Welcome to eastern Nepal. Now let’s eat.Newar food might be considered one of Nepal’s most distinct cuisines, but Limbu and Rai food are equally diverse and exciting
Wild lichen, chicken feathers, pork blood and stinky soybeans—there is so much more to eastern Nepali cuisine than tongba and barbecued pork. Despite pork and millet beer being delicious in their own right, the Limbu ansd Rai communities have a rich culinary heritage that is far more eclectic and adventurous than pigs and millet grog.
Eastern cuisine uses wild ingredients, curious cooking methods and cunning fermentation to create a very distinct set of flavours. When it comes to finding this cuisine in the valley, however, it’s relatively slim pickings. The food can mostly be found in Nakhipot, where many Limbu and Rai families have settled—both cuisines while distinct, share some similarities—but Limbu cuisine has generally been reserved for households.
Local eateries pour litres of tongba and equal amounts of smokey grilled pork sekuwa, but there are plenty of other dishes worth asking for.
Two distinctive ingredients that these communities are known for are yangben, a wild lichen found on trees in the eastern jungles, and kinema, fermented soybeans. Both these curious things are hard to find in Kathmandu, generally requiring one to ‘know a guy’. However, if you’re lucky, you can find yangben being sold at some shops in bags for about Rs 300.
At the Tareba Khaja Ghar in Nakhipot, the brother-sister duo of Ithang Limbu and Manu Hangma Limbu is among a small group of cooks bringing their cultural cuisine from Taplejung to Kathmandu.
Ithang, considered a great Limbu chef within the community, was always fascinated with food. Among the dishes that are most popular is sargemba, a blood sausage, which is a specialty of their restaurant. At this Limbu khaja ghar, patrons prefer their sausage sliced and sizzled, served alongside a prickly timmur-chilli sauce. The nuances of Limbu cuisine cannot be described in one dish, however; there are many different dishes that make up this unsung cuisine.
The Tareba Khaja Ghar opened four years ago and now has swathes of loyal customers frequenting their restaurant for tongba and sekuwa—their two most popular dishes—but they cooked the Post some delights they think everyone should seek out.
Fermented soy beans, most often white, are boiled and crushed before being wrapped in leaves to sit for a few days. This ferments and becomes an extremely smelly and sour mixture—its stench is akin to the durian fruit’s strength. Kinema is most often used as an ingredient in tarkari, curry, soup and achar. The potent mixture takes a few tastes to get used to, for the uninitiated game enough to try. But its even divisive within the Limbu and Rai communities themselves.
Plucked off trees throughout Nepal’s eastern jungles, this wild lichen is traditionally cleaned and boiled ingeniously with charcoal. Once dried, it becomes a seaweed-like substance and turns from mossy grey to black, with the spindly tufts resembling gundruk. And like that ubiquitous Nepali favourite, yangben is steeped in warm water before cooking. The taste is resoundingly bitter, compared to gundruk’s fermented flavour, but it mellows when cooked and has a slight mushroomy aroma. It finds its way into several dishes, such as pork and yangben curry, and sargemba sausage.
It’s typically a difficult and expensive find in the city’s capital, costing about Rs 300 per bag. That’s because finding the fungus is difficult to find and takes a shrewd eye, given it only grows on three trees and looks similar to other slightly intoxicating varieties of lichen.
The yangben is also used for a rich pork dish that is stewed in its own blood. This yangben and blood curry follows a quintessential spice mix to start, but the later addition of blood makes for a distinctly rich dish. When cooked, the blood turns the dish almost black, and the slightly bitter addition of yangben balances it out.
Dharane kalo bangur
To be properly introduced to Limbu or Rai cuisine, one must understand how important the pig is—specifically black porkers from the south-east. Hailing from Dharan, these pigs are as well-known for their flavour as their cultural and religious importance to the Limbu community. Pigs are used as prasad, as well as traditionally for bride prices. So it’s only natural that pigs find their way into many dishes, in the form of blood, offal or meat—or all together.
Sargemba is one of the better-known dishes in Limbu cuisine. The sausage is a potent mixture of pork blood, meat, offal and spices, like English black pudding. Rice can also added as a filler, depending on who makes it, like Korean soondae. The sausage is typically boiled, to cook and solidify the blood, before being hung for later use. While the patrons of the Tareba Khaja Ghar prefer theirs fried, it’s not uncommon for members of the Limbu community to have it freshly boiled and served with a spicy achar. In Rai communities, there is a similar sausage that comes under several monikers.
Sisnu ko tarkari and philinge ko achar
Stinging nettle, or sisnu, tarkari can often be found in the dal bhat of Limbu and Rai families, in lieu of lentils. While the harvest might prove difficult, the cooking of the saag is relatively straight forward. Boiled with cornflour, and sometimes okra, to thicken, the soup is later tempered with a mixture of garlic, timmur and chillies. The result is a somewhat bitter and spicy soup to be mixed with rice and achar. Alongside this dish, phillinge ko achar might be found—a nutty, salty and spicy mixture made up of niger seeds, dried chilli, garlic, and ginger. The addition of a super-strong lemon concentrate, a black tincture known as chuk amilo, helps give a rubble-like appearance and texture, while bitter spices chinming (Nepali hogweed) and khanukpa lend their distinct flavours.
The key ingredient in this dish is burnt chicken feathers, which lend a distinctly bitter flavour to the offal mixture. While the once-maligned nose-to-tail eating has become all the rage around the world, Limbu communities have been taking it further for a long time. Also popular in Rai communities, and often rolled out at special occasions, this dish starts with the plucking of a local chicken and burning of the softer feathers. Once collected, minced neck and skull, wings and legs of the chicken are added alongside other spices to create an achar. While it could be grim for some, the dish is slightly bitter and spicy with a distinct offal flavour and a unique texture thanks to the cartilage from the wings.