Compared to many other Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and India, Nepal doesn’t stand much of a chance to claim the most diverse cuisine in the region. For example, when attempting to pin down a “national dish” for Singapore, there are many possibilities. It could be chicken rice, or maybe it’s chili crab. Some might claim it’s rojak, and others may say it’s mee goreng. The debate could go on forever, but when aiming to isolate the “national dish” of Nepal, it’s easy. Without question the national dish of Nepal, the meal that is eaten hundreds of thousands of times per day all over the country is dal bhat.
I often wonder about the lack of major variety in Nepali cuisine and have concluded that since Nepal is such a poor country, the first priority for most (especially those outside the Kathmandu Valley in more rural areas) is to get enough food to eat, rather than to develop the flavors of the food to create a breadth of culinary options. This is not to say that dal bhat is not delicious. It is tasty, simple and substantial, which is what the majority of the population is looking for: enough food to fill up to fuel a day’s work, which is often tough manual labor. Dal bhat is to Nepali people what gasoline is to vehicles.
Dal bhat consists of various sized portions of different food groups. The meal centers around white rice (the “bhat”), which is often served in mountainous proportions. The second cornerstone part of the meal is the “dal” which is like a lentil soup, often served in a bowl and then poured on the rice to add flavor and moisture. Dal comes in several varieties, including yellow dal and black dal, both of which are often cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, garlic and sometimes ginger.
In addition to the dal and the bhat the meal, which is usually served on an enormous aluminum plate with small dividers to keep each portion separate, also comes with small heaps of vegetables (tarkari), sometimes meat (chicken, mutton or buffalo) and a dab of achar (pickle) for spice.
The small side of tarkari, or curried vegetables, adds extra flavor and spice to the meal. Usually the tarkari vegetables include cauliflower and potatoes, often with bits of carrots. Especially for an elaborate meal, the dal bhat will be served with a small mound of dark green saag, which is sauteed spinach. On one of the small sections of the metal plate is a helping of achar, or pickle, which is used as a condiment to add spice and flavor to the rest of the meal. Achar comes in all different varieties, but I find the most common achar is made with tomatoes, lapsi (a unique, sour Nepali fruit) and chillies. The achar ingredients are ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle.
Whenever I sit down to a dal bhat meal, the restaurant proprietor or home owner will usually give me a spoon to eat the meal, but Nepalis traditionally eat dal bhat with their right hand. I’ve tried using my hand to eat dal bhat as well, and it usually turns out disastrous as I have not mastered the fine art of mixing each of the parts of the meal into one mound, scooping it up and shoveling it into my mouth with my fingers. When I try, the rice usually ends up all over the place and other diners laugh at my inability to properly do a “finger scoop.” Watching Nepalis eat dal bhat with their hand (always the right hand, as the left is used for the toilet) is truly an amazing site. A hungry Nepali person can put down a massive plate of dal bhat in minutes, mixing eat bite with the perfect ratio of rice, dal, tarkari and achar. Additionally, the owner of the restaurant or tea stall selling dal bhat will often make rounds to each table with an enormous bowl full of rice to refill customers’ plates. A dal bhat meal really is an all-you-can-eat feast that acts as the fuel for the Nepali people.
Above: A traditional dal bhat meal. Clockwise, starting from the green vegetable: 1) saag – sauteed spinach with garlic and ginger, 2) wild boar cooked with tomato, 3) tarkari – curried cauliflower, potato and carrot, 4) fried fish, 5) curried chicken, 6) achar. There is black dal in the small bowl accompanying the plate.
Above: Another traditional dal bhat meal. Take note of the MASSIVE portion of rice. Second helpings are always available, too. Photo by: gregw66
Above: More dal bhat, this time with a slice of raw onion for flavor. Photo by: magical-world
Above: A close-up of tarkari, curried vegetables that always go along with the rice and dal. Photo by: LilyinNepal