Unique Spices of Nepal
Unique Spices, unique preparations
Nepalese food is famous for its nutritional value and exquisite taste. In preparation of food, Nepalese people make extensive use of spices such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, cilantro – the leaf of the coriander plant, pepper, timmur – a unique Himalayan pepper, cumin, chilies, and mustard.
The interesting mixtures of spices and their methods of preparation is unique to Nepal, handed down through generations.
Until the latter half of the 20th century (when Nepal was first opened to the rest of the world) there was very little culinary influence from abroad. Since then however, there has been a continuous influx of peoples, bringing with them new recipes, traditions, and culinary preparations.
Perhaps one of the more conspicuous groups of émigrés are the American draft dodgers and hippies who brought their culture and culinary traditions which are still prominent in areas of Kathmandu like Thamel.
Today in the Kathmandu valley there is a considerable degree of culinary diversity, unlike much of rural Nepal which is still quite inaccessible, and getting there may require a couple of days trek from the nearest pliable road. To a great extent the rural Nepalese have maintained their unique cooking traditions and recipes, because of their isolation.
For a Nepali expatriate returning to his or her village from abroad, there is nothing like a simple home prepared meal of Nepali daal-bhaat (rice and daal) cooked in a taulo (Nepali wak) over a wood stoked chulha, and washed down with a kahadi (steel glass) of spice laden Nepali chia.
Many spices used in Nepal are either unique to Nepal or known and used differently from their counterparts in other spice growing regions. There are probably a dozen or more unique variations of spices and unique preparations of spices available in Nepal.
A few of the best known variations are as follows:
Timmur is a “pepper” which grows wild in Nepal and is commonly thought to be a derivative of Sichuan pepper from China. Timmur can be found throughout the higher altitudes of Nepal and though it bears similarity to black peppercorns, it is not actually of the pepper family; it is the dried berry of a tree belonging to the prickly ash.
Timmur is one of those spices with an important cultural influence in Nepali, Tibetan, and Bhutanese cuisine, and also about 800 metric tonnes of timmur is exported (annually) to India.
Timmur is one of the few spices grown in the high altitudes of the Himalayas. It grows wild in immense quantities in in the Himalayan regions like Bajura and Myagdi where in season it is overly abundant. However in many mountainous villages, other than harvesting small quantities for their own families to use as flavoring for chutney, for making tea, or to grind and use with a mixture of masala, most of the timmur is left to waste.
The Spice Journal learned from a (summer 2013) visit to the Jadi Buti Association in Nepalgunj, that JABAN traders export about 800 metric tonnes of timmur annually to India, however the local village farmers feel that the export potential for timmur is much greater.
Considering that timmur has exceptional medicinal qualities, and is potentially a spice for use in the production of essential oils, villagers in Nepal are of the opinion that there is a significantly larger export market for timmur than JABAN is aware of, and the market would be better addressed in the form of essential oils distilled from timmur.
The villagers suggest that if a proper harvesting and marketing plan was implemented in Bajura, it would generate ample jobs and revenue to enhance the livelihood of the villages not only in Bajura, but the example could be used to harvest and process timmur in other districts where timmur is in abundance.
In that respect the farmers want the NGO’s (who are active in Nepal) to initiate a study of the timmur growth in the Bajura district, to ascertain the potential for harvestable quantities, and to define the export market potential.
The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) has undertaken a “One District One Product” study identifying various commodities and products available throughout Nepal for potential enhancement to a viable industry. The ODOP study has identified Myagdi as another district with potential for timmur harvesting and production.
Adhuwa (the Nepali version of the rhizome of the Ginger plant) is used for both culinary and medicinal purposes.
Ginger is cultivated throughout the world, but Adhuwa, grown at higher altitudes in the Himalayan region, is said to have a distinct flavour and aroma.
