This article was originally published in Nepali Times by Ashish Dhakal and an edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.
It is a little past 1 pm in the afternoon. A big white Toyota Hiace van en route from Pokhara to Kathmandu slows down as it approaches Mugling, a town in Chitwan, Bagmati Province, Nepal. It stops in front of a red-and-yellow building, stirring up a cloud of dust as it slows. Both sides of the road have buses, cars, and motorcycles clustered outside similar-looking houses that line the highway.
Mugling hosts a dal bhat (a traditional meal in the Indian sub-continent) drive-through at a busy highway junction. Business is brisk; it is strictly eat-and-go. Guests sit, waiters arrive with wide compartmentalised plates in their arms, and don't even take orders — they dump the plates piled high with rice in front of each guest.
“I don’t feel like I have eaten anything till I have had a plate of dal bhat,” confides Sharmila Paudel, 48, signalling a server to bring some more of the savoury cauliflower curry. “No matter the time of the day or night,” she adds, laughing.
Indeed, just as buses stop for diesel, travellers stop for dal bhat in Mugling to refuel on their journeys.
Eaten at least twice daily, the steamed rice and a soup of lentils or other cooked seasonal vegetables is not just a Nepali staple, but something deeper and more essential in the region.
A rich source of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, fibre and other minerals, dal bhat can make for a truly balanced diet — that is, if taken in balanced portions, especially as rice often gets bad press for being too carb heavy.
Public health specialist Aruna Uprety explains that dal bhat is a good food combination because it is a balanced source of energy. She says:
When we say dal bhat, it is only a short form that also includes tarkari (curry) and achar (pickles), and this makes it a complete, fresh and wholesome meal.
Dal bhat is also very easy to make. “Unlike many other grains in Nepal, rice does not take a lot of effort to cook,” says Kedar Sharma, who specialises in food writing. “You can set it on your stove and do other things.” Dhindo, another popular Nepali dish, by contrast, requires continuous monitoring and stirring so that it does not collect in lumps and carbonise.
“And we do not really eat just rice,” Sharma adds. “Together with the dal, vegetable curry, and sag (plant leaves), it all makes the dish taste better. Everything accompanies and enhances the taste and aroma of the rice.”
The dish is well-loved across the world, not just in Nepal or South Asia, where variants of dal bhat are widely popular and a staple.
“It is hard to have bad dal bhat in Nepal, I used to have dal bhat outside and come home in the evening and have dal bhat again,” recalls Norwegian MasterChef contestant and dal bhat aficionado Harald Eikeland. “In fact dal bhat is much more wholesome than Indian food, and can be unhealthy only if you pile on too much white rice on your plate.”
Maila Dai’s kitchen
As early spring snow floats down in big flakes outside the kitchen window in the coastal Norwegian town of Kristiansand, Harald Eikeland adds timur pepper, methi (fenugreek) and lwang (cloves) to the tomato achar (pickles). The dal is bubbling away, the scent of steaming Thai jasmine brown rice fills the room, and the kauli kerau is ready.
Eikeland is now a teacher back in Norway, a world away from Palpa in the Lumbini Province of Nepal, where he developed a passion for preparing and eating dal bhat.
His culinary tutor was Subhadra Bhusal, who taught the Norwegian everything: taking him to Tansen Bazar to buy the best silauti stone (mortar) and pestle to grind spices, laying down the rules of the exact condiments for each dish, and the cooking sequence for different items.
Bhusal even taught him to offer rice grains as sida (offering) to the gods with a pre-meal prayer, a practice that is now mostly ignored in Nepal. Later in Kathmandu, Eikeland was a regular customer at Nanglo in Darbar Marg in Kathmandu, where the chef gave him more hands-on tips on preparing dal bhat.
Recently, Eikeland was chosen as a finalist from among 5,000 contestants in the Norwegian MasterChef tv show, where he prepared chiura (flattened rice), chhoila, and kachila as a pre-dal bhat snack. He did not win, but was happy to have gotten so far.
“Whatever I know is from Subhadra Didi. She was very strict and even used to slap me lightly if I did something wrong. She was a perfectionist and swore by tori ko tel — no other cooking oil would do,” recalls Eikeland, whose Nepali name is Maila Dai.
Asked what makes dal bhat so popular even among non-Nepalis, Maila Dai says it is the simplicity, diversity and freshness of the ingredients that gives the dish its healthy and tasty attributes. This is probably why it is such a staple during treks in the Himalayan mountains. The aroma and taste of dal bhat takes Maila Dai and two Nepali students in Kristiansand in southern Norway straight back to Nepal. The only thing missing is tori ko tel (mustard oil), and with a forefinger to his lips, he quips: “I used sunflower oil, but don’t tell Subhadra Didi that.”
One big thing missing from the dal bhat piece. When I was in Nepal in 1960s to 80s dal bhat could not be had with masses of burning hot chillies so was essentisally inedible. Perhaps the big influx of westerners since have subdued the dish on complaint!