In Nepali, julphi means jalebi and bambesan is a close cousin of besan barfi. In The Rana Cookbook, subtitled "Recipes from the palaces of Nepal", the reader is bound to find dishes that highlight several similarities in cuisines of India and Nepal. For instance, there are recipes of khichdi, jhols and even pies which share ingredients and speak of culinary influences from the British as well as the Mughals.
The book, published by Penguin Random House, marks the debut of Rohini Rana, who traces her lineage to royal ancestry in India. She married General Gaurav Rana, the great-grandson of Nepal’s former Prime Minister Chandra Shumshere Rana. “My intention of writing a cookbook stems from my passion for cooking. Thirty years ago, I was living in an army barrack in a quaint bungalow built by the Ranas in Hetauda district in Nepal. My husband was the battalion commander and busy with his soldiering, while the children were in boarding school. With time heavy on my hands, I started writing the introduction to this book. Unfortunately it was put aside for a good 25 years since familial priorities stepped in. Finally, after my husband retired from the Nepal Army five years ago, I resumed my research of old recipes and completed the quest I had started years ago,” she says.
In an email interview with Lounge from her home in Kathmandu, she talks about the Rana cuisine and the commonalities between Indian and Nepali dishes.
How will you introduce someone to Rana cuisine?
Gently close your eyes and go back in time. Imagine yourself seated on a soft velvet cushion, preferably on the floor, with a silver platter filled with sumptuous food assailing your senses. The aroma of the food wafts up to your nostrils, the sizzling sound of the hot ghee being poured over rice is music to your ears, your eyes feast on the range of colourful meat and vegetables, and your taste buds tingle with delectable flavours. All your senses will be satiated and your soul will be soothed.
The book features stunning crockery. What are the utensils used for cooking and serveware in traditional Rana households?
The crockery used for lunches and dinner was invariably silver, because the belief was, it had antibacterial properties. The silver platters called chapris or thaals were locally crafted. Fine China and crystal were used for tea-time snacks and imported from England and Europe. The cooking utensils were crafted with brass, copper and iron by local craftsmen. A baby was fed cereal for the first time on a gold plate with a gold spoon during the pasni or rice-feeding ceremony. Gold is considered to be auspicious and is believed to boost the child's immunity. But, this was all in the past. Now, everyone uses China plates and steel thaals. It is neither safe nor practical to have silver lying around!
What are the recipes and stories that had to be removed in the process of editing?
The only recipes that were removed was a section of five pages on postnatal food fed to lactating mothers in Nepal. There’s Jwano ko Jhol, which is a soup with carom seeds, spices and either chicken broth or water. It is believed to increase milk production in lactating mothers. Chaku ko Jhol is a thick soup consisting of molasses, ghee and coconut, which is supposedly good for contracting the uterus and nourishing a new mother’s health. Khunde ko Aushadi is a halwa-type preparation, full of dry fruits, spices and ghee, which is considered to have healing and immunity-building qualities.
In the book, there is a segment of recipes with the wild boar and venison or deer. Can one use pork instead?
Pork can definitely be used instead of wild boar, but it has a mild taste compared to the gamier wild boar meat. The main spice used in cooking wild boar is sichuan pepper, so this should be used to tweak the flavour. Mutton can replace venison.
In the book, you mentioned the influence of khansamas, Brahmins and the British in Rana cuisine. Do they persist till today?
The influence of khansamas on the Rana cuisine is evident in the form of the rich gravies brought in from northern India, like mutton korma being similar to awadhi korma, the Rana bhute ko masu is a drier form of the Nawabi bhuna gosht and the Nepali kacho tarkari is a spicy version of the Indian raita.
The Brahmin cooks were mainly in the Rana kitchens because of their high caste rather than their cooking abilities. They were trained in the art of cooking by their predecessors and the ladies of the household who were fond of cooking. They remained in the kitchens predominantly in conservative family homes that adhere to the practice of eating rice cooked by either the same or higher caste Brahmins. These practices have died a natural death, thanks to modernization, except in very few extremely conservative homes.
How are the cuisines of North India and Nepal similar?
They share the same spectrum of rice, dal, meat and vegetables, mainly using similar spices like turmeric, chilli powder and fenugreek. Nepali food is definitely lighter and easier on the digestive system since oil, ghee and spices are used sparingly. The preparation of vegetables is more inclined to be of the stir-fry variety rather than the overcooked cuisine of Awadh.
You have written that sichuan peppers and the allium locally known as jimbu are prevalent in Nepali cuisine. How does jimbu taste? Can you suggest alternatives?
Sichuan pepper or timur has a sharp peppery taste and can be compared to wasabi (horseradish). Jimbu is milder in taste and is used to flavour dals and vegetables. Its taste is a cross between onions and chives. Timur is difficult to substitute. But jimbu is quite mild and even if it's omitted in a dish, there won’t be much of a difference in flavour. It can be substituted with dried chives or even kasuri methi.
Are you motivated to work on another book?
During the pandemic, while waiting for this book to release, I started writing the outline for my second book. I hope to capture the cuisine of different ethnic communities such as the Sherpa, Tharu and Newar communities from north, south and central Nepal.
AALOO TARE KO (Recipe from 'The Rana Cookbook')
Serves: 6 persons
6 medium sized red potatoes
1 cup ghee
1 cup oil (mustard preferably)
3 Tbsp. coarsely ground ginger
3 Tbsp. coarsely ground garlic
½ tsp. fenugreek seeds
½ tsp. jimbu ½ tsp. turmeric powder
1 Tbsp. coriander powder
1 Tbsp. cumin powder
1 ½ tsp. red chili powder
Salt to taste
Slice the potatoes lengthways in four pieces and soak them in a bowl of water for half an hour.
Heat the oil and ghee in a wok and add the potatoes to the oil, keep turning gently for a few minutes till the potatoes are cooked and turn into a golden color.
Remove the excess oil from the pan, retaining around half a cup, tilt the pan to one side and add the fenugreek seeds and jimbu to the oil in the pan.
When they are a dark color, add the ground ginger and garlic to the potatoes and stir gently. After one minute add the rest of the ingredients and stir. All the spices should be cooked and integrated well with the potatoes.
Serve immediately if possible for best taste!
The Rana Cookbook by Rohini Rana, published by Penguin Random House India will be released in March.