One Night in Nepal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few Americans have tasted Nepali food, and certainly not the sort that Preeti Singh cooks. Born into an aristocratic family, Singh specializes in the subtle, refined royal cuisine. For 16 years she and her husband ran a Nepali-Tibetan restaurant in Kathmandu. The food there was so out of the ordinary that her recipes appeared in Western magazines such as Gourmet and Sunset.

Singh closed the restaurant in 1992 after the death of her husband and now lives in Reseda. This month--for one night only--she will cook again. Assisted by her daughter and son-in-law, Hima Singh and Dinesh Suri, she will make some of the dishes served at "Flavors of Nepal," a benefit in Los Angeles on June 19.

This is a rare opportunity. There are no Nepali restaurants in Los Angeles, so to taste this cuisine, one must depend upon the hospitality of Nepali friends. That opportunity is limited, because only about 400 people of Nepali origin live in greater Los Angeles.

"It's a small contingent," says Deepak Shimkhada, head of the America-Nepal Society of California. Nevertheless, it has grown substantially. "When I first arrived in Los Angeles in 1972, it took me a year to locate one Nepali family. There were only three Nepali families all over Southern California."

Although Indian cookbooks abound, only one Nepali cookbook is available in the United States. "The Nepal Cookbook" is compiled by the Assn. of Nepalis in the Americas (Snow Lion Publications; Ithaca, N.Y.). Tasting Singh's food is, therefore, a novelty and a revelation.

A month ago, with her daughter as translator (Singh's English is limited), she previewed the dinner planned for "Flavors of Nepal." The dishes were served in silver containers, as they would be in a royal household. The king and prime minister would eat from gold plates, Singh says.

At first glance, the food looked Indian, which is predictable because India has strongly influenced Nepali cuisine. However, the flavors, some of the ingredients and the cooking methods are different. Singh's food is light in flavor, not heavily spiced or overbearingly hot with chiles, and it is cooked with little oil.

One good example at the preview was an appetizer of asparagus marinated with pungent mustard oil and Sichuan peppercorns, all widely used ingredients in Nepal. She cooked the stalks until barely tender, keeping them refreshingly green. (That's in contrast to India, where it is customary to cook vegetables until soft.) Singh cooks spinach lightly too, to retain its color and texture. She uses far milder spices than our Indian restaurants do in saag (spinach and/or mustard greens).

Singh set out two curries. One was made with chicken and cauliflower, the other with duck. In each case, the spices were kept under control, rather than allowed to dominate.

The Nepali equivalent of Indian pickles and chutney is achar, made with various fresh fruits and vegetables. Singh chose a pale green gourd gourd (lauka) for her spicy sweet achar.

Rice is the staple grain in Nepal, so she cooked saffron rice. Lentils are also widely used, and Singh also made a soupy legume porridge, kalo dal, deeply colored by the black skins of unpeeled urad dal.

In some parts of Nepal, corn is a staple ingredient, and for dessert, Singh made a corn version of the familiar Indian rice pudding kheer. Nepalis eat this hot in winter and cold in summer. It looked spectacular, with its costly garnish of edible gold leaf, saffron, pistachios and almonds.

Afterward, there was paan batta, a silver box heaped with palate refreshers. Looking like a treasure chest, the box held green cardamoms wrapped in silver, black cardamom seeds, betel nut, coconut, cloves, pistachios, walnuts, almonds and golden raisins.

Singh knows the royal cuisine well because she is from the Rana family, which supplied Nepal's prime ministers from 1847 to 1951. The mother and wife of Nepal's present king, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah, are also Ranas, Singh says.

Singh's restaurant, Sunkosi, was situated on Durbar Marg, a main street that leads to the palace. The restaurant was decorated with Nepali fabrics and paintings, and occasionally Singh gave cooking classes there for foreign residents. Sadly, her only copy of the menu has vanished.

But some of the dishes from Sunkosi live on. The cooks have moved to Momos and More, a restaurant opened in Kathmandu by another daughter, Niti Rana.

And, of course, for one night only, the recipes will be revived here in Los Angeles.

Flavors of India will take place June 19 at 7 p.m. at Silk Roads Design Gallery, 834 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. A Hindu blessing ceremony will precede the serving of food. The event will benefit Captive Daughters of Los Angeles, an organization that works against trafficking of women and children, and Maite Nepal of Kathmandu, a shelter for Nepali women and girls. Reservations are recommended because space is limited. The donation is $35. Send checks to Captive Daughters, 10410 Palms Blvd., Los Angeles 90034. Call (888) 300-4918 for further information.

