This article was published on: 06/12/16 10:16 PM
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to visit Nepal. I don’t even know what initially piqued my interest, but I knew that one day I had to make the journey. I recently quit my job, sold my home, bought a one-way ticket to Asia, and here I am. I’m a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and I know nutritional deficiencies are widespread, not only in Nepal, but in other south East Asian countries, as well. Additionally, child stunting is all too prevalent (current statistics show 41 percent of the children are stunted, indicating chronic undernutrition), and I asked myself what culturally appropriate changes could be made to improve the nutritional status of the people. After all, improved nutrition has a positive impact on overall health and well being.
Prior to my arrival, I did a lot of research on the varied cuisines found in this country. As an RDN, I look at foods with an analytical eye. There are so many healthy components to the Nepali diet. Meals are made twice a day with local, fresh ingredients. A variety of vegetables are served alongside the national dish- “Dal Bhat Tarkari.” Lentils are eaten almost every day, and the country produces some very nutrient dense crops such as mango, papaya, banana, taro leaves, mustard greens, and the list goes on. Additionally, the Nepali government is working to promote certain crops to target some of the nutrient deficiencies found here. Sweet potatoes have been introduced for their high content of Vitamin A, and water spinach (ipomoea aquatica), is high in Vitamins A and C and also contains some iron. Not only are there a lot of healthy foods consumed here, the flavor is amazing! I’ve always loved Indian food, so I was excited to come to Nepal to learn about the similarities in the cuisine. I love all the garlic, hot peppers, chili powder, turmeric, cumin, and coriander that is used. But the list doesn’t end there. Fresh, warm ghee poured atop of fluffy white rice enhances flavor and adds texture, different lentils and beans mixed with various chutneys, pickled fruits and vegetables, and yogurt are some of my favorite snacks found in small cafes and with street vendors. I could go on. And to enhance my taste buds even further, I spent 6 weeks in Mongolia before flying into Kathmandu. While I like eating meat, (the Mongolians eat LOTS) the flavor is lacking. The two most flavorful meals I had there were in Indian restaurants!
You can see my praise for the Nepali diet, but unfortunately, it has some downfalls as well. Most of the population consumes a high staple diet, mainly rice. Staples, especially white rice, fill us with calories, but often lack sufficient nutrients the body needs for optimal functioning. While dal (lentils) are super nutritious and a good source of protein, they are typically served as a side, made into a soup, reducing the overall amount of actual lentils consumed. I always say, “More dal, less bhat!” Let’s switch the ratio. How about a pile of dal and a few spoonfuls of rice? That would significantly increase the nutrient profile of a meal. A cup of cooked lentils provides nearly 20 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber. White rice only provides about 5 grams of protein and 1 gram of fiber, not to mention, most of the nutrients have been eliminated during processing.
The rates of protein energy malnutrition and child stunting show many people do not get adequate amounts of protein in their diet. Adding more lentils is a way to help meet protein needs, and chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products, such as milk and yogurt are also helpful. Consuming a wide variety of different colored fruits and vegetables helps us get many of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. Luckily, all of these foods are available, especially in Kathmandu.
What will you do to improve your “Dal Bhat Tarkari?” Try my simplified Nepali inspired “Dal Tarkari.” It’s simple, nutritious, and delicious. It’s vegetarian appropriate and even more vegetables can be added if you’d like! Nutrition is important. A healthy meal doesn’t have to be boring or bland. Try some of these foods today and improve your health and well being!