My love affair with timur (or how to cook a Nepali village feast)

Photos by Adam Lam

The first time I fell in love with timur was in a tiny cavelike kitchen in Kathmandu Valley. A little girl named Srijana put a tiny black peppercorn-like object in my palm. "Smell this, sister," she said. "I used this to make the achar." It had a confident, flirty aroma — black pepper with a gentle seductive burst of blood orange. To compliment the dinner that her aunties cooked at the orphanage, Srijana had crushed several pods of timur and put it the achar, a salsa-like sauce of stewed tomatoes, ginger, garlic, and onions sizzled in walnut oil, ground to perfection in a black iron bowl.

Back in San Francisco, I reconnect with timur by the giant stoves in a church kitchen in the Castro district. Every week, a group of Bay Area-based Nepalis and their American friends gather here to cook food for the homeless. Srijana lives in a home started by the same guy who runs this soup kitchen, so their recipes are essentially the same. This is the only other place in the world where I can relive the flavors in Srijana's achar.

Curry Without Worry is a unique soup kitchen. Its meals are premised not just on filling empty stomachs but on the Nepali village tradition of spreading love through food. "We're all going to die one day, and when we do, we will take nothing with us," says Kushal Basnyat, one of its board members. "So why don't we share everything?" The program is in its third year, and every week, it manages to feed about 200 people.

Jump to the recipes
I'm standing on my tiptoes over giant burners with a steel paddle in my hand, clumsily stirring a giant pot of beans simmering in oil, ginger, and garlic. Next to me, Shrawan Nepali, the founder, dumps a giant spoonful of turmeric into a pot of sizzling onions and the aroma of exotic spices infiltrate the kitchen air. Cooking for hundreds isn't easy, but it comes naturally to this former restaurant operator from Kathmandu — until a few years ago, he used to run a Nepali eatery on Lombard Street. In the center island, a tall engineer-turned-retiree chef named Charles is making several dozen balls of puri dough using whole wheat flour, self-rising flour, and lots of salt. I come here half expecting that they might want to keep their recipes hidden, but the folks at Curry Without Worry are not secretive at all. In fact, volunteer Catherine Lyons tells me, they're planning to distribute starter kits with ingredients and recipes so that anyone can start a Nepali soup kitchen.

The Curry Without Worry team really takes the time to make sure their food is extra special. Instead of the simple but delicious Nepali staple meal, dal baht — lentils and rice — they serve quanti — a nine-bean soup indigenous to the Newari ethnic group. It's a celebratory food usually reserved for the day of the full moon in the middle of monsoon season, but here in San Francisco the homeless get to eat it every week. To top it off, they sprinkle the quanti with ajwain, a celebratory spice traditionally offered to women in labor for extra energy. They make several special slices of puri on an ungreased pan for one of their regular customers, a homeless man named Howard, who can't have too much oil due to health problems.

The turmeric, coriander, cumin, and ajwain are in plastic bags from the Indian supermarket in Berkeley; the timur is in a jar and was brought straight back from Nepal. Most of the veggies — boxes full of cauliflower, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, red, green, and yellow peppers — are donated via the Food Bank. Bowlfuls of ginger and garlic are dumped in generous portions into every dish. This kitchen smells amazing. Satisfied with the way the meal is progressing, Shrawan picks up his madal drum and starts tapping a rhythm and belts out a windy tune. "What is he singing?" I whisper to Kushal. "Whatever he feels like," Kushal responds as he picks up another madal and joins him. Catherine makes some chia — Nepali milk tea with black pepper and cardamom — and distributes it among the dozen or so people who have showed up to help cook. The kitchen has turned into a mini Himalayan festival, and my mind's eye wanders back into the dusty windy roads of Kathmandu Valley.

Three hours after the cooking festivities started, Shrawan lugs the giant pots off of the stove. Dinner is ready.

