I’m getting close to exhausting all of the (generalized) regions in the world. This statement itself does a little bit of disservice to the smaller, almost micro-regions, and rest assured that I’ll try to cover all of it, but in general I can think of just a couple of broadly known areas in the world that I haven’t blogged about yet. One of them is the Indian subcontinent, and... hey! What do we have here? A Nepalese restaurant! That's an area of the world I haven't touched on yet! What. A. Coincidence that I would choose that next.
We went to Cumin, a restaurant in Wicker Park and spoke to one of the owners, named Dipesh. Dipesh was a super friendly, talkative guy who was generally unassuming but nevertheless had a lot of good stuff to say about Nepalese cuisine and culture.
He started us off by sort of basing us geographically. He said when you’re talking about Nepalese cuisine, you need to start by talking about central Asia -- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, a little bit of China, and Nepal. Much of the cuisine in this area has very similar basic principles. There are a lot of curries, a strong basis with rice, and a handful of meats and vegetables mixed in. Of these countries and their cuisines, Dipesh told me that probably the closest cuisine comparison would be northern Indian food. However there are definitely some things that separate Nepalese cuisine from the rest of the region.
One of the big separators is based in history. Nepal was never invaded, due to its geography -- it’s landlocked and mountainous, so where a country like India has had Middle Eastern and British conquerors, Nepal has stayed the same for a very long time. As such Nepalese food hasn’t come to evolve in the same way that Indian food has.
Everything sort of starts in a backyard. Dipesh said that typically Nepalese people will make a point to grow and raise their food in a backyard setting and then cook what they grow. (Even Cumin has a couple of lychee trees behind the restaurant.) Common vegetables grown are potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, and the most common meats are poultry and goat. Dipesh tells me that water buffalo is a really big deal as a meat in Nepal, but you’re not really going to find that here in the states. Nepalese food differs from, say, Indian food in the sense that the flavors are simpler (there are still plenty of spices, they just don’t get fancy and complex with it) and Nepalese folks also hardly use any dairy in their foods. It exists for drinks and desserts, but you won’t really find it in any entrees.
Dipesh told me about the four primary spices used in Nepalese food. There’s cumin (surprise, surprise, given the restaurant’s name), coriander seeds, or what is called cilantro here in the U.S., turmeric, and salt. I’m sure if you’ve had Indian or Pakistani food before, the first three don’t surprise you. The salt, however, is one that I wouldn’t have expected. It definitely exists in the food, but for the most part you’re not going to taste the flavor of the salt like you would the other spices. Dipesh added that you’ll also see a lot of red pepper powder in foods, but that’s less of a must and more for preference.
Dipesh suggested three items to best represent Nepalese food. The first is called chicken momo, and it’s effectively a central Asian version of dumplings. Dipesh says to “try some water buffalo momo if you’re in Nepal”, but here in the States the chicken version will suffice. The second dish is called goat choela, which is a spiced goat appetizer served with what he called “chirra” (I’ll get to that later) and some lettuce and cabbage garnish. The third dish is called gorkhali khasi, which is a goat entree that is served partially on the bone with a savory sauce and is accompanied by rice.
Another idea that is represented well in Nepalese food is the balance in the food. You’re going to get a decent amount of variety within most dishes. Dipesh told me about a typical everyday meal that would be eaten in the morning and the night of everyone’s typical day. You’d have rice, one lentil (either yellow or black), one meat (either chicken or goat), one vegetable dish (typically potatoes with an additional green vegetable), and one relish (typically made from tomatoes). That’s pretty balanced right there.
A festival meal is an entirely different beast, though. (At least metaphorically -- they do eat the same animals during festivals.) I’ll touch on that next.
Filed under: Cuisine and Culture