Nepal: Chef commits to promoting culinary diversity

The Kathmandu Post via Asia News Network
Prashanta Khanal, who started his food blog “The Gundruk” in 2013 to explore and document diverse ethnic dishes and their origin in Nepal, poses for a photo.

In 2010, Prashanta Khanal went to Indonesia for work and stayed there for a year. As soon as he acquainted himself with the local cuisine, he experienced a culinary and cultural shock.

“Growing up in Nepal, curries that I ate most of the time were spicy, and sugar is the last thing that we add in our homemade curries. However, in Indonesia, sugar is such a common ingredient that it is used in almost every dish — from curry to sambal (a chilli sauce or paste). Sugar is either used to make the dish sweet or as an ingredient to balance the dish’s flavor,” says Khanal.

He eventually familiarized himself with the local Indonesian cuisine, but he had another culinary revelation waiting for him when he returned to Nepal in 2011.

“When I returned home, our local food and cuisine started to taste a bit bland to me. Suddenly, I started feeling that something was missing in the food that I had eaten almost all my life,” shares Khanal.

There are 125 different ethnic communities in Nepal, and each community has their own culinary identity. Yet, in restaurants and hotels near tourist areas, Nepali food is limited to variations of momo, dal-bhat and dhindo thali sets. Even Nepali people themselves aren’t knowledgeable about the diverse culinary history of their own country as only a few ethnic cuisines have been successful for now in garnering mainstream appeal — mainly Newa and Thakali cuisine.

Ethnic cuisines and food from communities that are different from one’s own can be outside our normal palate, and it may take some deliberate efforts to acquire a taste for such dishes. But therein lies the beauty of food and our palates for Khanal. The about section of his food blog “The Gundruk” starts with: “Everything you like is an acquired taste. You have to train your palate to like.”

His food blog is a goldmine of recipes and history of ethnic cuisines — from batuk to kinema to sargemba to ya: mari (even Khanal couldn’t defy the widespread popularity of momo as momo occupies a separate category of its own in his food blog). The inspiration to start his own food blog in 2013 started “from a realization of his own ignorance of the culinary identity of ethnic communities in Nepal.”

“In Indonesia, I tasted tempe, a traditional and popular street food made from fermented soybeans, and I really admired its taste. I also knew about natto, a Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans,” says Khanal. “But it was only in 2013, a few years after returning from Indonesia, that I found out about kinema, a popular dish in Rai and Limbu communities made from fermented soybeans. This discovery completely shook me to my core and made me question my approach to food. I knew more about Indonesian and Japanese food than my own country’s food.”

While the idea for starting a food blog germinated from his experiences abroad, his love for cooking is intrinsic, a love that dates back to the beginning of his childhood.

Born in Bhimad in Tanahun district, Khanal was the eldest among his siblings, so he was responsible for supervising and cooking for his younger siblings. Both his parents worked as teachers in a local school, so they would leave early in the mornings and only return in the evenings. Since Khanal’s mother was a devout Hindu, she wouldn’t enter the kitchen during her menstruation.

“She would give instructions to me from outside the kitchen, and that’s how I learnt how to cook. For breakfast, I would just prepare simple food like tea, bread and butter and sometimes satu,” says Khanal. “For lunch and dinner, I would cook dal-bhat and sometimes momo and chow mein during weekends. I would observe how momo and chow mein were cooked in hotels and restaurants and try to replicate them at home.”

Aside from learning to cook from an early age, Khanal believes that his family dynamics also paved the way for his lifelong passion for food. Khanal’s father was from a Brahmin family, while his mother was from a Newa family. Their intercaste marriage meant that Khanal was exposed to diverse culinary practices and beliefs from an early age.

While buff meat and alcohol were considered impure and averted by his father’s side of the family, his mother’s side had a completely contradictory approach. Buff is an essential component of Newa cuisine, and alcohol is used as a holy offering during festivals. This dichotomy toward food in his own home — how the same food can mean different things to different cultures — caused Khanal to develop an innate curiosity toward food culture and the history of people.

“My closest childhood friends were from the Magar community, and from them, I tasted different traditional pork dishes, alcohol during festivities, and even dishes of paha, stream-dwelling frogs,” says Khanal. “There were also Muslim children in our school, and I would often exchange my lunch with theirs since their spices and dishes were so different from what I usually ate at home.”