Every Tuesday evening at around 5:30, a hodge podge of characters appear at San Francisco's UN plaza and wait, rain or shine, for the black Curry Without Worry SUV. In typical Nepali fashion, the meal is never on time, but time is something that most of these customers — among them many who are homeless, jobless, and drug-addicted — have plenty of.

It's surprisingly easy to get a free hot meal every night of the week in San Francisco. Once, a kind, toothless blond woman who mistook me for a customer produced a crinkled sheet of lined paper from her backpack. It was a scribble of street corners listed by days of the week and cuisine — sandwiches at the church on Mondays, curry on Tuesdays, and so on. "You can have this," she tells me, shoving the paper in my hand, "but you've already made it to the best spot."

Serving food at Curry Without Worry often tests my goodwill. Sometimes a person will come through the line with a giant Tupperware and ask me to fill it to the brim. My first instinct is to say no. How selfish are you? There are so many other people in line and you're asking for an extra-large portion? But I realize that these thoughts are contrary to the spirit of giving food without judgment.

Shrawan smiles at every one of his customers and hugs them warmly. "Thank you for being here," he says as he hands a snaggle-toothed man a paper plate sagging from the weight of the curry and rice.

Before I left Nepal, I bought a small bag of timur from a spicemonger on the road leading to Pashupatinath Temple, a Hindu holy spot where sadhus smoke pot as they watch bodies cremate on the Bagmati riverbank. He scooped a metal cup full of peppercorn from one of half a dozen giant wicker baskets and emptied the contents into a small black plastic bag. I gave him 20 Nepali rupees for it and kept it close to my body at all times on my journey home, fearing it might get lost or that the smell might get left behind, like the dust on the roads and the kids at the orphanage. You can't buy timur in America, but in Nepal it grows abundantly at elevations of 8-9,000 feet. My stash now sits in a jar on my spice rack at home, and every so often I open it for a whiff or a nibble. It takes me back instantly to that moment when little Srijana opened her hand, revealing the magical scent that will forever remind me that the most important ingredient in Nepali food is love, with a generous dosage of spices.

You can find Curry Without Worry online at currywithoutworry.org. The service will launch its Kathmandu operations this fall.

RECIPES

Here's what you need to make a giant Nepali feast for your friends. Note: The recipes are based on notes I jotted down while cooking with the team at Curry Without Worry. The most important thing to remember is that practice makes perfect. So stock up, experiment, and see how yours turns out!

Achar

1 cup oil
5 lbs tomatoes
5 lbs onions
½ lbs ginger
1.5oz dried chili peppers
spices: fenugreek, turmeric, salt, pepper, timur

Cook the onions and fenugreek in oil and let simmer for 10 minutes. Add turmeric and some water. Add tomatoes, timur, and chili peppers 20 minutes later. Stir consistently, adding spices to taste and water for consistency.

Tarkardi

1 cup oil
6 lbs cabbage
5 lbs cauliflower
5 lbs bell peppers
4 lbs tomatoes
2.5 lbs onions
¼ lbs garlic
¼ lbs ginger
spices & herbs: coriander, turmeric, cumin, cumin seed, cilantro

Cook the onions and cumin seed in heated oil in a giant pot. Add coriander, turmeric, and cumin. Add salt and water. Let simmer for 20 minutes. Dump all the chopped veggies in and cover, stirring occasionally for consistency, until soft. (If you're using potatoes, cook those first until they're halfway cooked.) Remove from heat and add cilantro.

Quanti

1 cup vegetable oil
15 lbs sprouted beans (9 varieties)
2.5 lbs onions
¼ lbs garlic
¼ lbs ginger
0.5oz dried chili peppers
spices: turmeric, cumin, coriander ajwain seed

Cook the onions in oil in a giant pot. Add beans one pound at a time and stir, adding garlic, ginger, and spices. Sprinkle ajwain and stir.

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    1. Hey GrymRpr! you’re not the one feeding 200 or more people every day, without expecting anything in return!! So, back off. If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing!!

