Considered the national dish of Nepal, dal bhat fills the bellies of nearly everyone in the country at least once per day. Often, people think that dal bhat refers to a single dish, but it’s actually a set meal that normally includes rice complemented with soup, vegetables, and occasionally a meat-based curry. Pull back a curtain to enter a local restaurant in Nepal, ask for dal bhat, and you’ll be given a filling home-cooked meal that’s very satisfying.
In literal terms, dal is a soup made from lentils or other legumes, cooked with onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Compared to an Indian dal, which has the consistency of gravy, Nepali dal is usually thinner and more soup-like. Bhat normally means steamed rice, though it can occasionally refer to other staple starches such as maize, millet, or wheat, boiled with water and thickened into a lump called dhido. Together the combination of dal and bhat makes up the most basic form of a Nepali staple meal.
While dal and bhat is the minimum combination, nearly everyone adds a few extra dishes to make the meal more substantial. Tarkari is a Nepali dish that can mean any assortment of vegetables - sometimes it’s stir fried greens, other times it’s fried potatoes or cauliflower cooked with masala spices and onions. Usually, whatever vegetable or combination of vegetables that are available in the market on that particular day will be stir fried or curried to accompany a portion of dal bhat.
Often a spoonful of achar is added to a serving of dal bhat, a very broad term that can be anything from a tomato based hot sauce to a roasted green chili sauce, or even a sauce made from fermented fruit. Whatever variation of achar the cook happens to prepare, you can bet it will be flavorful, a little spicy, and you’ll want to smother your food in it. Along with achar, though not mandatory, some restaurants will serve a side dish of curd (like plain yogurt) to garnish and refresh.
While many local Nepalese eat vegetarian dal bhat out of either religious or financial reasons, chicken, fish, or buffalo are also widely available and ready to be served alongside. You’ll usually be served the full vegetarian course first followed by the extra sides of meat. Masu, any kind of meat curry, normally consists of bite-sized pieces of meat stewed in a medley of jeera, turmeric, coriander, and other spices. Sukuti, dry meat stir fried with spices and onions, is another great protein addition to a dal bhat meal.
Just like an Indian thali, a Nepali dal bhat is normally served on a big metal plate that appears more like a platter. The rice and vegetable dishes are piled onto the plate and a side of dal soup is served separately in a small bowl. If you happen to order extra dishes like chicken curry, they will also be served in a side bowl. Sometimes the dal bhat plates are thin silver platters, while other times they use heavy bronze colored plates. While cutlery is frequently available, the traditional way to eat dal bhat is with your fingers. To eat you simply add a splash of dal to your rice, mix in a bite of chicken curry and a dab of achar chili sauce, and dig in. Lightly mushing the food on the tips of your fingers, you push the food into your mouth and start preparing the next bite.
Despite being the standard staple in Nepal, dal bhat makes a well-rounded delicious feast. A big pile of steamed rice, dal, vegetables, and a side of meat curry, all cooked by a motherly Nepali women, is a meal that’s not only guaranteed to fill your stomach, but is a great way to experience one of the best parts of Nepal’s rich culture.