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One Night in Nepal

A famous chef recreates the royal cuisine of Kathmandu.

June 09, 1999|BARBARA HANSEN | 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.

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