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.