18 Jun

Sherpa-style lamb & barley soup from the top of the world

The Nepalese are not only some of the happiest, loveliest people you can hope to cross paths with, they’re also very proud of their heritage. And it’s not demonstrated in some fierce, nationalist pride, but rather in a joyful way that comes out in an eagerness to share with others, and within their community.

I witnessed this firsthand at a recent Nepalese dinner with a Mount Everest theme, prepared by one of our featured Melting Pot cooks, Jeevi Ramtel. It was a hilarious night of Nepalese dancing, laughing yoga, tasty vegetarian food, conversations with last year’s Miss Nepal Australia (as you do), and a wardrobe miscalculation ­– I was among only three people in Everest climbing gear, instead of Nepalese garb or everyday wear. Which, well, would have been humbling if it hadn’t garnered so much curiosity and a costume prize.

It’s also where I met Suraj Pradhan.

In his day job, Suraj is commis chef at Ripples Chowder Bay, one of three Ripples restaurants pairing Sydney Harbour views with affordable bistro fare. But this night, instead of his routine of dishing out contemporary Australian dishes, he was helping cook his country’s food, and he could barely hold his enthusiasm.

Listening to him speak excitedly through his thick accent, I learned how Suraj started writing about food some months ago for The Nepali Patra, the paper of record for the expat community, and just last week was signed up to write his first cookbook by a newspaper contact back in Kathmandu. He’s also just been roped in this week to cook for Nepal’s new ambassador to Australia. Not bad for a guy who, not long ago, was studying commercial cookery in Sydney.

“I’m from Chitwan; it’s very famous for jungle safaris,” he tells me, adding that the local national park boasts elephants, rhinos and a crocodile breeding farm. It’s not the rocky Himalayan terrain I imagine, but Suraj explains that Nepal is divided into three regions: lowlands, hills and mountains. He comes from the hills, where his parents once owned a local restaurant. Area specialties include Nepal dumplings – or momo, whose skins look very similar to delicate Cantonese har gow, but with meat or veggie fillings instead of prawns – and fried meats and stews.

When I mention that The Melting Pot is highlighting soups this month, Suraj’s eyes lit up. We discussed quatti, a popular Newari dish made with black-eyed peas, kidney beans, bamboo shoots, potato and Nepalese herbs, a staple of the indigenous Newari people of the Kathmandu Vally. But Suraj ultimately decides on his lamb and barley soup. “It’s only used in the mountainous regions by sherpa people,” he explains. “In Nepal, lamb are only found into the mountains.”

So the other day, Suraj popped by The Melting Pot kitchen with a bag of goodies, and whipped up a soup in 30 minutes flat. He had soaked the barley overnight to halve the cooking process – a nice time-saver, even if I reckon the extra tenderness of the lamb is worth the extra simmering time if you can swing it. Either way, for such a simple dish, it’s packed full of flavour. There’s also a nice kick from the ginger and optional Sichuan peppercorns, which adds a nice bit of extra heat to any cold night when you’re chilled to the bone. If it can work at Himalayan altitudes, rest assured it’ll comfort in the coldest of Australian climes.  – Story & photos by Michael Shafran

Nepalese Lamb & Barley Soup (Bheda ra Jau Ko Jhol)
Recipe by Suraj Pradhan
Serves 4

This lamb and barley soup is a specialty of Nepal’s Sherpa people, who started preparing it especially for tourists, as more and more of them wanted to go trekking in the mountains. They wanted to make something nice for their visitors.

Because my family and I lived in the low region, not the mountains, we didn’t have this dish. In fact, I first had it in Australia. Some Nepalese chef had put it up on a website, but he had modernised it with soy sauce and mushrooms. That’s Chinese, not Nepalese, so I deleted those ingredients and made my own version.

Sichuan pepper is an ingredient mostly used in Nepal with the foods of the Sherpa people and mountain regions. It’s optional, but it makes it a bit more peppery and enhances the flavour.

3 tablespoons clarified butter or ghee
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 kg lamb (meat from shoulder or any other cut)
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
Pinch of Sichuan peppercorns (optional)
1 cup chopped tomatoes
3 cups (750ml) lamb broth, vegetable stock or water
1 cup barley
Handful spinach, roughly chopped
Fresh coriander, to garnish

1) Place a pot over medium head and heat butter.  Add onion and sauté until lightly browned. Combine cumin and coriander powders, then use to season lamb, adding salt and pepper to taste. Add lamb to the onion mixture and brown meat well.

2) Add garlic, ginger, turmeric and Sichuan pepper, and stir for a minute or so. Add tomatoes and broth. Increase heat to high, bring to the boil and add barley. Stir well. Lower the heat and simmer for about an hour until barley grains and lamb are tender and a desired consistency of the soup has been achieved.

3) At last, add spinach to the soup and wilt it for one minute. Garnish with coriander. Serve hot.