Guest Post: Potato salad and a short history of Nepali cuisine

Nepal has one of the most diverse culinary heritages in the world. While its geographical companions have influenced Nepal’s cuisine; India, China and Tibet, it has its own varieties of foods that have evolved through different times in the history. Two of the most famous and staple types of food consist of Newari Samay baji and Thakali or Khas Dal-bhat tarkari. Newari people are the indigenous inhabitants of Kathmandu valley. The ancient city was famous for its arts and crafts and was involved in trade with Tibet for centuries. The record of Kathmandu-Tibet trade is traced back to the marriage of a Nepali Princess, Bhrikuti to a Tibetan King, Songtshan Gompo. From fourteenth century onwards there were treaties and agreements to allow Newars to trade in cities of Tibet, Lhasa being a major location. The trade relationship and the trade route merchants took to travel have had influences in Nepali cuisines that we get to eat today. Thakali people are originally the indigenous inhabitants of an area called Thak Khola valley in Mustang district of Nepal. Located in the trade route with Tibet, one of the businesses Thakali people have been doing for a long time is running inns, selling accommodation and food to travellers. The two types of food have been perfected with their own peculiarities and also with, to some extent, fusion with the Tibetan cuisines. For example, the Newari version of Tibetan dumplings called momo is the most popular street food one can get in Kathmandu.

Dal-bhat beats Samay baji as the most widely consumed cuisine in Nepal. Naturally, there are scores of side dishes that go with a plate of dal-bhat, depending on where you are in the country. Inns and teahouses throughout the Annapurna circuit, a popular trekking route, which also overlaps with the traditional trade route, offer delicious Thakali style dal-bhat with side dishes of spinach, fresh and dried radish and more. Residents of Kathmandu on the other hand have their own peculiar dal-bhat combo with dishes like curried potato salad and sauteed cauliflower, along with other dishes such as mixed beans soup called quati (a dish borrowed from Newari Samay baji), spinach sauted in Fenugreek seeds, fresh chillies and oil (a regular in Thakali dal-bhat) and many more.

A new food entrepreneur in Montreal, originally from Kathmandu, Sunita Neupane has been cooking dal-bhat at home for over three decades. Having a strong fondness of inviting people over for lunch or dinner at her home, she has been working towards building a space which resembles ‘a home’ where unlike in a restaurant, people can come and eat as if it is their home. With that concept, while she was doing a weekly dinner at Le Jubar cafe in fall of 2014, her curried potato salad became a favorite of all dishes. In the following section, she has written a short story of her experience mastering the popular potato salad.

I get watery mouth each time I hear about aloo-ko-achar (Nepali for potato pickle). Pickle means something different in Nepal. It usually refers to a sweet-sour, fresh condiment. Because of the texture of aloo-ko-achar and because pickle refers to pickled cucumber in Canada, aloo-ko-achar has been called potato salad by all the Montrealers who have tried it. When I was little, I used to get excited about special delicacies in every festival and in every ritual of Shraddha. One of them used to be aloo-ko-achar or potato salad, which I loved. I grew up watching my mom and elder sisters prepare it. I started making it myself after I got married and moved in with my husband.

On my first attempt, I remember that I threw away more than half of what I made because it was nowhere close to tasty. I thought I had included all the ingredients. How could it be? Quite inexplicably, I must say, over the years I have been able to perfect it really well. So much that at every potluck, I would unanimously be assigned potato salad! Even in Canada, some of my friends call me “Potato salad lady.” I know that I have learned it from my mom and my children are trying to learn it from me. When I asked my mom about how she learned, she told me that she had seen her mother make it. My mom too had learned it by trial and error, also after getting married.

After consulting with nutritionists in my own family, I have modified the recipe of potato salad. I have replaced sesame seeds powder with flax seeds powder because of high cholesterol in the former. Moreover, adding green pepper has increased the nutritious value of the salad. The general recipe of the potato salad is as follows, but one will have to be patient to be able to bring it to perfection!

Cut medium sized boiled potatoes into cubes and mix it with ground sesame seeds(1 part) and flaxseeds (3 parts). Add salt, turmeric powder, timur (Sichuan pepper) and red chilli powder as per the amount of potato. Fry Fenugreek seeds in a bit of oil. After the seeds turn black, add jimbu and wait until that turns black. Add finely cut green pepper, saute it for few minutes, and add the mixture to the potato. Add lemon juice and some water gradually while stirring the mix until there is a desired consistency of the gravy. Some potatoes may be crushed if the sauce is too watery. Add some fresh coriander and the potato salad is ready to be served.

