Making Chamsur Palungo with Rachana and the League of Kitchens
Rachana with a plate of sel
I’m elbow-deep in a steel bowl filled with shredded vegetables and paneer, a mixture that will soon be filled into momos, the stuffed dumplings that are often the only Nepali food even travel-savvy foodies are able to name. Around me is a mixed group of New Yorkers, all bent over in various aspects of momo-making, from pinching and forming little balls of dough to rolling out the wrappers for the stuffing. Rachana, a spry and effusive Nepali woman gives us a demonstration, cradling the circular wrappers in her palm and deftly folding it around the loose filling, crimping the edges as she goes. She grabs me by the arm, saying in a conspiratorial way, “Here, you roll out a wrapper,” as she hands me a ball of dough. “Just like chapatti!” she says, laughing. We are in Rachana’s apartment in Flushing, Queens, and between the dining room, where we’re stationed, and the kitchen, where numerous pots are sputtering and steaming on the stove, there are more than seven dishes cooking simultaneously, in preparation for our Nepali dinner.
Rachana, who grew up and lived most of her life in Nepal, is one of the many instructors who teach classes for The League of Kitchens, a NYC-based organization that holds cooking classes taught by cooks from immigrant backgrounds. The classes, which take place all around the city, are wildly popular. (If you didn’t catch Yamini, a longtime League of Kitchens instructor on Colbert, I highly recommend it. Needless to say there’s dancing involved.) The classes, in addition to being a hands-on way of experiencing another culture, also provide a built-in ice breaker; before you’re even aware of it you’re learning things you’d never have thought to ask about, and seeing someone else’s world in an intimate and personal way.
The dinner we’re preparing serves as a handy guide to the various influences on Nepali cooking from its two closest neighbors: India to the south and Chinese-occupied Tibet to the north. “In the south they make more Indian food, and in the North, more Chinese,” says Rachana. But even the food that is nominally more Indian has an identity all its own. Rachana’s maas ko dhal, a simple dish of urad dhal cooked with ginger, asafetida, and ghee, gets the Nepali treatment, with a final flourish of hot ghee seasoned with jimbu. The herb, a dried allium typically used in its dried form, is one of the ingredients that make the dish so uniquely Nepali. Rachana opines that she practically had to organize a social movement to get her local grocery store to carry it. While there are many ingredients that the Indian and the Nepali kitchen share, jimbu isn’t one of the more common among them. “We Nepalis keep going to this store and there’s no jimbu. So we had to ask them, all of us, please—please!—carry jimbu. All the Nepalis will come and shop here then!” As an accompaniment to the various main dishes, there are two tomato-based chutneys. The cherry tomatoes that go into one are roasting in a perforated pan on an open flame. They spit and sizzle as their caramelizing juices burst through their splitting skins. Another dish of braised greens, called chamsur palungo, is typically made in Nepal with a mix of spinach and a local green called chamsur that can be hard (if not impossible) to find in the West, but Rachana finds that watercress gives a wonderful approximation of the original. “I cooked it and gave it to my friends, and they said ‘Rachana! How did you find chamsur ko saag?’ They were shocked!” She wags her head, laughing, telling us that she finally shared her secret with them. She cooks the greens with ajwain seeds and mustard oil with a small amount of ginger. She lets the greens braise for close to an hour, adding splashes of water as the pan dries, and mashing the greens with the back of a spoon so that the final dish is rich, smooth, and has reduced to a fraction of its original volume.
