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From momos to mangoes: a taste of Nepal with MasterChef finalist Santosh Shah

Chef Santosh Shah discusses the flavours, ingredients and dishes of his homeland.

By Santosh Shah
Published 7 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 7 Feb 2022, 10:28 GMT
Kukhura ko momo (steamed chicken momos with ginger and chilli), served with a tomato sesame chutney.

Kukhura ko momo (steamed chicken momos with ginger and chilli), served with a tomato sesame chutney.

Photograph by Matt Russell

For a country that only extends about 550 miles from west to east and roughly 125 miles from north to south, Nepal has a unique geographical structure. In the high Himalayas, small farming communities grow crops and raise livestock using the inherited knowledge of their ancestors. In the temperate climate of the high hills, we grow cabbages, root vegetables and greens, while the subtropical middle hills have the perfect climate for citrus, peaches, apples, tomatoes and aubergines. 

Further south, in the tropical Terai, you’ll find mangoes, papayas, bananas, passion fruit, avocados, sugar cane and rice paddies. The tropical and subtropical areas rely on the summer monsoon to grow crops, but the start, length and amount of rainfall during the monsoon is different every year. This is one of the reasons why we rely on fermentation, in order to save the crops and extend our supplies throughout the long winters. 

Our most famous preserve, gundruk, is made with green leaves, often from radish or mustard plants, fermented and dried. It keeps for many months and is used throughout the winter in soups, stews and pickles. Knowledge of what’s good for you, and the use of herbs and spices to nurture the body, is integrated into Nepali cooking and follows ayurvedic and Chinese medicinal traditions.

My joy as a chef comes from playing with flavours and reinventing traditional recipes without losing their essence. Take, for example, jimbu, a wild garlic leaf that grows on the pastures of the Himalayan plateaus. It’s mainly used as tempering, heated in hot oil, to drizzle over lentil stews, but it can be used in other ways: dehydrated and reduced to powder, it brings the flavour of a marinade to a whole new level.

This is an edited extract from Ayla: A Feast of Nepali Dishes from Terai, Hills and the Himalayas, by Santosh Shah, published by DK, £20.  

Santosh Shah is a chef, author and former finalist on MasterChef: The Professionals.

Photograph by Matt Russell

Three must-try dishes

These steamed dumplings are filled with meat (buffalo was common when I was a child) or vegetables and are an all-day dish. When accompanied by a broth, they’re called jhol momos.

Sun-dried meat, either buffalo or goat, is a speciality of the mountains, eaten either as a snack or as a main meal with rice flakes and puffed rice.

Wild boar curry 
This traditional dish is difficult to source these days as it’s become harder to hunt wild boar, but it’s delicious, made with onion, garlic, ginger and slow-cooked boar.

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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