Recipes from royals: Inside the opulent Nepali Rana cuisine
Think of it as a sort of princess’s diary, except it centres on food. The Rana Cookbook: Recipes from the Palaces of Nepal is an insider view of the grandeur and opulence of one of the mountain kingdom’s richest culinary traditions.
It’s the culmination of a journey that began when its author Rohini Rana was a child, following her mother, Rani Saheba Anant Kumari of Awagarh, a formerly princely state in Uttar Pradesh, around the family’s grand kitchen as she oversaw menus and meal preparations. Rana then married General Gaurav SJB Rana, retired army chief of Nepal (2012-15). He is the great-grandson of Maharaj Chandra SJB, a former prime minister to the king of Nepal.
The Ranas acted as prime ministers to Nepal’s kings for a little over a century (1846- 1951). “They were heavily inspired by Europe when it came to architecture, fashion and administration but made an exception in the field of culinary art by not straying far from their exquisite royal meals,” Rana says.
The Rana Cookbook draws on recipes from Gaurav Rana’s nanny Chiniya Champa Didi and documents rare palace recipes shared by the extended family, including descendants of other former prime ministers. “I visited various homes of some of these families and learnt the recipes from them,” the author says. “I practised them at home to get the measurements and taste right, and finally cooked them again for the final photographs.”
There are 136 recipes in the book. Since many date back to a time when hunting was a royal sport, wild boar, antelope, wild jungle fowl and pheasant feature often in recipes. “Mutton was primarily consumed, pork was considered unhealthy, and chicken was taboo in most orthodox houses, as the bird pecked on dirt and droppings, and was not considered hygienic,” Rana says.
One of her favourite recipes, she says, is the Kacho Bari, the making of which is almost a lost art now because it is so time-consuming and labour-intensive. Pieces of chicken breast are pounded slowly in a brass mortar and pestle for hours until they gain a soft, spongy consistency. They are then deep fried for just a minute, a cross cut on top and deep fried again just before serving. What emerges are spongy balls that swell into a flower shape and melt in the mouth, Rana says.
Locally sourced spices give the preparations a distinct flavour, including the timur or Sichuan pepper and jimbu or Nepalese allium. “In Rana households, breakfast was not common. Lunch, which was the main meal, was usually had at 10 am, in the traditional junar ko bhancha or room adjoining the kitchen. Everyone would be seated on the floor on wooden pirkas (flat stools), and would be served in traditional thaals or chaapris (platters). A typical meal consisted of rice, lentils, meat and a variety of vegetables and pickles, followed by fruit and dessert,” Rana says. “Teatime was 3 pm, where everyone partook of khane kura (teatime snacks), usually cheura (beaten rice) accompanied by meat and vegetables and sweetmeats. Dinner was usually at 6 or 7 pm, a variety of rotis, cheura meat and vegetables.”
A chapter titled Chaad Baar (Feasts and Festivals) focuses on the even more opulent festival foods. Chief among these is the Chaurasi Byanjan (Festival of 84), a spread of 84 dishes laid out in front of a married couple after a wedding (or at the pasni or rice-feeding of an infant). The tradition of serving 84 dishes at a feast harks back to the Ramayan and its descriptions of the feast thrown by King Janak at the wedding of his daughter Sita to Ram.
At a Rana Chaurasi Byanjan, each dish is served on a handcrafted silver platter and the menu features boiled eggs, dried fish, the head of a wild boar, the head of a goat, a whole duck, a whole fish, and a variety of vegetables, fruit, sweetmeats and accompaniments. It’s a feast fit for prime ministers, and their kings too.