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The JT Insider Food Guide: Nepal

Acclaimed Nepali chef and former Gurkha, Pemba Lama, talks to us about his home nation’s tastiest culinary offerings.

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Food of the nation

Nepal’s incredibly fertile land produces wonderful food, helped by the four seasons, which bring with them many different herbs and spices from the lowlands and highlands. Nepalese cooking revolves around using fresh ingredients with a beautiful, subtle layering of spices and herbs. Dry spice seeds are commonly used, such as fenugreek, cumin and black onion seeds, along with fresh garlic and chilli. It’s healthy and absolutely delicious. Nepal is influenced by its giant neighbours India and China, getting the best of both cuisines.’

‘Dhero, made from millet and buckwheat flour cooked in water, is favoured by older generations in the villages but it’s now reached the city and every once in a while you see tourists enjoying the dish too. Cooked until a soft dough like consistency, it’s dipped in a meat sauce with hot timur chutney [a Szechuan pepper that grows in the high altitudes of the Himalayas]. Rice, dahl and vegetables are liked by all walks of life, but dry chapattis called Sukka Roti are preferred by the older generations. Dahl, bhat and tarkari [lentils, rice and curried vegetables] are available everywhere in Nepal.’

Three to try

SEL-ROTI ‘This festival bread is made from rice flour batter with butter, sugar and spices that’s deep fried and served with curry and potato dishes.’

MOMO ‘Probably Nepal’s most famous dish and extremely popular in the Nepali household, momos are similar to Chinese dumplings and carry a variety of flavours.’

THUKPA ‘This noodle soup is very popular in the Tibetan households of Nepal and is one of my favourite dishes.’

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Regional eats

‘In lowland terrain called Madesh vegetables are plentiful, whereas at high altitude they have potatoes, squash and radish, with meat like chicken, buffalo and yak. In the plains and hills between a lot of fish, goat, pork and chicken are eaten. In the villages all food is organic and cooked over the wood fire, making it taste so good. Pokhara is my favourite region for quality food with incredibly beautiful scenery. This tourist area offers international cuisine as well as traditional Nepalese food like Dhero.’

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Authentically local dining experience

‘There are a number of festivals celebrated throughout the year in Nepal and many different types of food are offered accordingly. Maghe Sankranti festival in January is hugely celebrated by the Nepalese, where the main food includes root vegetables like yam, cassava and sweet potato. Losar [New Year] festival is celebrated with a colourful variety of butter patties by indigenous tribes such as Tamang and Gurung tribe in December and January, and by the Sherpa people in February and March.’

‘The main festival Dashain, in September and October, is celebrated in a colourful fashion by most, if not all, Nepalis and food plays in important role. During Tihar festival, known as the festival of lights, that takes place soon after Dashain, every Nepali family celebrates with sel-roti [deep-fried bread made from rice flour]. Any visitors coming to Nepal during these festive seasons can definitely enjoy the taste of authentic Nepali food.’

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Street food

‘I recommend the samosas, momos with fillings of chicken pork, goat or vegetables, and aloo chop [potato fritters]. Food vendors are very popular on the streets of Nepal.’

The drink

‘Raksi is a homemade liqueur brewed from fermented cooked millet, cooked rice and other locally grown grains, varying from a strong liqueur like vodka to a mild one like wine. Chhyaang,  the extract from fermented grains, is a popular drink in the villages. Tongba is a type of millet beer, which is topped with hot water and drunk out of a large hollow pot through a straw. This is the drink of choice in villages as well as towns.’

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Getting to know Pemba Lama

The highly acclaimed chef Pemba Lama developed his passion for cooking and culinary skills during his 23 years as a Gurkha soldier in the British army in Brunei, Hong Kong, the Gulf, Nepal, Kosovo and UK. His cookbook, The Ultimate Nepalese Cook Book, was published in 2012 and he has since cooked for and alongside many celebrities, while supporting the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

How did your experience as a Gurkha influence your work as a chef?

Through my travels as a Gurkha soldier I extended my knowledge of world cuisine hugely. What I believe is unique about the art of Gurkha and Nepalese cooking is the innate understanding and careful balancing of spices and herbs, as well as the introduction of oriental and tropical ingredients into its dishes, like using coconut from Malaysia. Nepalese food is a fusion of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Tibetan cuisine, as they are all neighbours of Nepal.

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Tell us about your cookbook and what you’ve been doing since its publication.

Annie Watsham of the Gurkha Justice Campaign, edited a manuscript of recipes that I had put together in my many years as a Gurkha soldier and chef, then in 2012 The Ultimate Nepalese Cook Book was born and my dream came true. The Cookbook went on to win the 2013 World Food Awards Cookbook of the Year and the Gourmand Awards for Best UK Charity Cookbook 2012-2013. We work closely with the Gurkha Welfare Trust and Gurkha Museum, with three percent of the sales going to the GWT.

The Book has been signed by the Dalai Lama and many other famous people including Joanna Lumley. Since then I’ve cooked for the Queen, with Jamie Oliver and more recently with Madhur Jaffrey. Last year I was invited to cook for more than 200 people at the Royal Hospital Chelsea to celebrate the launch of ABF the soldiers’ charity. I have been invited to participate with this wonderful charity again this year, through the Cookbook and Makara Beer, a project in which I have played a major part.