“Whenever Nepalis go out to eat at a restaurant, they look at the entire menu for 15 to 20 minutes and then order momo or chowmein,” is a famous Nepali saying that sums up the dining out experience for Nepalis. This saying underlines the popularity of chowmein, proudly considered the second most popular dish in Nepal. You can find the raw noodles, carefully packed in plastic bags, at the vegetable stalls of Kathmandu’s bustling market, adding a touch of authenticity to the local dining experience.
In addition to the standard fried noodles, Nepal offers a delicious twist on the chowmein saga with the renowned chowmein soup, known as thukpa. In the eastern city of Dharan, thukpa is even delicious for breakfast. It’s a hot and spicy noodle soup that helps you start your day with a burst of energy.
The origin of chowmein in Nepal is a story of cultural exchange and migration, where the influences of Chinese, Tibetan and Nepalese culinary traditions come together. The term ‘chǎo-miàn’, which means ‘fried noodles’ in Chinese, dates back more than 4,000 years. However, it was only in the 1960s, with the arrival of Tibetan refugees, that chowmein reached the hearts and taste buds of Nepalese.
The Tibetan diaspora not only brought momo and thukpa, but also ignited a culture of street food and small restaurants across Nepal. The infusion of Chinese sauces including green chilli, chilli garlic and hot Kolkata garlic added a local touch to the flavor palette. Nepal’s culinary landscape has evolved further with the return of the Nepali diaspora from the United States and the Burmese Nepalese, who have contributed their noodle variations to the mix.
Before chowmein took center stage, Nepal had a noodle soup tradition influenced by Tibetan culinary practices. However, the 1980s saw the emergence of instant noodles and dried egg noodles, solidifying chowmein’s status as an integral part of Nepal’s street food culture.
The noodle narrative expands beyond Nepal’s borders, integrating seamlessly into India’s culinary heritage. The introduction of noodles to northern India, through ‘sevai’ or vermicelli, dates back to trade along the Silk Road with Persia and Arabia. Chowmein, with its humble origins and inspiration from Hakka-style fried noodles, embodies resourcefulness and adaptability.
Today, chowmein is a symbol of intercultural fusion, reflecting Nepal’s history of migration, trade, and shared culinary legacies. From bustling cities to remote villages, the presence of chowmein on menus across the country symbolizes the integration of diverse flavors, celebrating the harmonious blend of traditions in a culinary delight enjoyed by Nepalese and visitors alike.
The following are some variations of the versatile chowmein:
The sautéed edition
Variations such as chow mein, fried Shanghai style and Singapore style are essentially Chinese in nature. Stir-fried with an extra touch of spice is particularly popular in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma, featuring various styles such as Ribbon noodles, Pad Thai, Khao Swe and Yakisoba.
This is the city’s new success. The ingredients are cooked noodles, bok choy, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, chili oil, scallions, salt, minced meat (keema) and onion. First, let’s make the chili oil/sauce. In a bowl, combine the pepper flakes, crushed Sichuan peppercorns and salt. Heat mustard oil and pour the hot oil into the chilli flakes mixture.
Next we will prepare the minced meat. Heat the oil in a pan and add the onion, ginger and chopped garlic. Once the onions are transparent, add the minced meat and tomatoes. Fry continuously until the meat changes color. Add spices, salt and soy sauce. Mix everything well and cook until the water evaporates.
Now boil the water for the pasta. Add some oil and salt to boiling water. Boil the Chinese egg noodles and when ready, add bok choy. Finally, mix all the prepared items and serve.
Thukpa in Tibet and Nepal offers a broth with spices, meat and vegetables, flavored with Sichuan pepper.
China and Hong Kong feature various dumplings, roast duck and fish cakes with egg noodle soup. Japan has miso, while Vietnam boasts pho.
Noteworthy mentions include Thailand’s tom yum soup noodles and Malaysia’s laksa curry.
Glazed pasta with sauces
This style involves frying noodles and finishing them with rich sauces, meats, vegetables and fish.
Indo-Chinese versions such as Hakka, chili garlic noodles and Ma Yi Shang Shu (Ant Climbing a Tree) from China, along with curry udon from Japan, Mie Ayam from Indonesia and kimchi from Korea feature a wide variety of flavors.
Special ingredients and flavors vary by region, with the Nepalese incorporating Sichuan peppers, the Malaysians adding lemongrass, curry leaves and lime leaves, and the Vietnamese using cardamom, mint and coriander.
Pasta with salad
The fundamental noodle remains constant, with variations in the type of noodle used and the serving temperature, whether hot or cold.
Examples include Japan’s refreshing ramen salad and Thailand’s spicy Yum Woon Sen noodle salad.
Pasta as a filling or wrap
The noodles have versatile uses, serving as fillings in Vietnamese-style spring rolls or Japanese-style omelets. Notable mentions in Nepal include the colorful, fried homemade snack jhilinga, a staple at festivals, weddings, and special ceremonies. Additionally, the Indian subcontinent boasts the dessert sevai, especially popular among Muslim communities, along with sev, a savory and spicy snack, and the well-known Anglo snack, Bombay mix.
The story of Nepali chowmein is a captivating journey through time and culture, showing the resilience of Nepali culinary traditions in the face of evolving influences. From its humble beginnings to its current status as a culinary icon, chowmein is a testament to Nepal’s ability to embrace and transform its rich gastronomic heritage.
The author is a UK-based R&D chef