If asked, most Westerners would acknowledge at least a basic acquaintance with the Chinese cuisine, unaware that what is usually served at Western Chinese restaurants is not representative of the original gastronomic feast. If reaching China, a different world is revealed to them, with hundreds of dumpling types and not even one of them labeled "vegan."
Nepal is even more complicated. Landlocked between China and India, it offers bits and bites from both giants as well as a rich cuisine of its own. Most of the food and its consumption methods are Indian, but Chinese treats abound, especially in the northern parts of the country, which include the Sagarmatha Park – where Mount Everest is. While trekking there, the intrepid adventurer would find both cuisines and the additional treats brought by trekkers and climbers; then – of course – there are dishes originating in the area. Luckily, trekking and climbing demand a lot of energy, providing thus the perfect excuse to try all the dishes met along the way. Here are a few favorites:
Tsampa or Tzen
Tsampa is the name of barley flour in Nepalese, it is often consumed as porridge; this is the porters’ staple food. It is made by mixing dark high-altitude barley with the white variety and soaking the mix in water for a few days. Then it is roasted on sand until it explodes like popcorn. The result is ground and served mixed with black tea or salt-butter tea. It can be eaten also dry, but that’s not recommended. Eating it with salt-butter tea is recommended only after having tried this unusual drink. In any case, be prepared for a rather insipid porridge.
Tungba is a slightly alcoholic drink served in a tall wooden vessel – a barrel in large gatherings - and drunk with a bamboo straw. It is prepared by pouring boiling water over fermented millet. It is not especially tasty but it brings a very colorful local touch to the trip.
Apple Pie and Riki Kul
Brought by foreign trekkers and climbers to Nepal, the apple pie had been adapted to the high altitude and poor water quality conditions of the area. It can be found everywhere, but it is especially popular in the Rai people villages, just below the Sagarmatha Park, where apples are as glorious as the surrounding mountains. The first sight of the dish is surprising since the pie resembles more a South American fried empanada than a typical pie. That’s because they are deep fried in order to use less water in the preparation. It is worth engaging in such a trek just for the opportunity to taste one of these.
A related dish is the riki kul, a potato pancake covered with nak butter and cheese. Nak is the name for the yak’s female. Its cheese makes an excellent snack for the trekking.
Momo is the Nepalese name for Chinese dumplings, which exist here in several varieties, mainly vegetarian. They are larger than the Chinese counterparts. Smaller potatoes dumplings are used in the Sherpa Soup, which is highly popular in the highlands.
Many restaurants advertise yak steaks, tempting many travelers to try it at least once. A thing to keep in mind is that yak meat is available only as a leftover of past expeditions. There are no enough visitors to justify the slaughtering of these animals. So, what’s the meat they serve? It can’t be cow meat; killing cows is a crime in Nepal. The obvious answer is water-buffalos.
Chai and Tea
Few beverages are more varied in their preparation, or more confused to the English speaking world than tea, or "chai" as it is called in India, Nepal and other places. Without repeating common errors, "chai" means just "tea" (it is derived from the Chinese "cha"); the Indian spiced version should be called "masala chai" (literally "spiced tea").
While trekking, teahouses become a beloved feature of the landscape. There, black tea is served hot and sweet. The idea is to drink it fast and then keep walking before the body cools down; there is no need to worry for the loss, another teahouse invariably waits ahead. Depending on the size of the establishment, other drinks - like chai and milo (prepared with water) - may be available. However, the big brother of all teas – the mighty salt-butter tea – is seldom available in teahouses. The best for finding it is searching at the villages.
Solja or suchia is the local name for salt-butter tea. The beverage is prepared within a long piston filled with nak milk, butter, salt and black tea. The result is thick, salty and with the taste and smell of rancid butter; it could be described as a prototype of an energy drink. After defining it as a soup instead of a tea, I found it agreeable. The pumpkin flavored version is still to arrive.