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Cooking with the Tharu in Chitwan, Nepal

Cooking Tharu Chitwan Nepal

The Chitwan area of Nepal is a national park that is located around 100km from Kathmandu. It takes around two to four hours to travel there from the capital (sometimes much longer if the roads are busy – our return journey took 10 hours!) depending on the route. But it’s a pleasantly scenic drive across the Nepalese countryside (we travelled there after spending a night at the Neydo monastery) once you have escaped the busy roads of the capital city. It is possible to fly from Kathmandu but this is a more expensive mode of transport. Although Chitwan is best known for its wildlife, it is also possible to meet the local Tharu people and learn to cook with them.

Wildlife Walking Safari in Chitwan National Park

Chitwan is best known as a wildlife reserve where you can undertake a boat or walking safari and – if you are amazingly lucky – you may be able to see wild elephants, rhino, bears or even a tiger. If you’re merely lucky you will catch a glimpse of monkeys, deer and birds. And maybe chance upon some rhino poo to prove that they really were somewhere in the forest, honest.

We caught a jeep from our hotel to the river early in the morning and climbed aboard a long boat, so we could float serenely downriver.

Chitwan National Park river boats

There were lots of birds to see, including brightly coloured kingfishers, and we passed by a crocodile, who was almost as long as our boat, also enjoying a leisurely time in the river.

After around an hour we disembarked and met our guide for a walking safari.

Chitwan National Park boat trip

We were given a pep talk whereby we learned what to do if we were to encounter any of the amazing, but potentially dangerous, creatures. Basically, they can all outrun you, so:

Rhinos – Stand still if you are downwind from them, they have appalling eyesight and probably won’t see you. Back away. If they charge, run away in a zig zag pattern, climb a tree if you can.

Bears – Do not run, avoid eye contact, back away slowly.

Tigers – Stand your ground. Don’t run, all cats love a chase.

Elephants – If they’re in a strop, you’re doomed!

Sadly, we weren’t amazingly lucky and didn’t get to try any of these techniques as the wildlife had decided not to come out to play, but that’s okay, that’s why it’s called wildlife.We did see a strutting peacock, a monkey and some deer.

But whether you see spectacular creatures or not, walking through the forest or floating along the river makes for a very pleasant morning.

And did meet one tiger!

Chitwan National Park tiger

Cooking With the Tharu People in Chitwan

A less well-known excursion is one which takes you to a nearby Tharu village where local people welcome you and are happy to introduce you to their traditional way of life. This trip can be arranged via your hotel who will organise transport to the village, which is located just a few kilometres from the national park. All the villagers are very welcoming and are happy for you to wander round. Some of the local women have recently set up a home stay so that you can experience the local way of life first hand. If we were to return to Chitwan we would absolutely love to stay with them.

Chitwan National Park Tharu Village

Even if you’re not staying overnight, you can spend a very pleasant afternoon learning to cook traditional dishes with them. We met our lovely hosts who made sure we had a hands-on approach to cooking, right from the start.

The first element of the meal to start cooking is the rice. First of all, get water. There is no running water in the houses so you have to go to the local pump. Wash the rice then add water to the urn. Next, start the fire. The Tharu use an outdoor clay oven fuelled with wood. The oven is located between the houses.

Some kindling starts the fire and then the wood burns slowly to create an intense but steady heat. Pop the rice into the water vessel, put it on the fire and let it start cooking.

Chitwan National Park Tharu Village rice cooking

We then went for a walk in the local area to find ingredients. The Tharu grow a lot of their own vegetables on land adjacent to the village. These include onions, rice, beans, wheat and corn. It was particularly interesting to see lentils growing – we’d only ever seen them dried and they only ever came in packets from the supermarket.

Then we started preparing the vegetarian dish that accompanied the rice which was boiling away merrily on the fire. Beans were sliced using a knife by steadying the handle with a foot and – carefully – slicing the beans using the inside of the blade. Other vegetables were added.

We then went onto flavouring and this was something of a revelation. At home we’re very accustomed to using gadgets to process our food. There’s nothing wrong with that – with busy lives, a food processor can save a few seconds with all sorts of routine kitchen preparation jobs. But, actually, crushing garlic with a stone on a rock took no time at all and produced a smoother paste than any garlic crusher we’ve come across.

We removed the rice, which remained piping hot inside its pot and cooked the main dish over the fire. We started by quickly frying off the garlic and then added the vegetables and a bit of water to simmer.