Adhuwa is more fibrous than its lowland kin and has a lower yield of oil and oleoresin which has discouraged the processing of Himalayan ginger oil by steam distillation; however because Nepal is a landlocked nation, export of fresh adhuwa to countries other than India, is extremely difficult and is generally not profitable. Although Nepal exports a large portion of its production volume of adhuwa, it is estimated that 99% of that amount is exported to India.
Of late it is encouraging for the Nepali farmers to learn that several NGO’s based in Nepal have recognized the need to search for a feasible means of exporting adhuwa to third countries. Accordingly distillation of the adhuwa rhizome into oil may someday become a profitable alternative to the export of fresh adhuwa.
Throughout Nepal there are approximately 20,000 hectares of arable land dedicated to growing adhuwa, resulting in annual production of about 255,000 metric tonnes. In fact Nepal is identified as the fourth largest producer of ginger in world after India, China, and Indonesia.
Terhathum, Palpa and Salyan are three districts in Nepal identified by the ODOP study of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) as the areas in Nepal best suited for adhuwa production.
Besaar (the Nepali variety of turmeric) is grown in higher altitudes of the Himalayan region, and like Adhuwa it is said to have a unique richness of flavor and aroma compared to turmeric cultivated elsewhere.
Nepali besaar is sought after worldwide, particularly by the Japanese, and it is ardently promoted by the worldwide Nepali diaspora as “the best in the world”.
As well as being used for culinary purposes, besaar is widely used as a medicinal ingredient in Ayurveda treatment. Ayurveda is a science of natural medicines followed religiously throughout the Indian sub-continent, including Nepal, and gradually being recognized and trusted throughout much of the world.
Besaar, like other varieties of turmeric, is a natural antiseptic and a medicinal plant. The use of besaar helps in digestion of food and it also reduces high cholesterol levels. In typical Nepali foods which are oil rich, the use of besaar off-sets some of the negative effects of consuming oily food.
In the Nepali kitchens, besaar is also used as a preservative. Many varieties of pickles, and fresh meat, are marinated in besaar powder to preserve them for later use.
Besaar has been used as an antiseptic from ancient times and has great healing power when it is applied as an ointment on cuts, wounds, and burns. Besaar ointment is also used to treat chicken pox and small pox.
In India, turmeric powder is used to make haldi paste made for brides and applied to their skin to make them look more fair and glowing. Similarly during Nepali weddings, besaar powder is used to make “bukra” paste which is applied to the bride’s skin helping her to look light and glowing and even more beautiful.
Besaar is not generally cultivated in Nepal as a cash crop, but many people in villages grow it for their daily consumption. In fact turmeric, a close kin of besaar, is imported to meet the bulk of day to day consumption in Nepal.
Besaar (and turmeric) belong to the ginger family, they are perennial plants which grow in tropical climates, so Nepal, India and other South Asian countries are major producers.
In Nepal approximately 4325 hectares of arable land is dedicated to growing besaar resulting in an annual production of approximately 35,500 metric tonnes.
Sunsari and Sarlahi are two districts in Nepal identified by the ODOP study sponsored by FNCCI as the areas in Nepal best suited for besaar production.
Elaichi (also known as Black Cardamom or Large Cardamom) is Nepal’s primary spice export crop. Elaichi is native to the Himalayan regions of Nepal and Sikkim and is a perennial cash crop often referred to as the “Queen of Spices”. In fact, after saffron and vanilla, cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world.
There are 16 varieties of cardamom worldwide; of these there are five varieties of black cardamom cultivated across Nepal and known as Ramsey, Golsey, Sawney, Chibesey, and Dammersey.
Due to the increased demand in the international market and favorable climatic conditions, cardamom has become a major cash crop for farmers in the mid-hills over the last two decades. At present, there is approximately 12,000 hectares of arable land in over 40 mid-hill regions that are under cardamom cultivation, resulting in an estimated annual production of 6,000 metric tonnes.