Potato salad or aloo-ko-achar now exists in Samay baji as well as in Dal-bhat in and outside Kathmandu. Although it does not hold its origin in any particular ethnicity or geographic location, potato salad has become an important part of Nepali cuisine. Incidentally, it has also become a source of identity for a Nepali immigrant in Montreal. Since taste is one of our important and strong senses which helps us construct our memories, potato salad through its perfected taste binds together the history of Nepali cuisine, familial history of Sunita’s learning and potentially a new history of Nepali food being formed in Montreal through Sunita’s entrepreneurship.

Below is Sunita Neupane’s original text. 

NB: The 'period' in Nepali is not a dot, but a straight vertical line. However, on this platform, I am unable to convert the period to lines.:

हरेक चोटी आलुको अचारको चर्चा हुदा मुखमा पानि आउछ . अचारको शाब्दिक अर्थ अंग्रेजीमा पिकल भए पनि नेपाली समाज मा पिकल को अर्थ गुलियो, अमिलो, पिरो चट्नी को रुप मा बुझिन्छ . अंग्रेजीमा पिकल खाँदेको काँक्रो भनेर बुझिने आलुको अचारको संरचना को कारण मन्ट्रियलबासिहरुले यसलाई आलुको सलाद भन्ने गर्छन . सानो छँदा हरेक चाडबाड श्रद्धा हुँदा मिठो मिठो खान पाइन्छ भनेर खुसि हुन्थे . मिठो खानिकुराहरुमा एउटा हुन्थ्यो आलुको अचार जुन मलाई सारै मन पर्थ्यो . हुर्किदा मैले मेरो आमा दिदीहरुले आलुको अचार बनाएको देखेको थिए . मेरो विबाह पछि मैले यो आफै बनाउन थालें .

पहिलो पटक बनाउदा, मैले सम्झिन्छु, आधा भन्दा बढी फाले नमिठो भएर . सबै मर्मसला हाले जस्तो लाग्याथ्यो, कसरि बिग्र्यो? बनाउदा बनाउदा आफै एकदमै मिठो बन्न थाल्यो . यस्तो मिठो बनाउन सिके कि अब हरेक पटलक हुदा मेरो भागमा आलुको अचार पार्न थाले सबैले . क्यानाडामा पनि अहिले कोहि साथीहरुले मलाई आलु सलाद लेडी भन्न थालेका छन्. मैले मेरो आमा बाट सिके अहिले मेरा छोरा छोरीहरुले मबाट सिक्न खोज्दै छन् . आमालाई कसरी सिक्नुभयो भनेर सोध्दा वहाले पनि आफ्नी आमाबाट सिक्नु भएको रहेछ . मैले जस्तै मेरी आमाले पनि कोसिस गर्दा गर्दा बर्सौ लगाएर आलुको अचार मिठो बनाउन सिक्नुभएको रहेछ .

आफ्नै परिवारका न्युत्रिशन विज्ञहरु संग छलफल गरेर मैले आलुको अचार बनाउने तरिका अलिकति फरक पारेको छु तीलमा धेरै कोलेस्टेरोल हुने भएकोले तीलको सट्टा त्यसको  तिन चौथाई भागमा फ्ल्याक्स सीड को धुलो हाल्ने गर्छु . हरियो भेडे खुर्सानी पनि हालेर आलुको अचारको पोषक मूल्य बढाएको छु . आलुको अचार बनाउने साधारण तरिका एस प्रकार , तर एकदम मिठो बन्नको लागि धेरै कोसिस धैर्यको आवश्यकता .

  आलुलाई उसिनेर ठिक्कको टुक्रा पारेर काट्ने तीलको धुलो भाग फ्ल्याक्स सीडको धुलो भाग मिसाउने . नुन, बेसार, टीमुर धुलो खुर्सानी हाल्ने . अलिकति तेलमा मेथीको गेडा फुराउने . मेथी कालो भएपछि जिम्बु हाल्ने त्यो कालो भएसम्म फुराउने . त्यसमा सानो पारेर काटेको भेडे खुर्सानी हालेर भुट्ने अघिको आलुमा मिसाउने . कागतीको रस पानि बिस्तारै हाल्दै मुछ्ने लेदो पार्दै जाने . बाक्लो लेदो पार्नको निम्ति कुनै कुनै आलुको टुक्रालाई मिचिदिने . अलिकति धानियको पात छर्किदिनेर त्यसपछि आलुको अचार तयार हुन्छ .

This is a guest post by Sujaya Neupane and his mother, Sunita Neupane. Sujaya Neupane is a graduate student in neuroscience at McGill University.