Most Americans wouldn't consider eating the same food three meals in a row. Most Nepalese don't expect anything else. Twice daily, farmers from the lowlands and Sherpas from the Himalayas prepare their version of the national meal: dal bhat.
Literally, the name means lentils and rice. Served on a large metal tray divided into several sections, this one-dish meal is garnished with curried vegetables and a homemade spicy chutney.
"Very few of us eat western food," says Pashkar Maskay, whose Sagun Restaurant in Katmandu specializes in Nepalese and Indian cuisine. "Dal bhat is our habit. Nobody can change it."
Indeed, despite the availability of such European delicacies as apple strudel, quiche lorraine and even fresh pasta, most Nepalese prefer the foods they've grown up with. And, in a poor country like Nepal, dal bhat has three other indisputable advantages: it's easily available, it's cheap and it's filling.
In any village tea house, an order of dal bhat includes limitless refills. A serving costs about 30 cents, and the porter who has just walked all afternoon with an 80-pound load on his back expects to eat until he's full.
As with most Asian meals, rice is the mainstay. A generous mound occupies the tray's center section, and is surrounded by smaller servings of the lentil broth, or dal, and assorted curries.
Using his right hand, the diner ladles the dal onto the rice. Deftly he mixes a moistened ball, perhaps adding a leaf of curried spinach, or a cube of spiced potato. Westerners are often offered spoons, but everyone sits on simple wooden benches or sometimes small stools.
Like neighboring Indian and Chinese cuisines, Nepalese foods frequently are spiced with ginger, garlic and chili peppers. But it's the pickle chutney that sets a cook apart.
Called achar, this preserve is seasoned with chilis, garlic, turmeric and mustard oil. At least one tablespoon of achar accompanies a meal -- usually much more for Nepalese, and sometimes none at all for tender-palated westerners. Tomato achar is popular, as is a mix of cucumbers and mint.
However, one Nepalese diner conceded that "if a person eats the same dal bhat for seven or eight days, then naturally he gets bored." Like most Nepalese, he eats once in mid-morning, and again in early evening. "But we don't eat the same lentils and vegetables every day, we change."
Eight varieties of lentils are distinguished by color, size and price. Black beans from the mountains are most popular; they're also cheapest. The two most costly, yellow and pink, are popular with Katmandu's merchant class. Black, brown, yellow and pink lentils are available in American grocery and health food stores, and shops specializing in Indian foods.
In season, accompanying curries include spinach, cabbage, potato, cauliflower, green beans, carrots or peas.
"It's the spices that make the difference," says Preeti Singh, who runs Katmandu's Sunkosi Restaurant with her husband.
Seasonings such as anise, bay leaf, cardamom, cloves and fenugreek are familiar to American cooks. But others, like jimbu, aromatic grass and timur, a minty seed, have no western equivalent.
Not surprisingly, an elaborate holiday meal extends well beyond dal bhat. A Katmandu wedding feast might include 25 separate dishes, among them water buffalo, steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, called momos, and several curries of meat, fish and vegetables. For three hours or more, waiters place small metal bowls filled with new dishes around the classic dal bhat plate.
"No rice is served at all," says Shakey, "but curd is essential."
The thick yogurt dessert called sikarni is a Nepalese specialty. Drained of water, the curd is as solid as sour cream. Then it's topped with fruits, spices and fresh coconut. The Sunkosi's Preeti Singh compares sikarni with fresh ice cream, but some Americans have been heard to say it's even better.
Preparing your own Nepalese meal can take from 30 minutes to three hours, depending on the number and complexity of curries served. Be aware that Americans may prefer fewer spices than Nepalese recipes recommend. VIE LOW DAL (4 to 5 servings) 1 1/2 cups yellow lentils 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 2 tablespoons butter 1 onion, chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1/8 teaspoon ginger 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds 1/8 teaspoon coriander leaves
Soak lentils in water to cover by 2 inches for 1 hour, then boil with salt and turmeric until tender. Heat butter and saute' the onion and garlic until golden. Add the ginger, cumin and coriander, and after a few minutes, add to the dal. Cook for 10 minutes. PULAO
This upgraded version of fried rice is also popular in India, Spain and Italy. 1 1/2 cups rice 2 tablespoons butter 1 onion, sliced 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1/8 teaspoon ginger, finely chopped 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon chili powder 2 bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 cups hot water Fresh coriander leaves for garnish
Soak rice in water to cover for 5 minutes and drain. Melt butter and saute' half the onion with garlic until brown. Add ginger, cinnamon, chili powder, bay leaves, cumin and salt. Stirring this, add the rice and keep stirring until it browns. Bring water to a boil and add. Bring to a boil again, and cook until the water is absorbed. Fry the remaining onion, and use as a garnish on the cooked rice with coriander leaves.
Chopped cauliflower and carrots may also be used. For fluffy rice, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice per gallon of water. SIKARNI (Yogurt dessert) (6 servings) 3 16-ounce containers plain yogurt 1 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon cardamom 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 2 tablespoons raisins 2 tablespoons coconut, grated 1 tablespoon dates, chopped 1/4 teaspoon saffron
Pour yogurt into a square piece of cheesecloth. Tie the ends, and suspend over a bowl to allow all the water to drain. Untie the cloth and add the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and black pepper. Mix and retie the cloth. Squeeze the entire mixture slowly through the cheesecloth. Add the fruits, and sprinkle with saffron. Serve chilled.