Dessert is one of the most intriguing parts of the menu. Rachana introduces us to sel, ring-shaped rice-flour croquettes. Rachana says, “My friends tell me, ‘You should just call these Nepali doughnuts, then everyone will eat them!” To make the batter for the sel, Rachana grinds some jasmine rice that she has soaked overnight. As the twin millstones in the grinder drum spin round the batter gets finer and finer, until it is almost the consistency of heavy cream. Rachana heats up a large quantity of ghee in a sinister-looking cast-iron saucepan with a long handle. “You have to fry this in ghee,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s no good.” Angie, one of the students, is also an instructor at League of Kitchens, and she and I are both admiring the heavy pan. “Rachana, next time you come from Nepal, could you please bring me one of these?” she asks, admiringly. Rachana laughs and mocks attempting to pick up the hefty pan. “Do you know how heavy this is? I’ll have to get one suitcase just for this pan.” Angie puts a reassuring hand on her shoulder—“don’t worry, we can start a business. Who else wants a pan?” she says, pointing around the room, polling the rest of us. Several of us promptly raise our hands. One by one, Rachana tutors us in how to form the sel, pouring a thick ribbon of batter into the ghee around the inside edge of the pan. The sel puffs up into a crisp and chewy ring, punctuated with bubbles of air.
Between the fleets of stainless-steel plates, tumblers, and bowls that Rachana has set out, there is barely room on the table for all the food we’ve prepared. As we tuck into dinner, elbow to elbow at the table, there’s a brief silence of appreciation, one that quickly gives way to exclamations of delight and facetious compliments all around on the great work we’ve done, and more earnest compliments to Rachana for the gift of this wonderful meal. We pass the rest of the evening in animated talk and everyone gets up for seconds at one point or another. When we’re finally released back into the world (with Tupperware containers full of leftovers!) I’m already contemplating the first dish I’ll try to recreate at home.
I love Rachana’s recipe for Chamsur Palungo. It’s really just a plate of greens, and that’s what makes it so great. Every culture has its own version, and this one is utterly unique. The ajwain, which is an incredibly underutilized spice, adds a mysterious, slightly bitter undertaste to the dish, which works wonderfully well with the tender greens. The mustard oil is another specifically Nepali ingredient. Mustard oil can be hard to find. Seek it out in the aisles of the closest Indian supermarket. Also, feel free to adapt the quantities of greens and spices to suit your own tastes. The original recipe calls for half the quantity of watercress, but I’m so fond of the peppery kick of the greens that I decided to double it—trust your own judgment.
A note on ajwain: Ajwain is usually sold in bags in most good Indian grocery stores. You can certainly make the dish without it, though it’ll lack that special something that makes it so unique. I recommend stocking up on ajwain anyway—it’s a great spice to experiment with.
A note on mustard seed oil: The use of mustard seed oil in cooking is a contentious issue. Used in many parts of the subcontinent, the oil is considered a traditional mainstay of many cuisines. Recent studies show that euceric acid, a key component in many mustard seed oils (including rapeseed oils) can have a deleterious effect on cardiac health in large quantities. Though there haven’t been studies that show any ill effect from consuming small quantities of the oil, its sale as a cooking oil is technically banned in the United States. If you decide you do want to use the oil (and millions do), look for it at your local Indian grocery store, where it is often sold as massage oil.
1 large bunch spinach
2 bunches watercress
2 tablespoons mustard seed oil (see note)
1 ½ teaspoon ajwain seeds (see note)
1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and pounded to a paste in a mortar and pestle
Salt to taste
Thoroughly wash the spinach and watercress. Even a little grit will make the finished dish unpalatable.
Using a large chef’s knife or a pair of kitchen shears, give the greens a rough chop, just so that there are no long stems in the mixture.
In a large skillet or enameled cast-iron dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it begins to shimmer.
Add the ajwain seeds to the hot oil until they give off their aroma and begin to sizzle and pop in the oil.
Quickly add the greens and a large pinch of salt. If the greens are dry, add a splash of water to the pan so that the greens and ajwain do not scorch.
Cover the pan and cook for 3–4 minutes, until the greens have wilted. Add the ginger and continue cooking, stirring frequently and mashing the greens with the back of a ladle or with a large fork.
Cook the greens until they are tender and all the water has evaporated. Rachana cooks hers for close to an hour, turning the greens into a rough puree. If you go this route, make sure to add water as needed to the pan to make sure that the greens don’t catch on the bottom and burn.
If you don’t have an hour, cook the greens for 7–10 minutes. The greens will be tender and delicious even if they’ve maintained some of their original shape.
Serve hot with rice and dhal.
Special thanks to the League of Kitchens and to Rachana for making this piece possible!