The way I see it, food can be a form of communication as much as it is a catalyst to consumption. Different recipes mean different things to different people and suddenly taste becomes its own language. In any culture, you’ll find that spices are what provide the accent to this language; the subtle and, at times, sharp hitch in tone that gives each dish its own meaning, its own history and place. How something tastes is what says it all, doesn’t it? In America, ‘sweet’ says ‘love’, ‘savory’ says ‘lust’, ‘sweet’ says ‘spring’, ‘savory’ says ‘summer’. It’s custom that ‘sweet’ says one thing, but ‘savory’ says another—
Where I’m from, food just can’t be so ‘this’ or ‘that’.
Imbedded in the Himalayas, tucked between China and India, is the culture-rich country of Nepal. In Nepal, we use what we call warm Himalayan spices. These spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and cardamom, have been interwoven through my culture for generations because of their miraculous ability to actually raise our body temperature. There is no central heating in Nepal, however, we’ve found these spices to not only be a tactful alternative of keeping warm in winter, but a tasty one too!
The cheel’s most popular entrée, our ‘Roganjosh’, is a superb example of this harmonious balance as it expertly coalesces wild boar with cinnamon and black cardamom. A stranger to Himalayan cuisine will read this description on our menu and instantly hesitate, because cinnamon is supposed to be sweet, right? What is sweet doing simmering with savory? Is this allowed?
With Roganjosh, your mouth is escorted through an exclusive conversation between sweet and savory. The tender meat of the boar is complimented by a nice, tickling kiss of cinnamon, but also excited by the sultry touch of black cardamom. We serve yellow dal on the side, but I often see it quickly drizzled over Roganjosh to intensify the flavor of the boar with a smidge mace (aromatic golden brown spice obtained from the dried aril (net-like sheath) which covers the Nutmeg seed) & cloves. Then, to consummate the dish, we serve a bed of saffron basmati rice beneath the simmered boar that works wonderfully to soothe your tongue with its earthy, savory taste. By the time you’re done, you’ll have already decided what Roganjosh means, what its warmth and wholesomeness says to you.
In my family, Roganjosh is actually what Americans call “comfort food”. It’s the first meal my mother makes when I visit Nepal and I can always bet I’ll have it again before I leave. As a child, I quickly developed an attachment to this dish, always associating it strongly with family, love and closeness. I remember one year, when I was roughly thirteen or fourteen years old, I went to my grandpa’s farmhouse with my family and my mother decided not to make Roganjosh. My heart was destroyed! I ran as far as I could away from the farm and I cried and cried and cried until I finished mourning the loss of what I thought was my mother’s love for me. A bit melodramatic? Maybe. But, even now, I can’t deny that if I were to arrive in Nepal tomorrow and walk into my mother’s kitchen to see her preparing that isn’t Roganjosh, it’d absolutely ruin my day. I think everyone can identify at least one meal that holds sentiment to them and that is why I love running a restaurant where I can share the many meals that hold sentiment to me.
Let’s get back to serving the dish at the cheel. Once thought to be the “sweet” flavor, they brave it and taste it. But, as soon as they’ve finished their first bite, they lose all inhibition and open up to its unexpected, delicious language.
Our restaurant imports its spices directly from my mother in Nepal. She sends them in their whole form and then we grind them here so that their flavor is as authentic and rich as possible. At the cheel, it’s difficult to tell whether our spices accentuate our dishes or our dishes accentuate our spices. This, my friends, is how you know a perfect balance has been found between the accent and the delivered speech.