“A Year in Nepal” is a book I have been writing since the beginning of this year, 2019. I’d got to my 6th chapter and somehow ran out of steam, lots of ideas, content, adventures, but just couldn’t continue or explain it! I let it sit there for two months, and despite encouragement from friends in Kathmandu, nothing! So, I’ve decided to try something completely different. Every week, Wednesday’s, I’ll post one of my chapters for comment, feedback good or bad, it will all be absorbed. If there’s silence, that tells me something too. Let me ask everyone stopping by here for help, do please comment, reblog, Facebook it, etc etc., all will be accepted, acknowledged, replied to. Here’s the second chapter, all about food: (You should start from previous chapters published here Our Book, A Year in Nepal)
Food: Dinner’s ready, come through now!
“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go. (Anthony Bourdain)”
We stayed in bed later today, got up at about 9am though the kids had been up and messing around for a couple of hours. After another cold shower (!) went upstairs to the old traditional kitchen for breakfast which was boiled eggs, toast and cups of tea. Surprisingly though Champa’s father was there waiting for us, he had walked the 2 miles from Ason to bring me an English language morning newspaper, the Kathmandu Post, and had been waiting for 2 hours! I felt so ashamed I had made this old gentleman wait as he told me he enjoyed the walk and would bring me a newspaper every morning! We sat around chatting for a while as the kids seemed fascinated by the traditional Nepali wood burning clay stove. Wood is fed into the fire as a long single piece, not chopped into pieces and all thrown in which is a way of regulating the heat I suppose ……. Wood mark 5 please! Mostly the wood we saw being used was dried bamboo? A large aluminium pot full of water is kept constantly hot resting over one hole and ladles of hot water taken out for other tasks over other holes such as cooking rice, boiling eggs.
After a while Champa’s father left us and Nanta (oldest sister) said we needed to go back downstairs to our room as we had a visitor. What we saw on entering our bedroom I will never forget, the whole carpeted floor was covered in food laid out in groups: eggs, rice, cheese, lentils, dried fish, mangoes, oranges, grapefruit, grapes, mosum, naspati, biscuits, bananas, figs, lychee, noodles, meat pizza, vegetable pizza ….. Everything had been brought and arranged for us by Champa’s young niece Jyoti and her husband Dharma. Jyoti is the daughter of Champa’s second sister, Mutta.
Michael and Sharon couldn’t wait to start eating as we sat on the floor and the “ritual” was explained. This was our family’s way of honouring us, our marriage, our family, our visit. We were not expected to eat everything, just to respectfully accept the gift and taste a few items, but the pizza was disappearing fast in a certain direction! We chatted for about an hour or so before they had to leave and we promised to visit their home too within a few days. We helped to clear up and store things away with Nanta before she said to come upstairs again. So, up we went to Nanta’s living room to find ……….. Oh hell, a floor covered in food and another niece, Geeta and her husband Keshap waiting for us. “Nothing to describe or explain” said Champa, “you know what to do”!
“This was our very first food experience in Nepal, and a very significant one. It taught us about the value of food in Nepali culture; something to be respected, something to be given thanks for, occasionally a gift, part of a celebration or a festival day as we were soon to discover too.”
Take a walk around the street markets of Ason Tole in the heart of “old Kathmandu” and you will begin to identify the opportunity for an unusual and varied range of foods and spices. When these are combined with their role in festivals, religious ceremonies and ancient customs we begin to see the importance too of agriculture and the passing on of cooking skills and recipes through the generations. My wife was taught to cook by her mother, and though we live in England she still practices her art of making Momo, Yomari, Paratha, Daal, Aloo Achar, Masco Bara, Haku Choyla, Kwatti, Mee Achar …….. naturally all of these dishes and skills to cook them have been passed on to our daughter.
Momo has become the classic Nepalese snack dish so loved by western tourists, though most of them will have no idea that, long before its current popularity, it originated as an exclusive food of the Buddhist Newar people, the merchant caste who were the original inhabitants of Kathmandu when it was a separate kingdom! My wife, Dr C, is a Newar with the family name Tuladhar, born in the Ason district of Kathmandu where everyone seems to have the Tuladhar surname. She grew up making Momo with her mother and sisters sitting in a circle on the floor of their kitchen especially on cold and wet days. Sitting together with a few pans steaming the prepared food was a good way to keep warm on such days, and even now in England on cold rainy days she will say “looks like a Momo day”!
