It’s the Himalayan rocket fuel that propels Nepalese trekkers to climb the greatest heights and surpass the limits of their bodies and minds. How does it work? Where does it come from? I discovered the power of dal bhat, the nutritious national dish of Nepal.

After a long, gruelling day of trekking through the rocky mountain paths and wet rainforests of Nepal, there’s almost nothing better than the feeling of putting your sore, soggy feet up in the warm and dry of a tea house, and being greeted by the smell of fragrant spices in a warm lentil soup. 

That was my experience when I embarked on my own adventure to the Himalayas in 2019 as part of an opportunity called True Adventure, trekking for 14 days along the Annapurna trail to Everest base camp.

Through it all my group were shepherded by the knowledgeable and experienced Kishan Gurung, our mountain guide and expedition leader. He taught us all about the region and how best to scale the heights, but there was one lesson he kept coming back to, something called: ‘dal bhat power’. 

Kishan holding a sign for his trekking company

Dal bhat is considered the national dish of Nepal. Central to the region’s way of life as both a symbol of community and good health, it is shared amongst families and friends and is an extremely wholesome and nutritious meal.

Undeniably a simple dish, it consists of just two main components: dal and bhat. The ‘dal’ is a kind of hot lentil soup, and the ‘bhat’ is steamed rice that accompanies it. Its strong flavours come from the cumin, coriander and other spices that the lentils are cooked in. 

Dal bhat is tasty, but it’s not the most exciting meal without the ‘tarkari’, which are small side dishes for those looking for a little bit more. They usually include pickled or cooked vegetables and meat curries, surrounding the dal bhat on a large plate or tray. 

‘Dal bhat power’, Kishan later explained, refers to the energy that the staple meal provides to hikers and physical labourers in Nepal. 

The dish serves as fuel for the trekkers who come to the region to see its incredible vistas and push themselves to climb to the very highest peaks.  

Home to the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, Nepal is the ultimate challenge for any serious hikers. Therefore, they must eat something full of energy and nutrition to power their bodies to their limits. 

A friend looking at the view outside a tea house in Nepal

Dal bhat consists of an almost perfect balance of fibre, protein and carbohydrates.The dal is high in protein and fibre, so it helps to support the muscles during strenuous physical activity, and aids digestion. While the bhat provides carbohydrates, which give the body its much needed energy.  

The addition of tarkari can also provide extra vitamins or fats to round out the full health benefits, and add even more power to your stride. Kishan gave us spiced, boiled potatoes and sometimes chicken curry (if we were lucky) to have with ours.

Dal bhat’s simplicity, affordability and ease of transport make it ideal for hikers with heavy bags. It’s also often available ready cooked at the many tea houses dotted up and down the popular trekking routes.

We were fed dal bhat for breakfast, lunch and dinner during our trek in 2019, and I must say my legs had more than enough energy thanks to ‘dal bhat power’, as they have never worked harder.

Kishan – now an executive board member at the Nepal Mountaineering Association, as well as founder of his own trekking company called Himalaya Summit Club – explained his view on the cultural importance of dal bhat: “We are completely familiar with this dish. This special dish always seems inviting without any doubt, chiefly when you are Nepali.

“The home cooked Dal Bhat takes you back to your mom’s kitchen that once used to allure you with its smell.”

He explained one of the more negative reasons for the dish’s popularity, saying: “We are quite aware of the negligence of the food services in Nepal in relation to food and especially in terms of dal bhat. 

“However, we came up with a home cooked dal bhat dish that gives the best hygiene and cleanliness assurance.”

Amongst hikers, he explained, it is common for people to get ill because they cook other meals wrong: “I feel in Himalaya hikers get quite a lot of food poisoning because of improper boiling. 

“Dal bhat is easy to boil properly and you can’t always get to a tea house for food from everywhere, so once you make this food in the morning you can keep it for the whole day too.”

Kishan then explained how Nepalese prefer to enjoy the dish: “In our village we cook it on the fire and in the city we cook it with gas, but people love the fire-cooked one.

“Eating by hand is one of the best parts about dal bhat for many Nepalese and me.”

Eaten often two-to-three times a day by hikers and Nepalese alike, the delicious taste and satisfying, home-cooked fulfilment of dal bhat almost never gets old. Even as your body becomes more dal than water, you’ll never be disappointed to see it laid in front of you at mealtime! 

Sarah Gurung, co-owner of the award-winning Nepalese restaurant Yak Yeti Yak in Bath, Somerset, described her experience of Dal Bhat and the story of her restaurant: The Yak Yeti Yak story began with our love of travel, meals and evenings spent in small Himalayan tea shops, sharing food cooked by some of the world’s least known culinary heroes.

“After spending years as guides and wilderness cooks we decided to return for part of each year to the UK.”

“You can’t beat a good British summer but there was one thing we both missed, the food of the mountains and jungles of Nepal.” She explained. 

“As hard as we tried, we couldn’t find a restaurant serving true Nepalese food, so in 2004 we opened the doors to our first Yak Yeti Yak restaurant in a small, tucked away basement on Argyle Street.”

Sarah and her husband’s restaurant went on to win Best Restaurant of the Year 2023 at the Bath Life Awards, and it is one of the longest serving restaurants in the city.

She explained how her family prefers to eat dal bhat: “We prefer to keep it simple. Plain boiled rice and either a light black dal or a creamy orange dal. 

“We always have a curry and a pickle with dal bhat and we don’t want too many clashing flavours on the plate.”

After learning all about this amazing meal, I had a go at making it for myself, and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Homemade Dal Bhat

The ingredients cost me less than £3 for multiple portions, and it took only around 30 minutes to cook. It couldn’t be simpler. 

It was surprisingly delicious, considering I am not a good cook by any means, and the most notable thing about the meal was how full it left me. I usually snack throughout the evening, but after my dal bhat, i couldn’t even stomach a cheese straw!

Whilst I tried making the most basic version – dal bhat without tarkari – there is no reason not to enjoy your own choice of side if you make it yourself, as it’s incredibly adaptable. 

Put your own spin on this delicious Himalayan delicacy and enjoy a taste of Nepal!

This article was done by Alex Bill.