The traditional Nepali diet reflects our rich culture and tradition. It is also a culmination of diverse ethnicity and varied geography within our small country. Nutritional richness is another attribute of the traditional diet that deserves to be recognized, appreciated and promoted.
Nepalis have thrived upon this diet for hundreds of years. Without it, most Nepalis still say they have not had a proper meal! Nutritional properties of our traditional foods impart warm comfort and a sense of satisfaction.
Let us delve into what makes a traditional Nepali diet so nutritious.
Wholesome and balanced ingredients from all food groups form the basis. Food is prepared from scratch and stays close to its original form when ready. Dal-bhat-tarkaari (rice or substitute-lentil soup-vegetables), also referred as the national dish, is one example. Ethnic and regional variations are also goldmines for nutrition, like Newari, Thakali and Madhesi cuisines... just to name a few.
Wholegrains like rice, wheat and maize are among the traditional staples. Millet (kodo), buckwheat (fapar) and barley (jau) are some other traditional and more nutritious cereals that must be promoted.Different types of porridge cooked with water (dhido) and unleavened flatbread (roti) provide delicious and wholesome carbohydrates. Sadly, the practice of refining which results in polished white rice and white flour (maida) has proliferated. Valuable fiber, vitamins and minerals are lost as a result. Simple reversal of this trend would help to enrich the current diet. Nutrient rich potato, sweet potato and yams (tarul, pidaalu) have also been in the dietary tradition.
The practice of combining lentils and cereals is nutritionally smart and complementary. Different dals are prepared from a wide array of pulses and legumes. They are rich in dietary fiber, minerals such as iron and zinc and sustainable plant-based protein. Their benefits to health as well as the environment are increasingly being recognized and promoted globally.
Colorful vegetables of all kinds are integral to the Nepali diet. The extensive green leafy range is hardly found elsewhere: rayo, tori, chamsur-paalungo, bethe, latte, lude, methi, karkalo, sisnu, munta (pumpkin and other squash shoots), etc. Wide varieties of seasonal vegetables and fruits reflect the rich biodiversity. They are perennial sources of essential micronutrients and protective phytonutrients.
Meat curries (goat, sheep, chicken, buffalo and pork) are side dishes and traditionally eaten less frequently. This jives well with the growing ‘eat less meat’ wisdom. Fish curries, consumed more commonly in the tarai, as well as eggs need to be further promoted in view of their nutritional benefits.
Fresh home-made yoghurt (dahi) and buttermilk (mahi) are traditional fermented foods. They are rich in beneficial lactic acid bacteria, protein, B vitamins and calcium. Sikarni is a delicious and healthy yogurt-based dessert mixed with spices and fruits.
Pickles (achar) on the side not only tantalise the taste buds but also outweigh commercial sauces in nutrients. They are either freshly made or preserved combining vegetables and oilseeds (sesame, flaxseed, mustard, silam, etc.) and spices. Raw herbs such as green coriander or mints in fresh pickles provide protective phytonutrients too. Preserved pickles have probiotic properties due to lacto-fermentation, a natural microbial process using beneficial bacteria. Besides, tangy curries are also made of similarly preserved foods: fermented green vegetables (gundruk) and bamboo shoots (tama) cooked with potato and legumes are rich in protein, fiber and vitamins. Overall, the traditional food preservation techniques have been all natural using sun, water, air and soil.
Many other traditional dishes have embraced optimal nutritional practices. Kwati, eaten as scrumptious gravy or soup, is a mixture of many pulses and legumes, soaked and sprouted before cooking. This age old technique enhances taste and ‘bioavailability,’ i.e., nutrition absorption by the body.
Lito/saatu, a mix of different cereals, pulses and nuts, is another food with high nutrient quotient. Roasted, grinded and eaten with milk, it is a nutritious option for all ages. Likewise, jaulo/khichadi is a porridge of rice, pulses and vegetables. It has been a warm and classic comfort food.
Momos are mouth-watering meat or vegetable dumplings with a Nepali twist. It is accompanied by healthy dips (achar) made from tomato, oil seeds and nuts. Use of whole wheat flour (aata) will make this much loved dish more nutritious.
Different vegetable oils (mustard, soybean, sesame, sunflower, etc.) used in food preparation are sources of healthy unsaturated fats. Functional foods and spices that heal and protect the body are key ingredients: fenugreek, ajwain, fennel, turmeric, cumin, coriander, chilli, black pepper, clove, cardamom ginger, garlic, cinnamon, licorice, mustard, etc. Their antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties are increasingly being realized.
Nepali festivals revolve around nutritious and delicious foods that are in season or recently harvested. Sweet treats like tilko laddu, selroti, anarasa and yomari are superb culinary art. Traditionally, they used whole grains, oilseeds and nuts, ghee or vegetable oils, and jaggery or molasses (sakhhar/gund or khudo). Unfortunately, those better ingredients have been replaced by refined flour, sugar and hydrogenated fat (dalda). The old nutritious ways need to make a trendy come back.
Despite so much wisdom, the full potential of the Nepali diet has not been harnessed. On one hand a large segment of the population endure lack of physical and economic access and on the other hand, many utilization practices have been below optimal. Traditional nutritional wisdom are being diluted and replaced with unhealthy practices even among those with relatively better socio-economic status. If availed, promoted and utilized properly, the diet has the ability to keep under-nutrition as well as overweight/obesity and present-day lifestyle diseases at bay.
Traditional Nepali diet delivers a variety of taste, wholesome nourishment and confers protection from diseases. The time-honored knowledge, skills and practices need to be preserved. They should be handed down to the coming generations and passed around within the country, and by the Nepali diaspora around the world.