Travel

Explore Nepal Through Its Cuisine with These Cooking Classes

From dal bhat to momos, Nepal's food tells the story of its people.

Tanya Yatsenko/Shutterstock
Tanya Yatsenko/Shutterstock
Tanya Yatsenko/Shutterstock

The side-by-side staples of dal (lentil soup made from black or yellow lentils) and bhat (rice) are a way of life in Nepal. Eaten daily and prized for its fortifying, nutritious powers, dal bhat is so widespread and beloved that the tourist stores showcase T-shirts sporting the phrase “Dal bhat power 24 hour,” a trekking catchphrase that speaks to the reason many choose to visit the mountainous country.

Nepal’s innate appeal for tourists is the vast scale of its rugged wilderness, the jagged crown of the planet adorned with the Himalayas and its ultimate apex, Mount Everest. Whether you aim to traverse these mountains, embark on less harrowing treks across the country, or simply enjoy the astonishing views of it all, you’ll need to be well fueled for your journey-and that’s where the dal bhat comes in.

Nepali food is ideal for trekkers, but it’s also complex and flavorful. And the best way to learn more about the local cuisine isn’t just by eating it, but by getting hands-on and learning how to make it. This gives you the opportunity to not only explore traditional dishes and seasonings, but also to hear from the local cooks themselves, giving important human and cultural context to the food. From vegetable curry to momos, the experience of eating is enriched by learning from the people for whom these dishes are a part of daily life.

If you’re ready to taste what Nepal has to offer, get your hands dirty with cooking classes in Kathmandu and Pokhara, then eat your way around the country with your newfound culinary knowledge. Wherever you go, it’s sure to be delicious.

Seven Women
Seven Women
Seven Women

Cook Nepali staples in Kathmandu

The Nepali capital is home to Seven Women, a foundation dedicated to empowering marginalized women through education, job and skills training, and employment. Visitors can sign up for a cooking class led by some of the women from the foundation, an opportunity I was able to experience as part of an Intrepid Travel itinerary.

On the cooking class menu were half a dozen local specialties, including the ubiquitous aforementioned staples of Nepali cuisine: dal bhat. The two dishes are often served with a collection of accompaniments including assorted vegetables, chutneys, sometimes a meat or two, and papadum.

Photo by Jake Emen
Photo by Jake Emen
Photo by Jake Emen

“When we eat other dishes, it doesn’t satisfy our hunger as completely as dal bhat, which really does last for 24 hours,” says Ram Hari Phuyal, an Intrepid Travel guide. “In our community, rice and beans are common crops, and they play an important role. Dal bhat is also served during many of our major festivals and rituals, such as the rice feeding ceremony for infants at six months old.”

In addition to dal bhat, we made spiced rice pudding and other favourites such as achar (a tomato pickle condiment), vegetable curry, and fried potatoes, all graced with a combination of Nepali seasonings such as garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, chilli, turmeric, and fenugreek. Those same flavour threads can be picked up from one dish to the next and ensure that regardless of how you mix and match, everything tends to go together well.

Photo by Jake Emen
Photo by Jake Emen
Photo by Jake Emen

Master momos in Pokhara

Continue your culinary adventures with a trip to Pokhara, where you can enroll in a momo cooking class. I took a class at Tashiling Tibetan Refugee Camp (another inclusion via Intrepid Travel, which would need to be arranged via a tour operator with direct access and contacts if you wish to replicate my experience). Alternatively, you could sign up for a Nepalese-style momo cooking class with the popular Cook with Delight, and tack on a Tibetan cultural tour through Airbnb Experiences to learn more about Tibetan communities in Pokhara.

During my time at Tashiling, I learned the art of the traditional Tibetan dumpling that has become omnipresent in Nepal. Momos are steamed, thick-skinned dumplings, and can be stuffed with chicken, buffalo, vegetables, or pork. They can also be served in assorted ways; jhol momos, for instance, are served in a soupy, bright orange chilli sauce.

Ezume Images/Shutterstock
Ezume Images/Shutterstock
Ezume Images/Shutterstock

Tashiling itself is a village with about 500 residents, a museum, and a handmade rug store. That’s in addition to small vendors and entrepreneurial endeavours, such as Dolma’s cooking class, which she runs from her home. Dolma’s family fled Tibet more than 60 years ago, and she was born and raised in the camp. It’s the only residence she’s ever known, and without Nepali citizenship or proper papers for work and travel, there’s little-if any-opportunity to create a life beyond it. Dolma is eager to discuss her life and meet with curious travellers, and I found that learning about her story, and Tashiling itself, proved to be fundamental to understanding the saga of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.

At Dolma’s home, we sampled Tibetan yak butter tea and feasted on vegetable and potato momos Dolma made in advance of our arrival. We also prepared our own chicken momos, preparing the filling, rolling out and shaping the dough, and then stuffing and folding each individual dumpling into its proper shape and size. It’s easier said than done, though I eventually earned favour with my dumpling pleating after watching the specific thumb and finger pinching technique Dolma applied.

Bhojan Bhumi Pvt. Ltd.
Bhojan Bhumi Pvt. Ltd.
Bhojan Bhumi Pvt. Ltd.

Taste Nepali foods across the country

Beyond hands-on cooking classes, there are plenty of other eating experiences worth seeking out in Nepal. While the previously mentioned staple dishes can be found across the country, expect to discover regional and cultural variation in dishes and flavours. “There are 23 major ethnic groups in Nepal, who have their own dialects, tradition and culture,” Phuyal explains.
When it comes to eating, Phuyal particularly enjoys Newari staples such as buffalo with beaten rice and achar. Two areas with an abundance of restaurants serving Newari food include Patan and Bhaktapur, each within striking distance of Kathmandu.

Bhojan Bhumi Pvt. Ltd.
Bhojan Bhumi Pvt. Ltd.
Bhojan Bhumi Pvt. Ltd.

In the capital itself, consider a visit to Bhojan Bhumi, a restaurant specializing in authentic Nepali eats in the Thamel neighbourhood. Stuff yourself with-what else-dal bhat and momos, enjoy pours of raksi (a distilled rice spirit), and take in a lively dinner performance. “It’s a great introduction to Nepali food and culture through traditional dances,” Phuyal says. “The dresses and jewellery worn by the dancers represent their diverse ethnicity.”

Much like the food, he explains, the performance is “an opportunity to learn about people and culture.”

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Jake Emen is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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