In Chicago, Nepalese cuisine is often sold as a package deal with Indian. This is true at Cumin in Wicker Park and at Chicago Curry House, the South Loop restaurant by the same owners of the Curry Hut in Highwood. The easy answer as to why is that Indian and Nepalese food make cozy bedfellows. The two countries share a border, after all, so it's not hard to imagine them having intertwined culinary traditions. But I can't help but wonder if the Indian options at these restaurants are acting as a crutch, or at least as more familiar "gateway" foods, bolstering a less robust or engaging cuisine. In other words, can Nepalese food stand on its own amid Chicago's diverse dining landscape?
To investigate, I recently ordered a largely Nepalese—and all-vegetarian—meal at Chicago Curry House. (Whether you're eating Nepalese or Indian, finding vegetarian choices on Curry House's novella of a menu isn't hard.) The veg bhojan ($21.95) was an obvious place to start; it includes small portions of four different Nepalese dishes:
bhuketo kauli (sautéed cauliflower), tareko aloo (fried potatoes), palungo ko saag (slow-cooked spinach with onion and tomato), and jhane ko dal (yellow lentils cooked with ginger, onion, and garlic using a Nepalese wok). I also got an order of aloo ra seemi ko tarkari ($11.95; at 3 o'clock in photo above), which includes potatoes and green beans cooked with ginger, tomato, herbs, and Nepalese spices.
The potato dishes were very tasty, with strong, spicy backbones to go along with the starchy, well-cooked tubers. The cauliflower was crunchy and flavorful. And none of the three aforementioned dishes were overly laden with ghee, the clarified butter that is common in Indian cooking and can seriously weigh down a meal. The yellow lentils, the one "wet" dish of the veg bhojan platter, were rich and velvety. I was digging the Nepalese blend of seasonings, which delivered nice roundness and pleasant heat. The only misstep—and it was a big one—was the kitchen's handling of the spinach. The palungo ko saag was so over-salted, the dish was inedible.
Curry house's naan and whole wheat roti (each $2) have their several key qualities in nice balance: spongey, bubbly fluff; a glutinous elasticity to the dough; and a careful smattering of char from the tandoor oven. The Indian breads, while great on their own, pointed to one disconnect that cropped up for me between Indian and Nepalese cuisines. The mostly gravy-less Nepalese vegetable dishes aren't exactly sop-uppable. That said, I liked their lighter, drier, veggie-highlighting style. Ultimately, the flavors, and thus the dishes themselves, stand on their own. They don't need help from India.