When I landed in Kathmandu, ravenous after a delayed flight, images of momos and thukpa floated through my mind as my cab negotiated its way amongst honking cars and motorbikes in this Himalayan kingdom. But a friend who had just returned from Nepal called and urged me to try Thakali food. “What is that?” I asked.
I got my answer as I sat munching crisp kanchamba (buckwheat fries) with a mixture of spices like chilli and timur (Sichuan pepper) at Jimbu Thakali restaurant. Soon after that I polished off their popular Thakali thali that came with local dal, saag, bitter gourd, fried potato, radish pickle, papad, sweet curd and a bowl of mutton—much of it prepared using local ingredients and fresh herbs from Mustang, a district in North Nepal.
Although the Thakali thali has shades of some Indian staples, it is still tantalisingly different. The dollop of ghee poured on rice evoked memories of my grandmother’s kitchen, but the buckwheat pancakes, and the use of dried meat and herbs infused the spread with its own distinct flavour. Mashed buckwheat, called dido, often replaces rice. And the best way to tackle the thali is literally hands on.
“The main difference between Nepalese and Indian food is the use of spices. While Indian food is heavy on spices, in Nepal that is not the case,” Vivek Sherchan, owner of the restaurant, explained. Except of course chillis, which magically enhance the flavours. “We like the sharp taste.” And I have to admit that it made for a good change from the rich masala-based food I am used to back home in Delhi. The colour palette of the thali had me fascinated: there was the green saag, brown meat, the pale brown dal, the red chutney and golden potato.
Different types of platters such as the Thakali thali (top left) and the Newari thali (bottom right) are mainstays of Nepali cuisine. However, compared to Indian food, Nepali dishes use fewer spices overall, except for the fiery chilli (bottom left). There is also not much emphasis on sweets; instead street snacks (top right) and small bites are popular. Photos by: Kondoruk/ Shutterstock (Thakali Thali), Alex Marakhovets/ Shutterstock (Street Vendor), Mark Benham/ Shutterstock (Chillies), Baliman Tamang/ Shutterstock (Newari Thali)
The Thakali meal was my gateway into Nepali ethnic cuisine, which is finding many takers as younger restaurateurs delve into ancient cooking traditions of communities living on high Himalayan slopes and grains like buckwheat find a place at dining spots across Kathmandu. Nepali food can broadly be divided into Thakali, Newari and Himalayan cuisine.
Thakali cuisine is found everywhere—from canteens tucked in narrow alleys to upscale restaurants; even Mount Everest climbers have acquired a taste for it. “We are a small community, of around 13,000 people, very much into trading and extremely hospitable. So it is great that our food traditions are getting attention,” Vivek’s cousin GauravMan Sherchan tell me as I wash down my meal with local Nepalese beer.
While Jimbu Thakali restaurant located in Tangaal Chaata Ganesh, Gahana Pokhari Marg and Jhamsikhel Road, is well known there are several others where you can relish a thali such as Tukche Thakali Kitchen in Gairidhara, Nilgiri Thakali Delights in Tangal and Thakali Bhanchha Ghar in Thamel.
After my happy encounter with Thakali food, I couldn’t wait to sample Newari cusine, which I was told is more known for its snacks and bite-sized treats. At The Village Café, a new restaurant in Jhamsikhel, I started the meal with chatamari, a pancake made from rice flour and topped with savouries like egg and minced meat. Nicknamed the Nepali pizza, it is a popular starter, and although a bit soft, it was appetising.
Next came the highly recommended choila—fiery, charred buffalo meat that is first barbequed and then marinated in oil and spices. Served hot, it is quite strong and was not my cup of tea. Maybe one needs an acquired taste for it. These days choila is also prepared with mutton and chicken.
But to get the full flavour of this cuisine, which is the stuff of feasts and festivals, I had to try the Newari platter. It arrived with crisp, beaten rice which is like poha, along with a variation of one or two local beans, potatoes, fish (often dried and fried), and barbecued buffalo meat and a green vegetable. A tiny lentil pancake called bara came topped with a boiled egg. For the more adventurous, there are exotic meats like tongue, lungs and brain—I did not sample them but was given to understand from other foodies they are rich and flavourful.
Residents of the tiny Himalayan kingdom are a simple but hardy lot (top), sustaining on basic, wholesome meals; Durbar Square in Kathmandu (bottom) is a local and tourist magnet for sightseeing, food and shopping. Photos by: Theerarat_Nithisetthasiri/ Shutterstock (Women), Smarta/ Shutterstock (Market)
The Nepalese don’t seem to have too much of a sweet tooth and that is something I missed on my culinary voyage. The most well-known Nepali sweet is yomaree which is like a giant shell shaped rice flour momo with sesame and molasses. Bhumi Restaurant & Bar and Vootoo, both in Lazimpat, are good places to get a taste of this food.
Enticed by steaming pots filled with a mindboggling variety like Darjeeling, Thakali, Jhol, Sui Mui and Newari momos, I reserved a morning for momo sampling. I believe this is one dish that binds India and Nepal together.
I decided to go for the latest rage, Jhol momos, in which a sauce, almost like broth, is poured on top to make them juicier. Although not a big fan of anything too saucy, it took merely a bite to get me converted as I polished off the pork momos at Drop In restaurant. Instead of the fiery chilli broth, I went with the creamy one made of sesame, peanuts, soybean and coriander—it was delicious. A popular momo haunt in the city is the tiny and basic Everest Momo.
But my crucial discovery as I bit next into a mutton Thakali momo at Jimbu Thakali, was finding out how to eat one. When I delicately broke it off with my fork, Vivek cringed and said, “Don’t murder the momo, that’s not how you have it.” He made me realise that I have been eating momos wrong all my life—you need to put the entire thing in your mouth, no matter how big it is because when it bursts in your mouth with all its juicy goodness mixed with the meat, it is super delicious. Another momo worth sampling is the open one or Sui Mui momo, which like its name suggests, is open from the top so when the sauce is poured, it soaks into the meat.
Walking down Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacking district, which is lined with shops, cafés and bars, I noticed that a lot of T-shirts had “Dal Bhat Power 24 Hours” emblazoned on them. This is what apparently the Sherpas swear by because this basic but wholesome meal of rice and dal, which they have just once a day, works like magic on an arduous trek up the snowy mountain slopes. It is sheer soul food with a lot of energy and strength, and the story of Nepalese food is summed by this simple yet evergreen classic.
To read and subscribe to our magazine, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.
is a New Delhi-based travel and food writer, who loves to discover the quaint and unexpected in oft-visited destinations. When not travelling, she can be found planning her next trip or digging into a hearty meal at a new restaurant in the city.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at email@example.com.