The invitation was for Wednesday lunch at Ravi’s, in Tokha on the north side of Kathmandu. It’s not a restaurant. It’s Ravi’s home located deep inside a maze of houses sweeping uphill in long streets behind an imposing gate. It is in a part of the city where I am easily lost.
Ravi is a writer, and that’s how we first met. But he’s also a gastronome, an epicurean gourmet, a connoisseur of fine ‘khaana’?Nepali food. I call him a ‘khanasseur’, a term of my making, which works as well or better than all that other foreign-sounding blather. Call him what you may, but it all comes down to the fact that he’s both a fantastic cook and a talented writer.
We agreed to meet that Wednesday noon over lunch and to talk about writing. The menu was standard Nepali fare: daal-bhaat-tarkaari-maasu-achar (lentils-rice-vegetables-meat-&-pickle). And although we had one of Ravi’s essays to discuss, his cooking took center stage.
First Things First
I spent the morning in and out of hi-tech shops in downtown Kathmandu at New Road. In retrospect, it was a good way to work up an appetite!
I was looking for a protective case for my new Android smart phone and a touch pen with which to negotiate its tiny keyboard. I have recently graduated from a simple ‘dumb’ phone to a ‘smart’ phone to use as a digital aid to my research and writing; e.g., jotting down important meetings (like lunch at Ravi’s), looking things up on the Internet, taking notes on the fly, and keeping in touch with my writer-friends.
As I went from shop to shop inquiring after a case and touch pens, I was repeatedly told that neither item was available in Kathmandu. My phone model was too new, they said, so cases to fit were not yet available And, since Nepalis use their nimble fingers for texting, who needs a rubber-tipped pen?
I doubted their pessimism and kept looking until I found one young shop-keeper who knew precisely where I could buy a phone case, and another who directed me to a stash of silvery touch pens.
The underlying logic in all this seems to be that what’s not available in my shop, certainly must not exist in any other shop. Nonetheless, I found what I wanted, although on the Internet I could have ordered pricier touch pens in more colors, or a flashier case. But what’s the fun of that? Visiting Kathmandu’s hi-tech shops is far more challenging and beguiling.
By then it was noon, I’d bought what I wanted, and I was hungry. Lunch at Ravi’s was next on my digital list. I found a taxi driver who agreed to take me to Tokha without trying to negotiate an outrageously inflated fare, and we were off into the city’s typically frenetic start-&-stop traffic, as the meter rolled up.
If you think all lunch or dinner guests are the same, think again.
Ravi proudly enjoys inviting friends to his house who enjoy fine food. He likes making them happy with his culinary skills. Both Ravi and his wife Radhika (who was away that day) “love it when a guest enjoys our food,” he says. “It is an abiding passion with us. We watch our guests eat our food with relish”?with enjoyment and appreciation, that is. “We are a crazy lot!” he concludes.
Cooking for guests takes effort and dedication. From long experience Ravi knows who appreciates the food, and who doesn’t. He has them sorted out, bad to best.
At the bottom of his list are those who can’t tell you what they ate last night at dinner. This sort of guest just eats, with little or no sensory feeling or appreciation for food. “They don’t relish the taste and richness, let alone appreciate the effort put into it by the host,” he says. And, no surprise, they tend not to be invited back.
Others “gorge themselves on the food but do not relish or appreciate it because they’re too busy talking about themselves, their business, and all kinds of blahs.” Ravi clearly wants his guests to concentrate on what they are served, with no distractions. And some are “very ‘choosy’ and ‘fussy’, eating little, without enjoyment. And they may even pull a face at some dishes,” he says.
At the top of Ravi’s list is a mutual friend “who ‘enjoys’ the food, is very articulate about it, and has all praises for it.” And, “More than that he wants the recipes. He calls me, sometimes at odd hours,” says Ravi, “to ask for the recipe of a particular dish we had recently served him. He must have taken more than 15 or 20 recipes from me so far! And he’s such a sport that he tries them at home.”
Ravi’s Magic Meal
Like guests, not all dal-bhat is the same either. On that Wednesday noon Ravi outdid himself as a dal-bhat ‘bon vivant’. He knew precisely what I would like, and how to prepare it with all-star flavors. After I arrived and we had engaged in a bit of small talk out on his patio, he ushered me to the table where, with culinary ‘jadu’ (magic), he had set out a small ‘bhoj’ (feast).
The layout was simple; nothing fancy?no traditional ‘thaal’ (brass plate) or ‘kachaura’ (brass cups). Looks are not as important as the aromas and tastes. Add to that my own pleasure at seeing Ravi enjoy guests who take great satisfaction in his cooking.
