The most common meal in Nepal is dal bhat — rice (bhat) with a soup made of lentils (dal) poured over it. Hill people subsist on either dal bhat or a thick paste called dhindo. This is coarse ground com or millet, often mixed with a few hot chillies. In the northern regions people call this dish tsampa and make it from roasted and ground barley. Sherpas and other Himalayan people often mix tsampa with buttered and salted Tibetan tea. Another high-altitude speciality is shakpa, a stew of vegetables, bits of meat and dumplings.
Dal provides the primary source of protein as the local diet rarely includes meat or eggs. Rod or chappati (unleavened bread) is another frequent addition to a meal and is often substituted for rice. Of other items that may supplement a meal, the most usual is a curry made from potatoes or whatever vegetables are in season.
You will have no problem getting vegetarian food in Kathmandu or while on a trek. There is very little meat available in trekking lodges, and even organized camping treks don’t get to eat a lot of fresh meat.
On the Trek
Fifty years ago, Tilman observed that a person can live off the country in a sombre fashion, but Nepal was no place in which to make a gastronomic tour. It hasn’t changed. In Kathmandu it takes a lot of imagination to provide the variety of diet that Westerners expect. In remote regions, it is almost impossible to provide variety unless you bring the food with you.
On treks to the most popular areas, you can rely entirely on hotels for meals and not carry any food at all. Most trekking lodges have supplies of tinned food, chocolate bars, biscuits, toilet paper and other essentials. On camping treks die trekking company sends along an extensive assortment of supplies for the cook to work with and you don’t need to worry about food at all.
Although some hotels in the hills can conjure up fantastic meals, the standard hotel diet is dal bhat or, at higher elevations, potatoes. Dal bhat twice a day for a month presents a boring prospect to the Western palate, though it’s nutritious and healthy. Most people can adapt to a Nepali diet, but try it for a few days at home so you know what to expect. Boiled rice with a thick split-pea soup poured over it is the closest approximation. This experiment might help convince you to fill the remote comers of your backpack with spices, trail snacks and other goodies.
On major trek routes, restaurants vary in standard from primitive to luxurious. The menus are often attractive and extensive, but too often the menu represents the innkeeper’s fantasy of what they would like to serve, not what’s available. Even in the most remote places, beer, Coke and other soft drinks are available, though prices are high. One of the strange items you might find on menus is Mars or Snickers rolls. The chocolate bar is wrapped in dough and deep fried to make a gooey, sickly sweet concoction.
There are some pretty sophisticated short-order kitchens in the hills, the best being at Namche, Lukla, Ghandruk and along the Kali Gandaki. Some lodge cooks can turn out some surprisingly good Western- style meals. Apple pie appears on many menus, and most hotels can produce something resembling a pizza, but they are hindered by a limited supply of ingredients. Recipes are passed along by word of mouth, often losing something in the translation,
especially for exotic dishes. Moussaka, for example, which is often listed on a menu under Mexican food, could turn out to be almost anything.
In bhattis and small hotels the choice will almost always come down to rice, dal, potatoes, pancakes and instant noodles. Meals often provide an overdose of carbohydrates with noodles, potatoes and rice served on the same plate. If meat is on the menu, it will usually be chicken. Goat, mutton or buffalo meat (buff) is sometimes available, but never beef. In accordance with Hindu tradition, the cow is sacred in Nepal.
Meals typically take an hour or two to prepare unless there is stew or dal bhat already cooked, so soon after arriving you should order your meal and tell the innkeeper what time you wish to eat.
When food and drink is expensive it is tempting to economise and eat and drink less. You must resist this temptation because a large liquid intake is one of the important aids for the prevention of altitude sickness. Most hotels can provide a pot or vacuum flask of tea or hot lemon drink at a saving over the cost of individual cups. Be sure to eat enough also; a low food intake can leave you weak and susceptible to hypothermia.
