Let's start with the name. "Dal" means lentil soup, and "bhat" means rice, but a complete dal bhat meal almost always involves additional dishes. In its simplest form, like the plate shown below, dal bhat also includes a mix of curried vegetables -- often cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and green beans, but the selection depends on the restaurant and the season.
It was only on the trail, though, that we saw such simple versions of dal bhat. Whenever we order the meal in Kathmandu, at least one or two other dishes accompany the lentil soup, rice, and vegetables.
For example, there is the requisite achar, or pickle. In Nepal, though, pickle means something very different from the dill or gherkin that might come to mind. It can come in many forms, ranging from a mild tomat0-based sauce to a pungently flavored lemon rind or, even, bit of fish or meat. Here, the pickle is a raw radish coated in a gritty mix of spices and oil.
In addition to pickle, you also frequently find spinach, lightly sauteed with garlic and often whole chilis, on your plate of dal bhat.
A far less frequent addition to dal bhat is gundruk, or fermented mustard, radish, and cauliflower greens. Confession: when I first tried gundruk, I thought that I had finally met a vegetable that I did not like. The fermentation of the greens leaves them with a very strong taste. But after a few more tries, I came to really like gundruk, and now it is a delightful surprise when it appears with dal bhat.
The final dal bhat topper is usually a piece of round papadum, or papad for short. This South Asian cracker is typically made of lentil or chickpea flour, and it is either toasted dry or fried in oil. I love papad, and we keep a stash at home. We heat them up over a gas burner, and within a few seconds they crisp and harden.
At any given restaurant, dal bhat can vary significantly in the offerings, quality, and price. For starters, there are dozens of types of lentils, and no two pickles are the same. Some restaurants have served exceptionally flavored dal bhat, while others (I'm looking at you, Lazimpat Gallery Cafe) have served us some really bland lentil soup and sad-looking vegetables. Prices run the gamut, too: we have paid as little as 95 rupees (about $1.30) for dal bhat at a hole-in-the-wall in Thamel, and we have paid as much as 450 rupees (about $6.25) for dal bhat in high-elevation towns on the Annapurna Circuit.
But although we (clearly) enjoy dal bhat, we do not eat it nearly as frequently as Nepalis, who typically eat it every morning and every evening. It makes sense, then, that they call it their "national meal."
Nepalis: are we doing your food justice?
Others: what do you consider your national meal?
Share with us in the comments!