On The (Food) Trail to Everest – Exploring Nepal’s Culinary Scene
Anyone who has travelled to Nepal before will know that it is a very special place, whether you are visiting the metropolis of Kathmandu or trekking the ascending trail to the foot of the tallest mountain on the planet.
The latter was my calling to Nepal, a trek to Everest Base Camp in aid of MS Ireland. I signed up for the 18-day round-trip with Earth’s Edge – an Irish adventure travel company, who specialise in trekking expeditions to some of the world’s tallest peaks and mountain ranges.
The reason behind my trip was to take on a personal challenge of greater magnitude, but to also raise money for a charity that is close to my heart, having been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis six years ago.
Earth’s Edge is the only fully licensed and bonded adventure travel company in Ireland, meaning greater security for its customers, and they also always send a doctor on all expeditions, which is worth noting as it gives you more peace of mind when undertaking an adventure holiday with higher risk, especially if you are going solo.
They also have a Responsible Travel Policy, stating economic, environmental and social guidelines that they adhere to in the countries they visit, such as using locally run hotels and guest houses where possible instead of multi-nationals, ensuring local customs and traditions are respected and operating a strict ‘Leave No Trace’ policy.
Before booking any type of international trek, it is worth checking the policies of the company you book with to ensure they are respectful of the people and country you’ll be visiting. Always check the terms and conditions too; they are provided to ensure the company is covered and to put in black and white what is included in your trip. You don’t want any extra surprises while you are away, especially if on a budget. Ensure you feel secure before you head off and read the fine print!
Nepalese cuisine is as diverse as the people, both having strong connections to its closest geographical companions India, Tibet and China.
The main staple diet of most Nepali people is Dal Bhat, translated it means lentils, rice and curried vegetable and is mostly eaten using their fingers.
A meal of those three ingredients is generally eaten twice a day. Other common ingredients used are potatoes – particularly popular within the Newar communities in the Himalayas – tomatoes, cumin, coriander, chilies, peppers, garlic and mustard oil. Yoghurt (dahi) is eaten as a side dish or as an ingredient in drinks (Lassi) and desserts (Sikarni).
My journey and food trail started in Kathmandu. The metropolis is a chaotic myriad of dusty streets filled with heavy traffic and a wonderful bombardment to senses of markets, people, music, food and animals.
Every day is a market day on the streets as they are filled with sellers of everything you’ll ever need and never wanted. Bargaining has to become your best skill quickly as everything is negotiable and haggling for the best price is the name of the game.
Traditional fishmongers and butchers can be found everywhere with fresh produce for sale. Cows are worshipped in Nepal, therefore their slaughter is forbidden and they do not eat beef. You’ll mostly find sheep (mutton), lamb and yak. They’ll cut meat to order or fillet fish as needed.
However as the meat and fish in these small kiosks is often not refrigerated and open to gusts of dust bellowing around the street from passing traffic, it is a bit of a gamble to buy from these sellers.
Similarly with fruit and vegetables, you’ll see people selling them everywhere; it’s a case of figuring out where the best quality and cleanest place is to buy it. As a safety precaution, it is advised not to eat anything raw, or peel any fruit.
There are good food markets in the city to check out including the 1905 Restaurant Farmers Market, the Yellow House Market, the Kalimati Fruits & Vegetable Market, and the Hotel Summit Organic Market.
At these markets you can stock up on fresh produce, fish, meat, local cheeses, organic produce, jams and other freshly made goodies.
Street food vendors is where you’ll really experience some of the best cooked local food, but you’ll have to traverse the small side streets in order to find the neighbourhood haunts. The best dishes to try are: Momos – small dumplings made from wheat flour, filled with meat or vegetables. You can get buff momos, which are round ones and usually filled with meat, while half moon momos indicate a vegetarian option; Samosas – an Indian snack which has found its way into Nepal, they will be served plain or with a yellow dal curry; Puris – are small crunchy shells made from a very thin deep-fried dough, stuffed with a potato and chickpea mix and can be filled with dal or a spicier version called pani puri; and Sekuwa – a kebab made from different kinds of meat cut into small pieces, seasoned with a red sauce, and grilled in a wood fire.
With so many visitors travelling to Nepal each year to trek the vast number of trails in the Himalayas and Kathmandu being the first stop, the people are very accustomed to tourism. The streets are filled with mountain equipment and clothing shops and you’ll also find restaurants of all descriptions, cuisines and budgets. In general, eating out in Kathmandu is not expensive. The currency rate is very favourable, which helps, but even the finest restaurants are really good value.
We found wine to be surprisingly expensive in restaurants, often costing between 3,000 Rupees (€25-30) for a bottle of an average new world wine that would cost half the price at home. Nepalese wine is far better value and there are some great choices with brands like Hinwa, Divine and Dandaghere producing some delicious wines.