Cardamom oil is a precious ingredient in food preparations, perfume, health foods, medicines and beverages. It has an increasingly significant market potential in the international markets, primarily because of the growth in demand for plant-based cosmetics and flavours. However a large volume of Nepal’s export is in the form of fresh cardamom sold to the Indian and Pakistani traders.
Taplejung and Panchthar are two districts in Nepal identified by the ODOP study by FNCCI as the areas best suited for cardamom production.
Akhbare Khursani (also known as round chilli) is one of the hottest spices in the world.
It is grown and widely used in Nepal as flavoring for the preparation of daal and curries.
It is particularly popular for use during the cold winter months.
Akhbare Khursani is not a commercial crop in Nepal; instead it is generally grown in small quantities in home gardens.
Dalchini (also known as cinnamon) grows wild in the mid to high altitudes of Nepal. Although it is not harvested in commercial quantities, the inner bark is peeled from the tree and dried for family use. After it is thoroughly dried the bark is ground into powder and used as flavoring.
Sel-roti is the most common food preparation in which the Nepali families use dalchini. Sel-roti is traditional Nepali sweet bread, a “special treat” made from a mixture of rice flour, ghee, sugar, and dalchini. Cardamom can also be added for additional taste. The doughnut shaped sel-roti is deep fried and usually served hot for special occasions.
Used in this context, dalchini acts like a baking powder, it causes the sel-roti to swell and it keeps the body of the bread stuck together so it doesn’t disintegrate when it is deep fried. One Nepali connoisseur of sel-roti emphatically told The Spice Journal team that “we cannot make sel-roti without dalchini”.
The Spice Journal team was surprised to learn that cinnamon trees grow wild in Nepal, so we inquired about dalchini from Dr Prasad Paudyal, Senior Scientist at the Nepal Agriculture Research Council. Dr Paudyal confirmed that “some cinnamon trees” are found growing in the high altitudes of Nepal, and he emphasized that “these are real cinnamon trees, not cassia trees”.
Kaulo (also known as Cassia) is known as the “Tree of Paradise”.
Like dalchini, Kaulo grows wild throughout the Himalayan region along with, and among, the dalchini trees.
However unlike in India, the Nepalese people seldom use Kaulo as a spice.
Alas, the tree of paradise is harvested for firewood and the leaves and small branches are fed to the cows, goats, and buffalo.
Dhania (produced as a fruit) is dried and the seeds are ground into a powder.
It is used as a spice in a wide variety of foods, particularly with meat or chicken.
In Arabic countries, coriander in well-known and used as an aphrodisiac, however it appears that the Nepali people have not recognized that property in Dhania.
Coriander is also a spice used in Traditional medicines to bring down fever, and it also prevents infestations of stomach worms.
Hariyo Dania ko Paat (also known as Cilantro) is the leaf of the coriander plant and is used throughout Nepal in a variety of preparations.
Perhaps the Nepalese have not been aware of all of the benefits of coriander fruit, but they excel in their many uses of the coriander leaf.
Cilantro is used as a spice, typically by chopping the leaves into fine pieces and sprinkling the pieces over prepared dishes like daal and curry.
Cilantro is also cooked as a Nepali saag (like spinach) and served as a Tarkari (vegetable).
Probably the most common use of fresh cilantro in Nepal is for making chutney. The Nepalese grind the fresh leaves into a paste and mix it with tomatoes and chilli forming basic ingredients of chutney. They will also often add Jeera (cumin seeds) as an additional flavour.
Other spices are also grown, processed, and used, in Nepal, much like they are used in India and other parts of South Asia.
The spices mentioned in this article however are either unique to the Himalayan Republic, or they are uniquely prepared.
There are probably many more unique-to-Nepal preparations of spicy foods that remain unpublished. The Spice Journal will welcome your comments in this regard. Please log-on to Spice Stories and submit your suggestions or spice stories.
For information on other spices in Nepal, please see “About Spice”, click here.