed in a couple teaspoons of baking powder, and we were set. Buttercream icing biscuits it is.

These came out of the oven smelling like heaven and heart attacks. They were like shortbread cookies without the sugar – flakey, buttery treats that crumbled in my mouth and refused to digest without half a litre of milk.

So logically we put lots more rich breakfast food on the biscuits, and had my parents over for brunch.

Kitchen problem: solved.

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Early Halloween: Pumpkin hummus!

Like many recent posts on Hilary Makes, this pumpkin hummus was inspired by friend and CBC web editor Wendy Bird.

Last week she brought in the newsroom snack of all newsroom snacks, a food so delicious it made me want to reconsider my life goals and trade all future ambitions for a vat of hummus. Not even a little bit exaggerating. While Wendy’s pumpkin hummus is getting all the attention in this post, I must also mention the accompanying chocolate pumpkin bundt cake. So moist and perfect, it made up for the fact that I had forgotten my lunch. In addition to feeding us, the treats were brought so Wendy could chat with Jason, the host of our afternoon show, about all the great things you can do with those gosh darn leftover pumpkins.

But back to the hummus. After getting up from my desk at least two dozen times to stuff hummus-dipped crackers in my mouth, I finally swore I would make my own dip later in the week. And so I did, just in time for the pumpkin carving party we had on Sunday.

I was even able to convince the ever-thrifty Jen to sacrifice one half of our $1 miniature pie pumpkins so I could make it into a tiny gourd bowl. I used Ian’s badass Rambo-as-a-child knife to concavely carve the pumpkin into something that resembled a serving dish, successfully doing so while preserving all 10 of my fingertips.

I had a photo shoot on our wooden front entrance way. At one point I was so distracted by the positioning of my pretty shoes that I lightly kicked the unstable pumpkin bowl, almost giving way to a driveway full of hummus and a face full of tears.

We ate the hummus (which, after many taste tests, Jen and I concluded was just garlicky enough) with a delicious homemade baguette.

And carved pumpkins and ate more Halloween candy before actual Halloween. Oh October, you gem.

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Starting soup season: Lentil, rapini & sausage soup

As the chilly crispness of autumn settles in my bones, it becomes obvious that all I want is a hearty bowl of broth.

I don’t know why the brilliance of soup comes to me as a sneaky surprise every October. It’s possible that the summer weather is just so stiflingly hot that I feel as though I’ll never need to eat warm food again. But when the fall does come, eating that first bowl of seasonal soup comes with some sort of strange high – it fills me up, recharges me, and brings me to a place I didn’t know was possible. What’s good about soup, though, is that the high never falls. Every time I slurp, spoon, and sip, it’s better than before, and filled with new flavours and innovative ways to use up a crisper full of half-eaten vegetables. I think that’s why I love soup and pizza so much – they’re both foods that provide the base for what is really an empty canvas. Want to throw in carrots and kale? Have some garlic white sauce you need to use up? Toss ‘er in. Soup and pizza are leftover enablers.

I kicked off the 2012 soup season with a big bowl of this lentil, rapini and sausage soup. While the Chatelaine recipe originally called for kale, I was unable to locate any in Sudbury. Apparently word of how awesome it is has finally caught on.

A whole pile of rapini. I love adding leafy greens to soups, stir fry, and sauces, because it’s fun to watch it shrink down into almost nothing at all.

When at the Farmer’s Market searching for kale, I also picked up a basket of jewel-coloured heirloom carrots. They were absolutely beautiful. I apprehensively took a bite of the beet-coloured carrot, expecting to have flavours of raspberry wine explode in my mouth.

Since I’m also big on side bread, I made a batch of sweet potato biscuits to accompany the soup. They were lovely and soft and unique. Thanks to Emily for posting the Instagram photo that inspired these!

What soup shall I scald my tongue on next? Wait and see.

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