The name of Santosh Shah’s debut cookbook has many meanings. Technically, Ayla refers to a traditional Nepali spirit made from fermented sugarcane molasses with malt or grains that’s served as a ‘sagoon’ (a token of love) at joyous occasions. It is a symbol of celebration, which Shah hopes to reflect with this cookbook that brings the lesser known flavours of Nepal to the forefront.
Shah, who is a MasterChef: The Professionals finalist and was once head chef at Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Kitchen City, grew up in Nepal, and throughout his career has taken steps to champion the cuisine of his motherland. Last year, ahead of running a six-week Nepalese pop-up in the capital, he told BigHospitality that he wanted to bring Nepalese cuisine to London and to the rest of the world, labelling it as an ‘undiscovered food’.
As such, Shah spends as much time teaching readers about the cuisine as he does providing recipes. The book contains a little over 60 dishes spread across nine sections that cover everything from ‘snacks and street food’, ‘meat and poultry’ and ‘vegetarian dishes’, to ‘festival food’, ‘grains and breads’ and ‘sweet things and drinks’.
Each section is prefaced with a two-page introduction, written by Shah and complemented by Matt Russell’s spectacular photography, which explores the country’s gastronomic landscape, including regional variations. It also, at points, discusses socio-political changes in the Nepal. The ‘fish and seafood’ section talks about the rise of fish tourism in the country, as well as a national campaign that’s currently ongoing to raise awareness of the impact of climate change and industrialisation on the country’s rivers.
Elsewhere, Shah has put a lot of focus into making Ayla as accessible as possible, while also ensuring it remains authentic to the cuisine. Introductory chapters include an ingredients directory, including guidance on where users can purchase the more specialised spices; while another details various chef tips including the use of preservation techniques such as sun drying (perhaps not the easiest for form for British readers) and fermentation.
Shah takes inspiration from the produce of Nepal’s rivers, hills and mountains, and key dishes to feature in the book include chicken momos with ginger and chilli; plantain curry; ‘home style’ okra masala, river fish with mustard and onion sauce; pork and bamboo shoot curry; charred spiced Himalayan yam; fried Sherpa bread; and Nepali masala tea. Shah also includes recipes for his own spice mixes, pickles, chutneys, and garnishes including a zingy green mango and coconut chutney; sesame and green chilli pickle; and Nepali garam masala.
The chef notes in his introduction that very little has been published on Nepali cuisine. With Ayla, he has created a comprehensive introduction to the country’s food that should help put it firmly on the map.
Author: Santosh Shah
Number of pages: 224
Must try dish: Chicken momos with ginger and chilli
Publisher and price: DK Publishing, £20