Jimbu, jambu, jamboo, or jhiku-cha is a dried herb used in Himalayan regions. It is the dried stalks and leaves of two species of wild onions and looks like dried grass. When fried in ghee or oil the dried herb has a pungent flavor much like garlic or shallots. After tempering in this manner it is traditionally used to flavor lentils, pickles, meat, salads, and vegetables.
|A valley in the Upper Mustang region of Nepal, formerly known as the Kingdom of Lo|
The high altitude Upper Mustang region of Nepal is where most jimbu is harvested. The wild herb is seasonal and is foraged between June and September. The leaves and stems are then allowed to air-dry in sheds. The Thakali people of Nepal inhabit the Upper Mustang and the sale of jimbu is a significant part of their annual household income. About 3288 kilograms of dried jimbu was estimated to be collected in Upper Mustang during 2004. Most of the land in the high desert Mustang region lacks vegetation. The sandy soils are prone to erosion by wind, snow, and rain. Allium hypsistum and Allium przewalskianum grow in soil-binding clumps which help to prevent this erosion. Unfortunately over harvesting of these wild plants has been a problem with Allium przewalskianum listed as a vulnerable species in the 1990s.
Here in Pokhara we have a large population of Thakali folks so you'll often see jimbu in large sacks at markets in early Fall. If kept cool, dry, and out of direct sunlight jimbu stores well for about a year.
In the past few years I've even seen jimbu packaged at the local department store. Priced at a little over a dollar for 25 grams it's not cheap but not exorbitantly expensive compared to spices with similar flavor such as hing/asafoetida. Jimbu smells like dried onions to me.
So as you can imagine we have quite a few Thakali restaurants around here. We have other regional specialty restaurants such as Newari and Gurung too. One of the most famous Thakali dishes is made with black lentils called kalo maas. Kalo maas is a black lentil grown at lower hilly elevations. The Thakali also grow a red bean at higher elevations that is much like a pinto bean in flavor called Simi. The Thakali prefer to split their lentils before cooking so that's how you'll see them for sale at markets.
|Split black lentils or urad dal, called kalo maas in Nepali|
The jimbu and other spices used such as dry red chili, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, and garlic are then fried in smoking hot ghee in a technique called jhannu in Nepali. This same tempering technique is called chaunk in Hindi, tadka in Punjabi, and baghaar in Urdu. The tempered spices and hot ghee are poured onto the boiled lentils making a distinctive sizzling sound.
The jhannu or tempering technique is what gives this dish it's uniquely aromatic, garlicky, buttery and smoky flavor. The fried jimbu and I'm guessing the fried fenugreek seeds also lend the grayish cooked lentils a rather peculiar green cast.
Here's a typical thali from a local Thakali restaurant. This is the Thakali version of the traditional Nepali meal of dal-bhat-tarkaari or lentils-rice-vegetables. In the lower right corner is the dal or lentils made with jimbu. The bhat or rice is in the center and composes most of the meal. The tarkaari or vegetables are the sauteed greens and the yellow potatoes you see on the upper right as well as the bit of raw vegetables on the upper left. (The greens and potatoes were probably made with jimbu too.) The bits of meat in red sauce on the bottom center are a special treat and not usually an everyday occurrence. Just in case anything is too spicy or you're having a bit of tummy trouble a little bowl of yogurt or curd like you see on the upper left is usually served with all meals also.
That's all I know about the traditional and uniquely Himalayan herb called jimbu. Another uniquely Nepali spice is timur which you can read about here. Hope you enjoyed my little essay and keep calmly currying on,