Plain and simple, the key to a Nepali cook’s success is intimate knowledge of which spices (‘masala’) to use and the choice of food, from ‘bhat’-to-‘achar’, rice-to-pickle, and how they all go together. Patience is another virtue for preparing each dish “just so!” It takes time, sometimes many hours to select, sort, clean and chop vegetables. If there’s meat to marinate, he begins the day before.
Ravi served six dishes that noon: rice, lentils, meat, two vegetables and a spicy pickle condiment. The vegetables (‘thakaari’) were cauliflower with peas, and a popular spinach known as ‘rayo ko saag’, each carefully prepared with just the right blend of herbs and spices. The ‘achar’ was tantilizing sharp but not fiery hot, a tomato-base condiment made with fresh garlic, ginger, salt, and a hint of ‘timur’ (Sichuan pepper), with its slightly biting taste, mildly anesthetic on the tongue.
In his judgment, and mine, the three most important dishes were the rice, the lentils, and the meat.
The rice. Ravi’s favorite rice (‘chaamal’) is an imported Harpal Usinu Long Grain. Other types of will also do, but recently Ravi has preferred Harpal’s.
“The important thing about rice,” he says, “is, first, soak it for a half hour, preferably in warm water with a pinch of salt. This makes it softer for hours after it is cooked and even after it has been stored in a refrigerator.”
Before cooking, he rinsed the rice three or four times until the water was no longer cloudy. After it was cooked, at the last minute, he stirred in a flavorful daub of cow ghee, then served it piping hot.
The lentils. Ravi scores high on dal. On this day he selected a black gram mixed with robust black-&-brown beans from Mustang District. He pressure-cooked them with salt, a little turmeric (‘besar’), a pinch of asafoetida (‘hing’), and some ghee. Twenty minutes after the first whistle he poured the dal into a traditional round-sided iron saucepan called a ‘tapké’ and let it simmer for two to three hours more, constantly stirring to prevent it from sticking to the bottom. As it thickened it turned as dark as the saucepan.
When it was near perfection, Ravi heated some ghee in a separate pan, with a little oil to keep it from burning, along with a pinch of asafoetida, some finely chopped garlic, and ‘jimbu’ (dried wild onion from the high mountains). He sautéed this special mixture until the garlic took on a light brown color. Finally, he stirred the aromatic ghee-and-jimbu mix into the hot dal, and covered it to simmer another ten or 15 minutes.
The meat. This was the ‘pièce de résistance’?the masterpiece and central attraction at the table. Ravi’s choice was ‘khasi ko maasu’ (goat meat, euphemistically called ‘mutton’ in Nepal), because “I knew you’d like it,” he told me. Ravi prefers the meat of hill goats, and although it takes longer to cook, he pointed out that “it has less fat and is much tastier than its lowland Tarai cousins.”
“There are limitless recipes for preparing mutton,” he said. Ravi begins by marinating it overnight in yoghurt (‘dahi’) mixed with garlic ginger paste, cumin powder, coriander powder, red chili powder, turmeric powder, a little ‘garam masala’, a dash of black pepper, a sprinkle of mustard oil, a squeeze of lemon, and salt to taste.
Phew: that’s a lot to keep track of, but don’t ask in what amounts. Ravi intuitively knows how much of each spice to use, and how to blend them, based on years of experience. He once ran a popular catering service.
The following morning in preparation for cooking the meat, he heated a little mustard oil in a pan, added a pinch of asafoetida, a few cinnamon leaves and some finely sliced onion. “I sautéed this until slightly brown, added the marinated mutton, and cooked it a while to dry out the juices,” he said. For more gravy, he added a little water. As it was cooking he added some chopped tomato and let it simmer another five minutes or so.
At this point, there’s a choice?either the cook completes the preparation in a pressure cooker, or simmers it over a low heat in a heavy-bottom saucepan. By pressure cooker it’ll be ready to eat 15 minutes after the first whistle. In the saucepan it takes about half an hour or more for goat meat from the hills.
At last, Viola!?“Your ‘khasi ko maasu’ is done,” he announced shortly after I entered the kitchen. After garnishing it with freshly chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lemon, he served it hot. What a grand and unforgettable aroma and flavor it all had.
By now you are well aware that the skillful use of a variety of spices is key to making fine Nepali cuisine. The culinary advisors online at www.eCurry.com tell us that the extensive use of spices is not intended to make the food fiery hot. Rather, they say, “The spices are used to flavor the food, making each dish distinct and wonderfully aromatic. Each spice by itself imparts a very unique flavor, but when used together with other spices, the combination and permutation of different ones magically change the individual characteristics.”
I’ve said it before, that not all dal-bhat is the same. Nor does simply adding spices of one sort or another guarantee good results. A deep appreciation for their qualities including knowing both when and how to blend them is the most elusive ingredient.
Not all cooks have the knack, but Ravi does.