      And Lisa, thanks for the recipes, and for sharing this story with us :)

  1. Timur (टिमुर) is also known as Nepali pepper. Jyoti Pathak says in her cookbook “A Taste of Nepal” that Szechwan pepper is milder, but can be substituted when timur is not available. Tarkaari (तरकारी) means vegetables cooked with oil and spices, so it could consist of almost anything. Kwaanti (क्वाँटी) is a Newari dish that can contain peas, garbanzos, mung beans, soybeans, and lentils.

    Shrawan’s a great guy. I’m happy to hear about his new project.

  2. When I read your description, I thought timur sounded an awful lot like Szechuan peppercorn, a.k.a. prickly ash, and Wikipedia seems to agree. They also say importing it is not a great idea, because it can carry a virulent bacterial disease that affects citrus trees (don’t worry, it doesn’t affect people).

    You might want to go to Chinatown and see if you can get some Szechuan peppercorn there (it is legal to import as long as it’s been heated to 170 degrees to kill the bacteria). If it’s the same stuff, it would be a lot easier to get it there than in Kathmandu… :’)

    Thanks for the recipes!

  3. What a great article and terrific recipes. How I would love to do something like this in Dayton or Cincinnati.

  4. A friend brought over some Szechuan peppercorn last night, and in my opinion they are nothing alike!

    1. Many pakistani recipes also call for timur, and I’ve found that making these dishes with Szechwan pepper is easier than trying to find the rarely-imported spice mixes that contain temur (which are never nearly as flavorful as the real thing).

  5. Back when I was in high school, I lived as an expat in Singapore and every year the school organized a set of trips that everyone would go on. One year, I visited Rishikesh to raft. That trip was, to be perfectly honest, awful – we had all packed for cold and dry weather, but our flight to Ladakh was delayed indefinitely, and the Rishikesh trip was pulled together in a hurry – but all of the high points I remember involved the food. Our guides were Nepali, and they brought their whole families along with the trip, kids and all, and cooked food every night. I don’t remember any of the names of what we ate, but by far the most satisfying thing was the dessert, a cardamom-spiced rice pudding, served hot.

    Some years later, I found out that it was called kheer, which unfortunately also happens to be a general name for all Indian-subcontinent-style rice pudding. Notwithstanding that, though, I’ve figured out how to (poorly) reproduce it and have posted it here: http://web.mit.edu/velsonj/Public/recipes/nepali%20rice%20pudding.txt

    Every time I taste it brings me back to camps by the Ganges.

  6. Hi Lisa, Thanks for the recipes, can you add about how many each one of them serves???

    1. These portions are straight from the Curry w/o worry recipe file, so I think they’ll feed up to 200… definitely make less if you’re just trying it at home :)

  7. We were just introduced to timur on Saturday at a nice Nepalese restaurant near Ballainvilliers, south of Paris. It has a pretty unique taste, but thanks to my homebrewing experiences I was reminded of another spice with what I think is a very similar mouthfeel: Grains of Paradise, or Aframomum Melegueta. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aframomum_melegueta

    If you can’t find timur in the US, you can definitely find this stuff, and while it’ll be different it should still offer that difficult to define peppery/fruity taste. Here’s my old homebrew supply shop’s listing for it, they deliver all over the US: http://www.beer-wine.com/products/paradise-seeds-grains-paradise-2-gram-package

  8. On behalf of Curry Without Worry Family I want to thank you Lisa for your great writeup on our program. I also want to thank all the good folks who have so nicely commented on this subject.

    We have a vision of spreading the love, Nepali village style, through bringing healthy vegetarian food to hungry souls. We have acted locally in San Francisco, our birthplace and now in the process of thinking globally, thus, returning to our another home in Kathmandu this fall where timur is plentyful!

    Please stay tuned for Curry Without Worry near you!

    Peace, shrawan nepali, founder, Curry Without Worry

  9. Hi pKp, Happy Tuesday! Please feel free to drop by at the Civic Center/ UN Plaza this evening or any Tuesday evenings around 6:30pm enjoy our meal.

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