A traditional Newari and Nepali restaurant in the middle of the tourist area of Thamel that has a fantastic open courtyard dining area.
A tasting menu here will give you a true sense of the authentic style of dishes such as blackened soy beans, dal bhat and a mixture of mutton, wild boar and chicken curries.
Third Eye Restaurant
Here you’ll get authentic Indian food at its best with stellar service. There’s also a nice roof terrace area, perfect for balmy nights.
Fire and Ice Pizzeria
Sometimes you just can’t beat a really good pizza and that’s exactly what you get in Fire and Ice. Quality ingredients, either local or the best imported Italian, are used to top off freshly made bases.
Located in the Garden of Dreams, an oasis in the heart of the Thamel district of the city, this café/restaurant offers a good selection of Nepalese and western dishes.
You’ll have to pay the garden’s admission fee to eat here, but it’s well worth it. It’s so tranquil and clean and the gardens are very pretty. Plus you can watch monkeys play in nearby trees while you eat.
This restaurant is located in a stunning 150-year-old mansion house. Worth visiting for the venue alone, the food is also remarkable. It serves traditional Newari food, which means food from the Kathmandu Valley and can include Chatamari, a sort of pizza made from lentils and chilli and served without cheese, and Choila, a roasted or grilled spicy meat.
A definite plus of taking part in a trek like this – other than the obvious: breath-taking scenery, the beautiful Nepalese people, meeting friends for life, oh and it being the trip of a lifetime – is that you get to eat all the food.
As you are burning lots of energy (5,000 calories) walking for 6-7 hours a day at high altitude, you need to eat lots of food to keep your body stocked up for your daily hike. Music to my ears!
The thing to remember while winding your way up the week-long path to Everest Base Camp is that any food you see that can’t be grown up there has to be carried up, any drinks too, normally by a local porter who can carry up to 90kg strapped onto his head, to his back, or on the back of a yak.
Due to harsh soil and weather conditions in the mountains, growing vegetables is a hard job. Root vegetables such as carrots, onions, cabbage and turnip are commonly grown. Plus corn and fruit in sunnier, lower-down villages. Vegetables are pickled and dried as methods of preservation.
Needless to say there are no fridges or freezers as the journey would be too treacherous to be carried up and also an expensive investment.
The guest ‘tea houses’ or lodges line the trail and have become a popular business for local people, maximizing on the busy trade it experiences. The same menu is repetitively dished out in most lodges, a mix of Nepalese, Chinese, Indian and western cuisine and by all accounts there is an extensive range of food offered. Kitchens are small, often with just one or two camping-style gas cookers to cook dinner for a crowded lodge. It is very impressive how they manage.
All of the food is wholesome and tasty and when you are tired after a long-day walking, you are very appreciative for hot, homemade food. Dishes like Dal Bhat, Yak Sizzlers (yak steak on a hot stone with pepper sauce, served with veg and rice or chips), Vegetable Egg Fried Rice and Chicken Noodles became firm favourites. You’ll also see garlic soup everywhere as they say it helps your system adjust to altitude.
Surprisingly, microbreweries and independent coffee houses are also ventures that have begun to pop-up. The trail has always been famous for German bakeries and they don’t disappoint. There are many that you will come across offering great coffee and freshly baked treats like cinnamon rolls.
Himalayan Sherpa Coffee is the first coffee roaster at high altitude, an independent coffee house in the village of Cheplung (2,660 metres). Providing organic Nepali coffee sourced from west Nepal, they roast it themselves onsite.
You can enjoy a brew outside on the terrace looking at the amazing views or buy a bag of coffee beans or ground coffee to takeaway.
Another more recent independent drinks company is the Sherpa Brewery, the first producer of craft beer in Nepal and presently they have one beer – Khumbu Kolsch. Unlike most beers in Nepal, it is brewed with ale yeast, providing more complex flavours.
Other beers produced by larger breweries include Gorkha, Nepal Ice, and the aptly named, Everest Beer. Not that I am encouraging drinking at altitude – nobody wants to experience a hangover at 5,000metres! However, after twelve days trekking and achieving Everest Base Camp with your group, a toast will definitely be in order.
Dee likes to describe herself as a professional eater! Taught to cook by her father and sisters at a young age, starting a life-long passion for cooking and the enjoyment of food. Soon after qualifying as a journalist, she began a career writing about food and travel.
Her passion for Irish food and the people behind it – those who grow, produce and cook – has only been amplified over the years and led her to many roles in the industry including; member of Irish Food Writers’ Guild, chair of Slow Food Dublin, organiser of Slow in the City food festival, curator of Food on Board at Body&Soul Festival, and a judge of Blas na hEireann and Food&Wine Magazine Restaurant Awards.