Dal-bhat, the ultimate vegan food

Food Issue 220 Apr, 2020
Text by Sushma Joshi

With the climate crisis, people all over the world are suddenly conscious of what they eat. They are starting to ask: “Am I eating food which is not destroying the planet?”

Every single item of food is trucked over long distances in countries like the USA and UK. The carbon footprint of one meal can be enormous, with beef exported from South America, GMO soya and wheat, industrial scale dairy, and low paid migrant picked tomatoes and lettuce, adding a host of environmental and labor issues to just one hamburger, for example.

Scientists have picked upon meat, especially beef, as the food with the highest carbon and water footprint. Dairy and eggs can also have large questions attached, including ethical issues surrounding mechanized factory farming. Due to the uncertainty of knowing where food comes from, many people have opted for a vegan lifestyle instead. Vegans don’t eat meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products like honey and gelatin.

While a student at Brown University, I used to live in a co-op house where 25 students cooked food co-operatively. In the early nineties, the vegan “cheeses” we bought for our small handful of vegan members tasted disgusting and were quite expensive. But as a co-operative that supported environmental and ethical lifestyles, we agreed that our small number of vegans deserved to get the same protein that the vegetarians did. I was put in the shopping team, so I bore the full brunt of vegan wrath if the TVP “bacon” and vegan cheese didn’t arrive with the weekly shopping bags. One of our vegan members even made her own chewing gum which did not have animal byproducts!

While being a vegetarian was easy in a co-operative with huge amounts of bulk foods stored in the bins, I quickly found out that it was quite difficult while living by myself. Most shops in Providence didn’t sell fresh vegetables, and without a car it was impossible to buy them at an affordable rate. So I ended up eating whatever I could buy in the grocery stores around the college area, and this often meant fried chicken from 7/11 and dried beans from the local Azores Portuguese grocery.

I also got used to Americans saying a vegetarian diet was unhealthy. I soon learnt many could hardly prepare home-cooked food, let alone vegetarian food. Often restaurants would remove meat from a sandwich and just give a slice of cheese with lettuce and tomatoes to a vegetarian, which does not provide a full meal. Removing meat doesn’t make a vegetarian meal, but this was often what was served as a vegetarian option in restaurants in the early 90s.

It took me years of cooking in Nepal before it occurred to me that dal-bhat was in fact the perfect vegan meal, in many ways. The synergy of rice with lentils provides protein, fibre and carbohydrates, the vegetables provide vitamins, and saag (mustard spinach, or other kinds of greens) add fibre, iron and micronutrients. Aachars can be either fermented for a few weeks, or freshly made. Fermented foods have now been recognized for their health giving properties. There is usually a fermented radish or cucumber on the side. A fresh relish made of roasted tomatoes and coriander, or an orange salad tempered with fenugreek and ajwain seeds, can both be called aachar.

Most tourists in Nepal have only tasted a moderately good dal-bhat at Thakali restaurants. But the home-cooked versions of dal bhat can be different in many respects. First of all, the dishes change daily, depending upon what is in season. Everything from koirala, an orchid that blooms during the monsoon, to fava beans during the winter, can bring about a rotating range of flavors to the daily tarkari. Nepalese are adept at using seasonal vegetables, with a range of preparation methods for each vegetable which might not be apparent to a new gourmand just starting out on the Nepali food journey.

Fava beans are well known for containing L-Dopa, which staves off Parkinson’s—my mother tells me almost everyone in Kathmandu with a kitchen garden used to grow it not so long ago. Kinema, a fermented soyabean paste eaten by Rais and Limbus, is similar to natto, a Japanese preparation that reduces cholesterol. A vegetarian Newari platter (admittedly, an anomaly), can be a supreme vegan meal with its elaborate offerings of beaten rice, lentil pancakes, potatoes, small green peas, big peas, soyabeans, peanuts and bamboo shoots. How else did traditional wisdom shape health and wellness in the ways people planted and harvested? What else has been lost in our quest for supermarket packaged foods in brightly colored plastic wrappings?

I had an American friend who boasted she could write a Sherpa cookbook in a few pages—apparently all it consisted of was potato soup and potato curry! I found her self-confidence to be typical of the attitude that tourists often bring to Nepali food. They may have sampled a few poor dal-bhats on their trekking routes, then assume they are now connoisseurs of everything the land of Nepal has to offer. This kind of supreme confidence, I must say, obscures both the richness and diversity of Nepali culinary traditions, as well as stops travelers from experiencing the whole range of foods on offer.