Chitwan National Park Tharu Village cooking pot

The other thing is that we are also very used to buying powdered spice mixes. Pick up a packet of garam masala, sprinkle into your cooking and… instant flavouring. But so many of us buy spice mixes that are often never fully used before their ‘best before’ dates and languish in a cupboard slowing turning into tasteless dust. And it really isn’t that much more effort grind whole spices. Again, we used a stone. In this instance some dalchini (cinnamon bark), a few peppercorns, a dried cinnamon leaf and a cardamon pod were quickly ground into a masala. And doing it this way also gave us the freedom to change the spice combination. We added this to the dish at the last moment to provide a very aromatic flavour. Which, of course, was delicious.

We shared it with our host family in their home.

The trip also included an opportunity for Mitch to dress up and dance with the local ladies. Photos of her wearing traditional dress and – shock, horror – make-up do exist, but we’ll spare you those. What was lovely about the trip was not only getting the opportunity to cook and taste delicious local food but also to meet so many lovely people. Our hosts were absolutely charming and the whole village was delighted to see us.  

The afternoon with the Tharu was delightful but it also changed the way we think about using spices. After our visit we decided that we would buy whole spices and then we could develop our own flavourings. Much as we’d like to have a grinding stone and a rock it’s not very practical in a suburban English house, but we do use a good quality granite pestle and mortar. It gives us the opportunity to experiment with spice combinations as well as textures – sometime we want a fine grind, other times we prefer a coarser texture. The whole spices can be stored more easily and keep for a longer period of time – especially as we use an airtight container.


22 Comments

  1. Nepal cuisine is soo very close to that of Indian and Bhutanese. Flavours, spices and aroma makes you long for these dishes. I loved the food on my Everest Base Camp trek.. Chitwan national park is on the cards and hopefully will travel before end of 2023 as a Roadtrip from Hyderabad in India to Nepal & Bhutan

    • We do hope you get to visit Chitwan, it was a gorgeous place to visit. We spent time in Nepal and Bhutan and absolutely loved visiting both countries. The cookery was brilliant and yes, the flavours, spices and aromas were just wonderful.

  2. Walking through a national park that has so many animals that can kill you is brave beyond belief… I was recently saying to Ellie that I won’t do a safari in an open-roof jeep, it has to be closed windows and steel roof. If anything I’d feel lucky not to have faced any fierce creatures while waving a wooden stick… Kudos to you, guys..!!

    That village experience sounds very interesting, so archaic, and love the hospitality and virtuosity in cooking. It’s impressive how you always pick up bits here and there on your travel and incorporate them into your own cooking. I’m learning from every post of yours I read.

    • Thank you so much. Actually, we were a bit disappointed that we didn’t see any of the animals! The Tharu cookery experience was just wonderful, we learned loads on top of having such a lovely time with all the villagers. I’m delighted that you’re enjoying the posts and that the cookery info is useful!

  3. Wow this is a brilliant, being a chef these little adventures and being able to cook with locals and tbere dishes is amazing and something I would love to achieve and to learn new ways and dishes is so exciting

    I have to say after hearing the briefing you got I’m glad you didn’t see any wildlife

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Wow – as a chef, I’m sure you would have loved this. We’re enthusiastic amateurs and really learned loads about spicing. We were actually a bit disappointed that we didn’t manage to see the wildlife!

  4. What a wonderful and authentic experience you had! I’m sure cooking in this environment is something you’ll never forget. The people seem so friendly and welcoming too.

    • Thank you so much! You’re absolutely right – it was a really authentic experience and the local people were so kind and welcoming.

  5. What an incredible experience! It’s amazing how primitive the cooking techniques are yet I’m sure the food was delicious. That’s really neat you not only learned to cook a traditional meal but connect with the locals. Love your tips on how to avoid big animals on a safari! I hope I never have to put them into practice! Haha.

    • Thank you so much! Yes, the food was really great and the local people absolutely delightful. We were kinda disappointed that we didn’t see any of the animals but you never know when you will need those running away skills!

    • We can completely understand how mountains are the first thing that come to mind when thinking about Nepal. We were delighted that there were so many other things to enjoy. We loved the culture and the wildlife. The cooking was just brilliant- everyone in the village was so welcoming.

  6. What an amazing experience! Makes you realize that you don’t need anything fancy to make a great-tasting meal. However, I am forever imprinting the advice or running in a zig-zag pattern to get away from a hippo in my brain!

    • Thank you! It was a lovely experience. We were a bit disappointed not to be able to try the zig-zag running away technique but at least we know what to do for future encounters!

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