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The humble Nepali chowmein

Beyond the common stir-fried noodles, Nepal offers a delightful twist to the chowmein saga with the renowned chowmein soup, known as thukpa. In the town of Dharan, situated in the east, thukpa is even a breakfast delight

The humble Nepali chowmein

“Whenever Nepalis go out to eat at a restaurant, they go through the entire menu for 15 to 20 minutes and then order either momo or chowmein,” is a famous Nepali saying that encapsulates Nepalis’ dining out experience. This saying underlines the popularity of chowmein, standing proudly as the second most loved dish in Nepal. You can find the raw noodles, neatly packed in plastic bags, at the vegetable stalls in the bustling Kathmandu market, adding a touch of authenticity to the local food experience.

Beyond the common stir-fried noodles, Nepal offers a delightful twist to the chowmein saga with the renowned chowmein soup, known as thukpa. In the town of Dharan, situated in the east, thukpa is even a breakfast delight. It’s a hot and tangy noodle soup that helps you kickstart your day with a burst of energy.

The origin of chowmein in Nepal is a tale of cultural exchange and migration, where influences from Chinese, Tibetan, and Nepali culinary traditions come together. The term ‘chǎo-miàn,’ meaning ‘stir-fried noodles’ in Chinese, dates back to over 4000 years. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s, with the arrival of Tibetan refugees, that chowmein found its way into the hearts and taste buds of Nepalis.

The Tibetan diaspora not only brought momo and thukpa but also ignited a culture of street food and small eateries across Nepal. The infusion of Chinese sauces, including green chili, chili garlic, and hot garlic from Calcutta, added a local twist to the flavor palette. The culinary landscape of Nepal further evolved with the return of the Nepali diaspora from the United States and the Burmese Nepalis, who contributed their noodle variations to the mix.

Before chowmein took center stage, Nepal had a tradition of noodle soup influenced by Tibetan culinary practices. However, the 1980s saw the emergence of instant noodles and dried egg noodles, solidifying chowmein’s status as an integral part of Nepali street food culture.

The noodle narrative expands beyond Nepal’s borders, seamlessly blending into India’s culinary heritage. Northern India’s introduction to noodles, through ‘sevai’ or vermicelli, traces back to trade along the Silk Route with Persia and Arabia. Chowmein, with its humble beginnings and inspiration from Hakka-style stir-fried noodles, embodies resourcefulness and adaptability.

Today, chowmein stands as a symbol of cross-cultural fusion, reflecting Nepal’s history of migration, trade, and shared culinary legacies. From bustling cities to remote villages, the presence of chowmein on menus across the country symbolizes the integration of diverse flavors, celebrating the harmonious blending of traditions into a beloved culinary delight for both Nepalis and visitors.

Following are a few variations of the versatile chowmein:

The stir-fried edition

Variations such as chow mein, Shanghai fried style, and Singaporean style are essentially Chinese in nature. Stir-fried with an extra kick of spices is particularly popular in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma, featuring diverse styles like Ribbon noodles, Pad Thai, Khao Swe, and Yakisoba.

Keema noodles

This is the new hit in town. The ingredients are boiled noodles, bok choy, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chili oil, spring onions, salt, minced meat (keema), and onions. First, let’s make the chili oil/sauce. In a bowl, combine chili flakes, crushed Sichuan pepper, and salt. Heat mustard oil, and then pour the hot oil into the chili flakes mixture.

Next, let’s prepare the minced meat. Heat oil in a pan and add onions, ginger, and chopped garlic. Once the onions are see-through, add minced meat and tomatoes. Stir-fry continuously until the meat changes color. Add spices, salt, and soy sauce. Mix everything well and cook until the water evaporates.

Now, boil water for the noodles. Add a little oil and salt to the boiling water. Boil Chinese egg noodles, and when they’re done, add bok choy. Finally, mix all the prepared items and serve.

Soup it up

Thukpa in Tibet and Nepal offers a spice-infused broth with meat and vegetables, flavored with Sichuan pepper.

China and Hong Kong present various dumplings, roast duck, and fish balls with egg noodles soup. Japan has miso, while Vietnam boasts pho.

Noteworthy mentions include the tom yum soup noodles from Thailand and curry laksa from Malaysia.

Noodles glazed with sauces

This style involves stir-frying noodles and finishing them with rich sauces, meats, vegetables, and fish.

Indo-Chinese versions like Hakka, garlic chili noodles, and Ma Yi Shang Shu (Ant Climbing a Tree) from China, along with curry udon from Japan, Mie Ayam from Indonesia, and kimchi from Korea showcase a diverse array of flavors.

Special ingredients and flavors vary by region, with Nepalis incorporating Sichuan peppers, Malaysians adding lemongrass, curry leaves, and lime leaves, and Vietnamese using cardamom, mint, and coriander.

Noodles with salad

The fundamental noodle remains constant, with variations in the type of noodles used and the serving temperature, whether hot or cold.

Examples include the refreshing ramen salad from Japan and the spicy Noodle Salad Yum Woon Sen from Thailand.

Noodles as stuffing or wrapping

Noodles find versatile uses, serving as stuffing in Vietnamese-style spring rolls or Japanese-style omelets. Notable Nepali mentions include the colorful and deep-fried homemade snack jhilinga, a staple at festivals, weddings, and special ceremonies. Additionally, the Indian subcontinent boasts sevai dessert, especially popular among Muslim communities, along with sev, a spicy savory snack, and the well-known Anglo snack, Bombay mix.

The story of Nepali chowmein is a captivating journey through time and culture, showcasing the resilience of Nepali culinary traditions in the face of evolving influences. From its modest beginnings to its current status as a culinary icon, chowmein is a testament to Nepal’s ability to embrace and transform its rich gastronomic heritage.

The author is a UK-based R&D chef