Yesterday a young woman who helps me around my kitchen called her mother, because she had an explicit yearning for potatoes from her village. She fudged around a bit asking about her family and relatives, then asked slyly: “Are the potatoes ready to harvest yet?” Her mother, probably inundated by offspring in cities asking for koseli, told her it wasn’t yet time. The potatoes would only be harvested in Falgun—they were alpine potatoes which took six months to mature! “These potatoes are not the same as the 21 day potatoes you buy in Kathmandu,” she told me. “They taste so good when they are boiled.” Her maternal uncle lived higher up in altitude where it took even longer to harvest one crop, but it didn’t matter because they only grew them for their own consumption, and not to sell. Now imagine our apocryphal Sherpa cookbook writer dealing with these potato microclimates in her book. She would have no idea whether the ones fertilized by yak dung in an alpine meadow tasted better than those fertilized by cow dung lower down in the valleys, all of which would add to the terroir of a potato field.

Although this is an article (mostly) about vegan food, I cannot resist adding that the best butter I have ever tasted was dzomo butter. Made from the milk of an animal crossed between a yak and a cow, and harvested and made by nuns in the Himalayan plateau, the butter had the umami of a thousand table butters. I’m sure some of this could make its way into Sherpa food, but would our cookbook writer know the difference?

While dairy, in the form of yogurt, ghee and milk, often makes some tiny additions to the daily dal-bhat, it is possible to live entirely on the vegan version. In fact, many poor people, especially in Brahmin-Chettri households where meat or eggs are not consumed, do so, unless they get some ghee as a special koseli gift from some cow-herding family. So how do people avoid micronutrient deficiencies? After observing the dal-bhat diet, I believe people avoid them through small treats which may not make it to the plate of a restaurant offering, but which appear in homes. Everything from silom seeds (perilla seeds) to lapsi, lichen found in rivers to toasted sesame chopp (a dry powder of sesame seeds and timur seeds) can add vital micronutrients.

Makhana, or lotus seeds, are eaten by religious fasters as “chokho” or pure food. They are taken as a kheer, often with milk, although they can also be toasted and eaten as is. They are known to work against neurodegenerative diseases, which is why you have so many Brahmin grandfathers and grandmothers who are bright and alert right into their nineties. A lifetime of religious fasts can pay off in spades in terms of wellness! Also they chant mantras, and chanting elaborate Sanskrit hymns helps to improve memory function, as neuroscientists have found out. MRI scans show that memorizing ancient mantras increases the size of brain regions associated with cognitive function, according to Scientific American. In “A Neuroscientist Explores the Sanskrit Effect,” James Hartzell wrote on January 2, 2018: “I had also noticed that the more Sanskrit I studied and translated, the better my verbal memory seemed to become. Fellow students and teachers often remarked on my ability to exactly repeat lecturers’ own sentences when asking them questions in class.” He dubbed this “Sanskrit Effect.”

Going back to tradition is perceived to be absurd in the age of supermarket food and fitness gyms. But often the key to health lies in the practices and observations already made generations ago, by people who had the time to observe phenomena better than we do in our hectic 9-5 lives.

The most intriguing congruence to this ability of people from the past to observe phenomena struck me via jyotish, so I will end this article with a little astrological tidbit. In jyotish, the age of Rahu’s maturity is 42. Rahu is the graha that rules celebrity and glamour, throwing people into the spotlight. However, if placed in Tanu bhava or house of the body, Rahu is a malefic that can often lead to derangement and catastrophes. In the court of King Louis XIV of France, a special law was introduced in 1698. This law allowed dancers from the Paris Opera to bow out and retire at age 42. The special retirement age is different for ballet dancers because their bodies have often been put through so much that they have titanium hips, tendinitis, fractures and knee problems by this age.

I often think about how two different people, working with two entirely different social systems, arrived at essentially the same conclusion. The French from the 17th century knew that it was not at age 40 (which would have made sense to a culture used to zeros) but 42 at which the full effects of the wear and tear of dramatic operatic over-reach showed itself. They did this through observation.

What else did the ancients observe that we now think of as merely nonsensical? They had the time and the patience to see the ways nature unfolded, as opposed to our highly mechanized lives in which we are constantly told how to think and behave by large corporations. We sit in front of computers and cellphones and consume content on a daily basis. Much of it is fake. We have started to believe that advertising is the one and only truth, and anything else is foolish and unscientific.

How can we revert back to living more naturally? Surely by putting food in our mouth that is close to the farming process, by eschewing the products of large corporations, and by learning more about the simple ways in which food has always been prepared and served over the generations, we can reach back to a healthier way of being. Then maybe many of the lifestyle diseases of modernity would vanish by themselves, without the need of constant medical and pharmaceutical interventions.