Nepali food has been influenced by its two great neighbors, India and Tibet, but has many features unique to the landlocked nation. Many Tibetan dishes have found their way into daily life and have been absorbed into Nepali cuisine. Meanwhile, spiced curry is big in Nepali cuisine, although it tends to be much less creamy or oily than Indian curry. Vegetarianism is also not as common in Nepal as in India, although it's very easy to find vegetarian food (vegan less so). Here are 10 dishes you must try while traveling in Nepal.
Dal bhat is often said to be the de facto national dish of Nepal, and is a staple throughout the country. It's not one dish so much as a collection of dishes, which can be very simple or very elaborate, depending on where you buy it.
In its simplest form, dal bhat is lentil curry and rice ("dal" means lentil, and "bhat" means rice). Both grow well in the Nepali climate, and not just on commercial farms: Many landowning villagers will have a small patch of land where they grow their own rice, lentils, and other vegetables.
At most restaurants, you'll have the option to order your dal bhat with a chicken, mutton, buffalo, or vegetable curry. You'll sometimes be given a few different vegetable curries, but usually only one meat. It's generally served with a crispy papad, some pickles, a fresh chili pepper, salad of sliced cucumber and cabbage, and a plain yogurt.
Dal bhat is available practically everywhere in Nepal, and the vegetables or meat curries provided will differ depending on the region and the season. You can find cheap and simple dal bhat meals in basic canteens—but to enjoy a full cultural experience with all the trimmings, book a sit-down meal at the upmarket Krishnarpan Restaurant in the beautiful Dwarika's Hotel, near Pashupatinath in Kathmandu.
Somewhat similar to dal bhat but culturally distinct, samay baje is a Newari meal set that has ritual and religious significance. The Newars are the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, and much of the culture and architecture you see around central Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur is Newari. Their cuisine is distinct from other Nepali food as it tends to be much hotter and uses a different combination of spices, meats, vegetables, and pulses. It's quite popular with non-Newari Nepalis, and is widely available in low-key eateries throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Outside of the capital area, however, Newari food is not so easy to find.
Samay baje is served at Newari festivals and family gatherings. It usually consists of dried beaten rice rather than cooked rice, as well as various bean curries, dried soy beans, pickles, meat curries, and often a hardboiled and fried egg.
Being invited into a Newari home or to a festival is one way to try a samay bhaje meal, but elsewhere you can find it on many menus, usually named a "Newari set" or "Newari khaja." Newa Lahana in Kirtipur is one of the most famous and popular places that serves Newari food. People come from all over the Kathmandu Valley to try it—don't expect quick service, though!
Momos are rice-flour dumplings filled with minced vegetables or meat, then steamed, fried, or served in a spicy soup. Although they're technically Tibetan, they're a very popular snack among Nepalis of all ethnic backgrounds. And because Nepal, especially Kathmandu, is home to a large population of Tibetan refugees, they have become an important part of the country's cuisine.
Momos are usually quite small and served in plates of eight, 10, or 12, but you'll find variations on them in certain parts of the country. For example, in some higher-altitude places, the dumplings are much larger, similar to a British pasty. One restaurant in Patan, Ghangri Cafe, is known for its unusual open momos—they're not closed at the top, so you pour the accompanying sauce directly inside.
Be aware that momos are usually made fresh when you order them, so they can often take much longer to arrive than the rest of your meal. If you're in a hurry and the restaurant is busy, opt for something else!
Chatpate (also called chaat) is a popular snack throughout South Asia, and is usually sold at small carts and convenience stalls off the side of the road. It's made of a medley of crunchy and tasty ingredients, including popped rice, dried instant noodles, fresh coriander, tomato, cucumber, onion, potato, peas, lemon juice, and chili. It can be pretty spicy, so take note if you have sensitive tastebuds!
Gundruk is fermented and dried green vegetables, such as collard greens or the leaves of mustard, radish, cauliflower, or cabbage plants. In hilly and mountainous regions, it's prepared as a way of preserving vegetables that wouldn't otherwise be available throughout the year. Gundruk has a very savory—albeit acquired—taste, and the flavor depends on the types of produce used. It's often mixed with other vegetables in curries or soups, and may accompany dal bhat.
Juju dhau is a specialty of Bhaktapur, and no trip to the ancient city is complete without tasting some of the creamy yogurt. It's made with buffalo milk that's boiled and sweetened, then placed in a clay jar to warm. The clay jar absorbs the excess water, so the yogurt that's left is thick and creamy. While it's best tried in Bhaktapur, you can find juju dhau in various parts of the Kathmandu Valley. Look out for the small shops advertising "King Curd."
Sel roti are rings of rice batter that are deep fried and sweetened with sugar. They're best eaten hot as they tend to get tough once they cool. Although sel roti look somewhat like donuts or Indian jalebis, they're not nearly as sweet. The Nepali snack is always served during the festivals of Dashain and Tihaar, as well as at weddings and other celebrations. They can also be bought from street-side snack stalls at any time of year, particularly at breakfast time.
Thukpa is a noodle soup that originated from eastern Tibet and eastern Nepal. It consists of noodles, thinly sliced vegetables like carrots and spring onions, spices, and sometimes eggs. Thukpa is available throughout the country, mainly in lower-cost and mid-range cafés, and is almost always served in teahouses on trekking routes. As it's very warming, it's most welcome on a cold Kathmandu winter's day, or after a few hours of hiking in the mountains.
If you're looking for a hearty way to start the day before embarking on a trek, see if Tibetan bread is on the menu. In areas with ethnically Tibetan populations, such as the Everest region, it should be. It's a type of round flatbread that is soft on the inside and crispy on the outside, and best served warm. Often slightly sweet, Tibetan bread can be eaten plain or with butter, eggs, or honey. (You can even have it with peanut butter at some teahouses!) It's not commonly found outside of Tibetan areas, but you may find it on breakfast menus in some hotels in Boudha, Kathmandu's Tibetan enclave.
Yomari are a Newari treat that get their very own festival, Yomari Punhi in December. These pointed, vaguely fish-shaped dumplings are made from rice flour and filled with either black molasses or white coconut, condensed milk, and a sesame seed paste. While they're sometimes served with savory curries, they're nicely sweet themselves.
Run by local women, The Village Cafe on Pulchowk Road in Patan does great yomari, either alone or as part of a set. You can also find yomari in the bread section of local supermarket chain Bhat Bhateni; although they're best served fresh, they make for an excellent picnic snack.