In most inns you keep an account of the food and drink you consume and pay for everything in the morning. Guests write their orders on separate pages in an order book that the cook uses to figure out what to prepare. The same page becomes the bill when you check out. If there’s no order book and the hotel-keeper tallies the accounts, it’s worth keeping track yourself of what you eat because other trekkers’ food often makes its way onto your bill when a lodge gets busy.
Carrying your Own Food
If, for some reason, you are arranging your own food, there are numerous food shops in Thamel and Asan Tole that carry a large range of staples. If you are shopping for supplementary food or trail snacks, start with Bluebird Supermarket, which has branches in the Blue Star Hotel and Lazimpat. There are many other markets with open shelves where you can choose from a wide variety of Indian and imported foods, packaged trekkers’ foods, tinned meat and fish, spices and sweets. These include Bhatbatini Supermarket, Fresh House in Joche Tole (near Freak St), Best Shopping Centre at the entrance to Thamel and Namaste Supermarket with branches in Jawalakhel and Maharajgunj.
Most of these shops also carry a few imported medical supplies and useful chemicals such as potassium permanganate to sterilise vegetables and Lugol’s solution to purify drinking water. You can often find drink powders, such as Tang, which make iodine- treated water more palatable. Check prices as these shops carry expensive imported food alongside much cheaper Indian and Nepali equivalents.
There are several Nepali-produced packaged foods that can add variety to meals. Two brands of muesli and granola are available, and several companies produce biscuits. Yak cheese is available in Thamel shops and at the dairy near the Hotel Malla. The Pumpernickel Bakery in Thamel can provide natural grain bread that will last for many days on the trail, and Pilgrims Book House carries a variety of herbal teas. Nepali natural peanut butter will appeal to many trekkers, but be careful how you carry it because the oil tends to leak into your backpack. You can also buy imported cheese and an excellent locally made trekkers’ salami from the Gourmet Vienna Delicatessen on Kan- tipath. Most supermarkets also carry the trekkers’ salami.
Stoves & Fuel
If you are doing some high- altitude trekking, you will probably have to rely on kerosene for cooking. Avoid using a petrol stove because local people are used to using kerosene and don’t know how to handle petrol stoves safely.’ You can usually find butane cartridges for camp stoves and lanterns, but be sure you get new ones;
these cylinders are refilled in Nepal with propane at low pressure. You can tell if a gas canister has been refilled because a special distinctive odourising agent is added to propane in Nepal to help warn local housewives of leaky gas connections. You are not allowed to carry kerosene or gas on aeroplanes, although it’s sometimes possible on helicopters.
Most Nepalis do not eat breakfast and have only milk tea when they arise. They have a heavy brunch of dal bhat around 10am. When staying in a local inn, you may find it faster to operate in the same manner and have a simple breakfast of tea and biscuits, then trek till 9am or 10am to arrive at a place that has dal bhat prepared. Sophisticated inns are usually able to deal with complicated breakfast orders in the morning, although it is customary to order your breakfast the evening before. You can also save time in the morning by ordering cereal or muesli for breakfast. Chiuraa (beaten rice), available locally, makes a less tasty but satisfactory substitute.
If you wait to have lunch at noon or 1pm you will almost certainly have to wait an hour or two while the hotel-keeper cooks rice specially for you. If you find yourself with a long wait, accept it and use the time for a good rest rather than agitate to try to get things moving faster in the kitchen. In a small hotel the innkeeper cooks everything over a single wood fire or kerosene stove with a limited supply of pots, and things can become extremely chaotic when 20 different people order 20 different things in a dozen diverse languages.
If you can adjust to the local schedule of a drink of tea for breakfast and a 10am brunch, you will avoid a lot of waiting in kitchens. If you cannot adjust, you can still save yourself a lot of time and hunger by talking to other trekkers and combining your orders into two or three dishes. This is also the way to conserve scarce fuel. One choice for a quick lunch is instant noodles, which are known in Nepal as chow<howat by their brand names of Rara, Wai Wai and Yum Yum.