Corn Pudding (Makai ko Kheer)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 2 hours

In Nepal, kheers are eaten hot in cold weather, but they can be served chilled as well.

3 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee)

3 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels

4 1/2 cups evaporated milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads plus additional for garnish

2 tablespoons slivered blanched almonds

2 tablespoons slivered pistachios

4 pieces edible gold or silver leaf, optional

* Heat clarified butter over medium heat in large, nonstick saucepan. Add corn and fry 15 minutes. Add milk and sugar and cook 1 to 1 1/2 hours until thick as thin pudding. Stir frequently to keep from burning on bottom.

* Add saffron and stir 2 to 3 minutes, then remove from heat. Turn into serving bowl and garnish with pinch saffron threads, almonds, pistachios and gold or silver leaf, if using. Serve hot or chilled.

8 to 10 servings. Each of 10 servings: 281 calories; 162 mg sodium; 43 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.40 gram fiber.

Nepali Duck Curry (Haas ko Tandruk)

Active Work Time: 1 hour * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes plus 4 hours marinating time

Cook the curry gently so the sauce does not dry up.

DUCK

1 (2 3/4-pound) duck

1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger root

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 teaspoons water

1/4 cup yogurt

2 tablespoons oil

1 tablespoon clarified butter (ghee)

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

* Cut duck into 8 pieces; discard back and wings and use legs, thighs and breast. Remove most of skin but leave some on breast to keep meat moist and juicy.

* Grind ginger and garlic separately with 1 teaspoon water each to form pastes; add more water if necessary to make each paste smooth.

* Combine ginger paste, garlic paste, yogurt, oil, clarified butter, salt and turmeric. Mix duck with marinade, cover and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours or overnight. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.

SAUCE

1/2 cup oil

1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root, cut in 6 slices

3 bay leaves

1 brown cardamom pod

2 green cardamom pods

1 (1-inch) cinnamon stick

4 cloves

Asafetida

6 cups sliced onions

1 cup tomato puree (fresh, not canned)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground

1 teaspoon ground red chile

Water

Salt

* Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Fry ginger slices until light brown, 1 minute. Add bay leaves, brown cardamom pod, green cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, cloves and pinch asafetida. Fry 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add onions and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

* Remove 1/2 fried onions and puree in blender or food processor. Set aside.

* Add tomato puree to remaining onions in pan and fry until almost dry, 2 to 3 minutes.

* Mix cumin, coriander, fennel and ground chile with enough water, about 1/2 cup, to blend well, then add to mixture in pan and fry until mixture begins to stick. Add pureed onions and fry until sauce is well blended, 3 to 4 minutes.

* Add duck pieces and fry 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water and cook covered over low heat, about 30 minutes. Taste and add more salt if desired.

4 servings. Each serving: 1,014 calories; 816 mg sodium; 111 mg cholesterol; 92 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 2.50 grams fiber.

Cauliflower With Cornish Game Hen (Phoolkopi Chara)

Active Work Time: 45 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 15 minutes plus 4 hours marinating time

Game hens are like the fresh small chickens used in Nepal. Chicken can be substituted.

MARINATED HEN

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons minced ginger root

2 teaspoons water

2 tablespoons yogurt

1 1/2 tablespoons ground coriander

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground red chile

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Asafetida

2 pounds Cornish game hen, skinned and cut into 8 pieces, or equal amount skinned chicken legs, thighs and/or breasts

* Grind garlic and ginger separately with 1 teaspoon water each to form pastes; add more water if necessary to make each paste smooth.

* Mix garlic paste, ginger paste, yogurt, coriander, cumin, ground chile, salt, turmeric and pinch asafetida. Add poultry pieces and mix. Cover and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

SAUCE

1/2 cup oil

1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root, cut in 6 slices

2 bay leaves

2 green cardamom pods

4 cloves

1 (1/2-inch) piece cinnamon stick

Asafetida

1 1/2 cups sliced onions

2 1/2 pounds cauliflower, cut into 2-inch florets

1/2 cup tomato puree

* Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add ginger slices and fry until light brown, 1 minute. Add bay leaves, cardamom pods, cloves, cinnamon stick and pinch asafetida and stir 30 seconds. Add onions and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

* Add Marinated Hen and fry 3 to 5 minutes. Cover and cook 3 to 5 minutes longer, making sure meat does not burn or stick to bottom of pan. Stir in cauliflower and cook 5 minutes. Stir again, then cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes. Stir occasionally so cauliflower does not stick to bottom of pan. By now cauliflower should be tender and poultry almost done.

