How to do breakfast right in KathmanduBreakfast isn’t a meal in Kathmandu, traditionally speaking, it’s snack-time—tea and fried dough take precedence in the mornings.
Picking through fried gwara mari as the cook drops more onto the platter, early morning eaters around Patan look for the crispiest morsels to take back home to their families. With the fried dough wrapped in newspaper and stuffed into small red or blue plastic bags, these blurry-eyed folk are still waking up as they walk home. Others sit inside the smokey shops, looking into the distance over their cups of tea. It’s a familiar scene in all corners of Kathmandu Valley, as the cities wake up early, and slowly.
In a typical Nepali breakfast there is no morning bacon or eggs, no bowls of muesli and there is definitely no peanut butter on toast, rather a cup of tea takes priority. This is because Nepal doesn’t traditionally follow a three-meal-a-day schedule. Classically the first meal of the day is in mid-morning. The morning ritual rather revolves around freshly boiled and brewed chiya, with or without milk, with enough sugar to kickstart anyone’s heart. While tea is the cockle-warmer of choice these days, just a few generations ago people might have been seen taking a few pegs of aila as their morning elixir.
Most tea shops around the Valley have their own blend of chiya, some using cardamom or their own masala, and it is almost obligatory that some dunkable goods are on offer. Packaged pastries, doughnuts and cookies can be found in most tea shops, but it is worth seeking those serving freshly fried dough. On top of that, opting for two meals mainly consisting hefty plates of dal bhat constitutes enough carbohydrates to power any soul for 24 hours; western breakfast studies be damned.
In Patan, one of many Newar cuisine hubs, gwara mari dough balls are most prevalent, found alongside typically Newar jeri-swari and malpuwa, accompanied by sel roti—a not-so Newar snack that has found its way to Newar households. ‘Gwara’ translates as round, while ‘mari’ means bread in Nepal Basa, so it makes no specific promises; it is sometimes spiced with coriander, cumin or turmeric, or a combination of all three, and fried in a pool of simmering oil.
Hard to find after 9am, fry cooks sell these morning specific dough balls by the dozen. Gwara mari might resemble gnarly Yorkshire puddings for some, maybe fried bread for others, and one could probably classify them as a doughnut. Less vapid than doughnuts however, gwara maris are filling and without a doubt have enough sustenance for the wait until mid-morning. It’s best not to forget about the doughnut—pronounced “doo-nut”—which is also an extremely popular and more available morning bite. There are specific doughnut spots tucked into little shops around the valley, but many are sold at tea shops from the packet.
Alongside the endlessly replenished platters of gwara mari, one can find sel roti. These sweet rings of fried dough may look like the doughnut’s gaunt cousin, but their make-up is something quite different. The use of pounded rice and rice flour lends a glutinous interior and course exterior to the rings. It’s easy to spot people making them too, either by the high stacks of sel roti or by the way in which they are made—in a specific kadai with a raised centre, poured out of a cup with a small hole in the bottom. They are, despite being associated with special occasions, omnipresent in the Valley—not just in Patan—and are imbued with different spice combinations.
Then there’s jeri, familiar for those who have had Indian jalebi, which resembles the wire mandalas hawked around Thamel. Steeped in sugar syrup after frying, the sturdy dough gives way to gushing saccharine wave when chewed. While many might sandwich them in swari—fried, thin puris made from flour—to make a sort of jeri taco, they’re more than enough by themselves.
Finally, there are malpuwas, sweet and stodgy fried pancakes. Akin to a lumpy pillow with starched corners, the discs of batter’s edges are crispy while pockets of air fill the bready stodge inside.
It’s not just oil that bubbles early however, pressure cookers start hissing as the sun rises too. Many small shops will start selling early. Their mustard-coloured jhol tarkari, laden with legumes and potatoes; chana tarkari, sticky and stodgy black chickpeas cooked in spices and served with fresh red onion and coriander; and boiled and fried potatoes, mixed with a highlighter yellow mix of turmeric and other spices, lie waiting for ahead of the mid-morning rush. These are already prime for the taking, and can be found city-wide—not just in Patan.
While breakfast is not the most important meal of the day, or traditionally even a meal, the food available is enough to make one want to wake up for. Piping hot chiya paired with steaming oil-fried dough, sweet or savoury, is a great way to tide oneself over until the morning’s main meal.