No trip to a foreign land is truly complete without a sampling of the local fare. While this alone can be the most adventurous part of travel (haggis, anyone?), visitors to Nepal are greeted with a simple, vegetarian-friendly, and tasty national dish: dal bhat.
Behold: Dal Bhat.
The core of the meal consists of dal (lentil soup) and bhat (rice). In the farthest reaches of Nepal, this is as fancy as it gets. Basic dal bhat can serve as breakfast, dinner, and probably even lunch for a large percentage of the country. Nearly 30 million Nepalis can’t be wrong.
More commonly, and certainly on the trail, dal bhat is served with a dish of curried vegetables. Other extras can include saag (cooked greens) and achar (vegetable pickle). Achar is decidedly not like the dill spear, gherkin, or green relish pickle you might have in mind. In South Asia, pickle is a much more intense mélange of flavors and, while not always necessarily spicy, acts like a hot sauce condiment. Word to the wise: proceed with caution – a dab will do ya. I once mistook a bowl of lemon pickle for local curry and ended up with tears in my eyes as I hungrily shoveled a heaping spoonful in my mouth. On the trails of Nepal, pickle is thankfully more likely to be a milder, homemade side accompaniment. Be not afraid.
If you are lucky, your dal bhat will include a bit of gundruk – fermented mustard, radish, and cauliflower greens. Gundruk has a unique, strong flavor, and not everyone will feel so lucky after sampling. It is a decidedly Nepali food, though, so I encourage you to give it a try. We don’t call this adventure travel for nothing.
A bit of gundruk on center stage.
For a truly local experience, mix the components of dal bhat together and dig in with your hands. Make that your right hand. In Nepali culture, your left hand is considered unclean no matter how much hand sanitizer you brought with you on the trail. It is not rude, however, to use utensils to eat dal bhat, and most on the trail will. How you chose to attack your plate is up to you.
When trekking in Nepal, I order dal bhat for both lunch and dinner almost every day. From town to town and kitchen to kitchen, there is a surprising variety within the basic dal bhat formula, so no two meals end up being the same. While the pizza in any given remote mountain town may be hit or miss, dal bhat is invariably what the chef and her family are eating (along with your local guide) – is there a stronger recommendation? Finally, there is my favorite part about dal bhat: refills. Circumstances permitting, the traditional helping of dal bhat comes with a second helping. The significance of this fact will be clear when you first rest your weary legs for dinner on the trail. If you are anything like me, clearing your plate (twice) will not be a problem.
Brian is a Nepal trekking enthusiast in love with mountain views, the thrill of the trail, and — of course — dal bhat.