* Add tomato puree and stir gently to avoid breaking cauliflower. Continue cooking until most of liquid in sauce has reduced and oil has been released. Poultry and vegetables should be lightly coated with sauce.

4 servings. Each serving: 713 calories; 1,065 mg sodium; 128 mg cholesterol; 55 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 38 grams protein; 2.83 grams fiber.

Spicy Marinated Asparagus (Kurilo Sadheko)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes * Vegetarian * Easy

Grilled chicken livers, green soy beans and green garlic sprigs can also be marinated in this fashion. Use an Indian brand of mustard oil with a strong mustard flavor, such as Ace brand.

1 pound asparagus

1 (1/4-inch) slice unpeeled ginger root

2 cloves unpeeled garlic

1 small dried hot red chile

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon mustard oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns

* Break tough ends off asparagus. Cook asparagus in boiling water until tender but still firm, 3 to 4 minutes, depending on size. Cool, wipe with kitchen towel and refrigerate.

* Roast ginger, garlic and chile on griddle until a few black spots appear, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove garlic peel. In blender with small amount of water or with mortar and pestle, grind ginger, garlic and chile to coarse paste. Stir in lemon juice, mustard oil, salt and Sichuan pepper. Place asparagus in shallow dish. Rub asparagus with mixture. Serve at once or chilled.

4 servings. Each serving: 40 calories; 150 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.04 grams fiber.

Sauteed Spinach With Ginger and Garlic (Paloongo ko Sag)

Active Work Time: 15 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes * Vegetarian * Easy

Some Nepali cooks prefer to cook the spinach slightly and retain some of the liquid. Others prefer to cook it until the water dries and the oil is released.

1 tablespoon mustard oil

1/4 teaspoon ajwain seeds

1 whole dried red chile

1 1/4 pounds spinach

1 teaspoon chopped ginger root

1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

* Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add ajwain and chile and fry until oil splutters, about 20 seconds. Add spinach and stir well, then cover and cook until spinach wilts, 2 to 3 minutes. Uncover, add ginger and garlic, and cook until almost dry, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in salt and serve.

4 servings. Each serving: 74 calories; 420 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 2.22 grams fiber.

Gourd Achar (Lauka ko Achar)

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 40 minutes * Vegetarian

Lauka, the gourd used for this dish, is available in Indian markets. It should be young, tender and about 2 1/2 inches in diameter.

3 lauka (Nepali bottle gourds), about 2 1/2 pounds total

1/2 cup oil

1/8 teaspoon asafetida

1/2 teaspoon ajwain seeds

3 to 4 whole dried red chiles, seeds removed if desired

1 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted and ground

1 1/2 teaspoons ground red chile

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon ground Sichuan peppercorns

* Peel gourds and grate flesh.

* Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add asafetida and ajwain and fry until seeds blacken slightly, then add dried chiles and stir 2 minutes. Add gourds and salt and fry 1 to 2 minutes. Cover and cook 10 minutes, until liquid released from gourds dries.

* Add cumin, ground chile and sugar and stir over medium heat until liquid dries. Add lemon juice and stir again. Add Sichuan pepper and mix well. Remove from heat when oil is released. Taste and season with additional salt, chile, lemon juice and sugar, if desired.

6 servings. Each serving: 354 calories; 419 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.01 grams fiber.

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Nepali Pantry

* Ajwain--Small seeds with a flavor akin to cumin and thyme. Also known as bishop's weed and sometimes spelled ajowan. Available in Indian and Ethiopian markets.

* Asafetida--A strong-smelling white powder derived from a gum resin and used by some Indian cooks in place of onion and garlic. A pinch added to vegetables such as cauliflower is said to reduce gassiness.

* Brown cardamom--Large dark brown pods that contain seeds with a pronounced flavor unlike the pleasant, sweet flavor of common cardamom. The pods are often added whole to rice dishes and certain curries.

* Ghee--Indian style clarified butter. Ready-made ghee is available at all Indian shops.

* Gold leaf--If you are traveling to India, you can buy edible gold leaf there. Here, you are more likely to find edible silver leaf in Indian shops.

* Green cardamom--Small buff-green pods that differ from white cardamom primarily in that the shells are not bleached.

* Lauka--A mild, pale green squash similar in shape to zucchini and usually rather large. Look for it labled smooth melon (po gwa) in in Chinese and bottle gourd in Indian markets.

* Mustard oil--A golden oil that is spicy like mustard; however, not all brands are equally pungent. Available in Indian shops, mustard oil is especially popular with Bengali cooks.

* Sichuan peppercorns--So named because they are linked to the cookery of China's Sichuan province. Wild pepper and fagara are other names.

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