Khanal’s zeal for food wasn’t only limited to dishes but also the raw ingredients itself. Growing up near nature, he would head into forests to forage for kattus, niuro and chestnuts. He would go fishing in the Jyagdi river during holidays with his friends. He would tend to the garden in his home and grow various fruit trees.

“I was interested in farming from an early age — watching a seed grow into a feeble plant that eventually gets strong enough to produce vegetables and fruits is something that still fascinates me,” he says.

As the articles in his blog started increasing and he gained more and more information and understanding about Nepal’s diverse ethnic culinary identity and history, compiling all of the information in a single source seemed like a natural progression for his culinary journey.

“Initially, I wanted to create a simple PDF file or a small book consisting of 40-50 pages. But when I approached publishers, they seemed quite invested in the idea, so I began writing a full-fledged cookbook from 2015, and it took me almost six years to complete it,” says Khanal.

The cookbook titled “Timmur — Stories and Flavours from Nepal” isn’t simply a collection of recipes of different ethnic dishes but “an attempt to introduce, celebrate and promote the cuisines of various regions and cultures of Nepal.” Published by FinePrint, the book is currently accepting preorders and is slated to begin shipping from late February. The designs in the book have been done by Ubahang Nembang, while Nabin Baral and Gagan Thapa have contributed photos of the dishes.

The cookbook is almost 300 pages long and features over 125 recipes of ethnic dishes as well as the history of 12 different ethnic communities — Khas, Thakali, Magar, Gurung, Newa, Sherpa, Tamang, Tibetan, Tharu, Maithil, Rai and Limbu. There is also a separate category dedicated to achaar.

While Khanal compiled most of the recipes of the ethnic dishes by conversing with his friends and some by conversing with locals during his travels, the history and origin of the ethnic dishes were amassed by connecting the dots between isolated pieces of information. Khanal shares his research into the history and origin of yangben, a signature dish of the Limbu community, as an example.

“Initially, I was curious about why other communities like Rai and Magar didn’t consume yangben, but Limbu did. Looking back at the history of the Limbu community, there is historical evidence that they immigrated to Nepal from the Yunnan region of China, and in Yunnan, they have a traditional culture of lichen. So, that’s how I connected the dots as to how the Limbu community may have developed the culture of eating yangben.”

In recent years, food vloggers and Nepali content creators specializing in cooking have carved a niche for themselves. The YouTube channel of Yummy Food World has over 928,000 subscribers, whereas the Instagram account of has over 278,000 followers. Their videos and posts regularly attract hundreds of thousands of views, and they also try to feature ethnic dishes and cuisines.

Binti Gurung, a food history researcher, says that ethnic cuisines and especially indigenous ingredients have historically been neglected due to lack of awareness and also access, but in recent years, there have been positive developments due to changing times and economy.

“Now people have different ways to acquaint themselves with diverse ethnic cuisines,” says Gurung. “If you want quick information about ethnic cuisines, then food vloggers and videos might be the best option. But if you want something more research-intensive, then research papers and cookbooks that delve into the history and origin might be a better alternative.”

Khanal shares that online recipe videos usually only limit themselves to the technicalities of the recipes and do not explore the significance and origin of the dishes beyond the recipe. “If a video talks about rikikur, a traditional Sherpa dish of potato pancake, then it won’t delve into the overall Sherpa culture,” says Khanal. “Potato consumption culture is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Sherpa community dating back to only about 150-160 years. But it has completely changed the entire food culture of the Sherpa community and became a staple ingredient.”

Writing about ethnic cuisines can be tricky as writers can often face backlash for trying to appropriate someone else’s ethnic cuisine. Khanal also faced his share of backlash when he shared his recipe of kwati with goat meat. However, similar to the sentiments in his follow-up article to the kwati recipe, “Who owns recipes?” he shares that he has compiled the ethnic recipes in the cookbook with the utmost sensitivity.

“While I have grouped some ethnic communities together like Tharu and Maithil, it was done only because they share cultural proximity and not because they are the same culture,” he says. “I tried to be as authentic as possible in the cookbook. I didn’t try to pass judgements in my recipes nor did I change the recipes to appeal to local tastes or foreign palates. I simply wanted to share awareness about the diverse ethnic cuisines to others.”