I came across this traditional yogurt dessert recipe the other day when my son and I were learning about Nepal. I do not have much personal experience with Nepali cuisine and culture, but what better way to learn more than through food?
Nepal is a very ethnically diverse country, which is also reflected in the food culture. Nepali cuisine has a unique blend of Indian and Tibetan influences, as well as many indigenous traditions. There is no one definitive style of cooking, and the food varies by region. The most common Nepali cuisines are Newari, Thakali, Magar and Sherpa.
The origin of Sikarni is unclear, but sources suggest it is a Newā/Newari dish from the Kathmandu region. There are many variations on this popular dessert, but it is typically made by sweetening yogurt with honey or sugar, spicing it with a combination of cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg, and adding fruit and nuts.
My goal with any historic or traditional recipe is to locate an authentic manuscript source, the older the better! I don’t know how to read Devanagari script so I had to rely solely on my archival research prowess to find digitized Nepali Sanskrit and Newari manuscripts. I was unable to find any early culinary sources from Nepal, but for those of you interested, here are some other digitized ancient texts:
- Three 11th-century Buddhist texts by Rāhulabhadra: Prajñāpāramitāstotra, the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā (“Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines”) and the Vajradhvajapariṇāmanā.
- A collection of 10th to 18th-century Sanskrit texts found in and around the Kathmandu Valley. This link is actually a collection of collections. The texts are generally religious stories and rituals (Buddhist and Hindu) and medical manuals. Also contains poetry, astrology and other religious-based topics. Medical texts often include references to diet, so I suspect one of those collections has some ayurvedic food guidelines.
- This text (called कुलपिण्ड बिधि) is about dedicating rice balls for a Hindu funerary ritual. This is the only one I found relating to food, but I do not have the skills necessary to know what I’m looking at.
My search for even early 20th-century Nepali cookbooks wasn’t very fruitful either, but luckily there are plenty of modern resources out there, such as this lovely Nepali Heritage Cook Book made available to the public by the Nepal Tourism Board.
As much as I’d love to dig in to the history of each of Nepal’s cuisines, I simply do not have the time to do them justice. For now, let’s just focus on this Sikarni recipe and two of its major ingredients.
Yogurt (dahi) is traditionally made from cow, yak or goat milk and is an important ingredient in Newari cuisine. Many families make it daily because they prefer it to be fresh, plain and not too runny. Yogurt is often made in clay pots, but I’ve seen recipes that use hanging cheese cloth bags. This dahi recipe by Jyoti Pathak also includes some interesting cultural context!
Cardamom is native to Southern India and is a staple spice in the cuisines of South Asia and the Middle East. It is one of the oldest known spices, being cultivated as early as the 8th century BC. Nepal is the world’s leading large cardamom producer and exporter, and the plant is even used in crafts and textiles.
To learn more about Nepal’s cardamom industry, check out The Kingdom of Cardamom.
- 2 1/2 cups plain yogurt (Greek or homemade)
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 tsp. ground cardamom
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
- 3 Tbsp. chopped pistachios or walnuts
- 3-4 Tbsp. milk or heavy cream
- Fresh strawberries or mangoes
- (optional) Pinch of saffron
Combine yogurt, sugar and spices. Whisk or stir thoroughly to make it creamy. Add 2 tablespoons of nuts, saving the rest for garnish. Thin the yogurt with milk and mix. Fill a glass or a dish with the yogurt and garnish with nuts and fruit. Chill before serving.
Use a good quality, thick plain yogurt. If you’re feeling adventurous, try making some homemade dahi.
Feel free to adjust the consistency by adding more or less milk. I like mine with the 3-4 T. but you may want to add more. Some recipes use up to 1/2 cup and some don’t add milk at all. For a richer yogurt, use heavy cream.
Pistachios and walnuts are both authentic options but I highly recommend using pistachios. I chopped them pretty finely with my food processor and kept the roughly chopped bits for garnish.
I’ve seen recipes using a variety of fruits but the most common are strawberries, mangoes and pomegranate seeds. For individual servings, put some fruit at both the bottom and the top of the glass.
This is truly one of my favorite dessert recipes. I absolutely love it.
Yogurt, fruit and nuts are delicious anyway, but this flavor combination is just so…fresh. It’s just sweet enough to be pleasant without being overpowering. Sikarni is the perfect light dessert to end a meal. And the added bonus is that it is very easy to make.
I can’t visit Nepal anytime soon, so I shall bring Nepal to me!
Sources and Further Reading
Experience Food in Nepal, Discover Nepal by Nepal Tourism Board
History of Spices, McCormick Science Institute