Nepalese cuisine is less well known internationally than its Indian neighbor and while there are many similarities between the two, Nepal also has its own unique ingredients and flavors. Locally grown spices include ginger, mustard seed, nutmeg, mace cardamom, and chilies. Heat is often in the form of timur, a berry akin to a Sichuan pepper. Jimbu and chhyapi are both in the allium family and fall somewhere between an onion and a chive [i].
As in India, dal is a cornerstone of the cuisine, although the dish is often thinner in consistency as compared with Indian versions [i]. With this Nepalese Lentil Soup, the use of warming spices like garam masala, cumin, and turmeric, and alliums of garlic, onion, and the Nepalese jimbu, provide richness of flavor without the use of salt. This is aided using asafetida powder, which, like salt, tends to enhance the flavors it is cooked with [ii]. This salt-free recipe makes it ideal for those looking to lower blood pressure and decrease risk of stroke and heart disease [iii]. Additionally, the ingredients that are used have a host of health benefits unto themselves.
Turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, largely due to the presence of curcumin. This may help manage oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, diabetes and hyperlipidemia. It may also help manage exercise-induced inflammation and muscle soreness [iv, v].
Alliums, here in the form of yellow onion, garlic, and jimbu, contain high levels of flavonoids, which have shown antioxidant, anticancer, hypolipidemic, anti-diabetic, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and antimicrobial activities [vi].
Ginger is known to help relieve nausea. It can also alleviate inflammation, and there is evidence to suggest it could help hypertension, blood cholesterol, blood glucose, and potentially have a role in cancer prevention [vii].
In addition to ayurvedic usages of cumin as a digestive aid and as a reducing agent for hypertension, there is preliminary evidence that cumin may also improve blood glucose and lipid levels associated with diabetes and cardiovascular disease [viii].
And at the heart of the dish, our lentil base is an excellent plant source of protein, iron, folate, and fiber [ix].
Between the soft consistency and therapeutic ingredients, this dish is soothing at every point of the digestive process and provides powerful health benefits all along the way.
Nepalese Lentil Soup
Adapted from a recipe by Rachana Rimal from the cookbook The Kitchen Without Borders
Note: Some of these ingredients might not be readily available at every grocery store. If you have a local market that specializes in international ingredients, head there. And for the harder to find items, asterisks indicate substitution options listed below the recipe. Additionally, you can increasingly find a wide variety of international ingredients online. If you like this recipe or just want to do more cooking from around the world, you can check out foodsofnation.com, snukfoods.com, and tropicalappetit.com.
- 3 tablespoons ghee * (see note, below)
- 1 tablespoon jimbu * (see note, below)
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 bird’s-eye chile, minced * (see note, below)
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 cup diced plum tomatoes, canned or fresh
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon garam masala * (see note, below)
- 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
- 1 pinch asafetida powder * (see note, below)
- 1 cup red lentils
- Yogurt (optional)
- Cilantro (optional)
- Melt the ghee in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the jimbu and let it crisp for a few seconds. Then add the onion, ginger, garlic, chile and cumin seeds. Sauté until the onions and chile are tender, about 5 minutes.
- Lower the heat slightly and stir in the tomato, and remainder of the spices. Stir together and allow the spices to become fragrant and form a paste texture.
- Add 3 ½ – 4 cups of water quickly stir to deglaze the pot.
- Stir in the lentils and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered until lentils are tender (about 25-30 minutes).
NOTE: You can easily substitute a different lentil in this recipe. The only difference would be in cook time. Black and green lentils might need longer.
- Optional: Use an immersion blender to fully or partially puree.
- Serve with a dollop of yogurt for an additional protein boost and creamy taste. And a sprinkle of cilantro for garnish.
Asafetida powder: This is a unique flavor. It has a pungent, almost sulfur-like aroma but when cooked in a dish, adds a umami flavor, and punches up the other spices. While there isn’t an easy substitute, if you can’t find it, feel free to just leave it out. If you want to use it next time, you can order it from amazon.com.
Bird’s Eye Chile: Also known as a thai chile or piri piri. Substitute for either a fresh serrano pepper (which is a slightly lower heat but close), or ½ teaspoon of dried cayenne pepper.
Garam Masala: This is a spice blend that generally contains coriander, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, and mace. If you can’t find the blend, you can add about a ½ teaspoon of each individually. If you don’t have them all, you can easily omit some and it will not greatly affect overall flavor. You can up the quantities of the other spices a bit as well.
Ghee: This is a type of clarified butter used in a lot of Southeast Asian cooking. It has a higher smoke point than traditional butter. If you can’t find it in your grocery store, you can make it by melting butter and removing the milk solids and then straining. Or, in a pinch, you can use coconut oil instead.
Jimbu: As mentioned above, jimbu is a cornerstone of Nepalese cuisine. If you can’t find, you can look for other dried alliums like chives or wild garlic.
[i] Sen, Colleen Taylor. “Nepal.” Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, edited by Ken Albala, vol. 3: Asia and Oceania, Greenwood, 2011, pp. 185-191. Gale eBooks, link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX1513300117/GVRL?u=lehman_main&sid=bookmark-GVRL&xid=fe178a01. Accessed 28 Nov. 2021.
[ii] Krishna, Priya. Asafetida Is the Spice That Makes My Indian Food Taste, Well, Indian. Bon Appetite. September 12, 2018. https://www.bonappetit.com/story/asafetida-indian-spice. Accessed November 28th, 2021
[iii] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2021, September 14th). Most People Consumer Too Much Salt. https://www.cdc.gov/salt/index.htm. Accessed November 28th, 2021.
[iv] Hewlings SJ, Kalman DS. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health. Foods. 2017;6(10):92. Published 2017 Oct 22. doi:10.3390/foods6100092
[v] Zhang DW, Fu M, Gao SH, Liu JL. Curcumin and diabetes: a systematic review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:636053. doi:10.1155/2013/636053
[vi] Kothari, Damini, et al. “Allium Flavonols: Health Benefits, Molecular Targets, and Bioavailability.” Antioxidants, vol. 9, no. 9, Sept. 2020, pp. 1dn+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A646516044/AONE?u=columbiau&sid=summon&xid=3a55ed6. Accessed 28 Nov. 2021.
[vii] Singletary, K. (2010). Ginger. Nutrition Today, 45 (4), 171-183. doi: 10.1097/NT.0b013e3181ed3543.
[viii] Singletary, K. W. (2021). Cumin. Nutrition Today, 56 (3), 144-151. doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000479.
[ix] O’Brien, Sharon. Lentils: Nutrition, Benefits, and How to Cook Them. Healthline.com. Sept. 9 2018. Accessed on November 28th, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/lentils#antinutrients.