Traditionally a group of Newari women would sit in a circle on the floor and organise themselves for a morning of Momo making, each with a different role. Someone mixes the meat with the spices, another makes the dough for the meat cases, someone gets the steamers “up to speed”. Then, the dough and meat is placed in the centre of the circle and everyone begins creating small dough balls and flattening them into small discs. A small blob of the spiced meat is placed in the centre of the dough disc and it is sealed with deft finger work and a flick of the wrist. A couple of others are in charge of the steaming as a few hundred of the dumpling-like Momo gather in the centre of the circle. This is the fun time, and something I have watched on countless occasions as these close friends and relatives laugh and giggle at the way each person seals the dough around the meat. Everyone does it differently resulting in a slightly different seal pattern or “signature” and there is no doubt that greater skill levels result in a neater and absolutely consistent pattern of closure.
Once steamed the Momo are served hot as a snack before the main part of a meal, or just as a “Momo feast” almost competitively to see how many you can eat. In the evening they are traditionally served with copious amounts of Aila, the Newari spirit distilled from fermented rice, grains and millet, and …… containing about 60% alcohol! Momo are often served however as part of a larger meal, either at family gatherings or during the main festivals such as Dashain or Tihar in the Autumn. However there are many other foods and dishes which form a strong part of Nepalese culture on special days.
I wrote about the festival of Gunla in a previous chapter, always in August, devotees celebrate the festival by offering early morning prayers at Buddhist temples, reciting scriptures and playing Gunla music, believing this is the month in which Lord Buddha had become enlightened. The traditional food for full moon day this month month is Kwatti, a substantial soup made from a mixture of 9-10 different kinds of beans, typically kidney beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, soyabean, mung bean, green bean, black bean and white beans. To make it even more filling a variant includes dropping a few Momo into the soup as it is served. My sister in law, Bimala, is an expert at this dish, a brilliant all-round cook who will spend two days making it beginning with soaking the dried beans she has sourced from different merchants, then cooking some separately as they soften at different rates. She will eventually bring everything together on the second day adding her own mix of spices, and finally a treat of a few momo as served.
Another Nepalese favourite served on a full moon day, this time in December, is Yomari. This is very similar to Momo but the casing is made from rice flour rather than wheat, making a much more sticky texture. Fillings are traditionally a mixture of molasses with sesame paste, though some will fill them with spiced meat the same as Momo. I’m not big fan of this dish, much too sweet for my taste, but it’s a big favourite on children’s birthdays too who receive a number of Yomari attached to a string and placed around their neck. Naturally the number of Yomari corresponds to their age!
My all time favourite is Tswon, a dish I first tasted at the Dashain festival in September, though at the time it was probably a good thing that I didn’t know its origin. We spent most of the day flying kites from the rooftop of my wife’s original family home in Ason, it was the Dashain festival and kite “fighting” is a tradition on this particular day. Kite flying was over, and we now started a round of visiting friends for snacks and at the first house I experienced my first Tswon. It looked like fried slices of meat, and when I asked what it was I was assuredly told it was lamb! It was delicious too.
On leaving the friends house my wife and Bimala decided to tell me that what I had just eaten was actually stuffed lambs lungs! Yes, you read that right ….. lungs! The delicacy is prepared in several stages again, clean the lungs, ensure no holes in them by “blowing” air into them, fill with a thin batter of wheat flour and egg, tie off the main holes with string and simmer slowly for about 45 mins. Now remove from the pan and allow to go completely cold before cutting into thin slices. Now fry the slices in hot oil with haldi and jeera added to the hot oil. Serve as a hot snack with the traditional Aila firewater.
Although the Newari caste love their snacks, along with the main population their staple diet is based on Daal Bhaat, meaning rice with daal pulse soup. This constitutes their main meal of the day and depending on the “wealth” of the family it has vegetables (tarkari) added, making it Daal Bhaat Tarkari, or even a meat (Maasu) such as chicken, lamb, goat to buffalo, now making it Daal Bhaat Tarkari Maasu. Naturally
I have experienced many combinations and variations on a daily basis, but I will always remember fondly the occasions when a group of western mountaineer friends would come to visit, and at the end of any expedition I would invite them for a meal to one of our family homes.
Traditionally the group would sit in a large circle on the carpeted floor of the main entertaining room of the house, along with myself and a few male members of our family. After a welcome everyone would be served the Newari drink Aila poured into small brass or terracotta dishes from a brass pot, usually resulting in lots of coughing and spluttering by the unwary ones. The ladies of the house would be busy preparing food in the kitchen before one would enter with a bowl of one particular snack and either small plates of banana tree leaves on which to place the food. Here is a typical event:
“Come through now, dinner is ready!”
“Urmila entered with a large bowl of Momo and proceeded to place 2-3 on each guests banana leaf and invited them to eat before retreating to the kitchen. Silence descended as these spiced meat dumplings were cautiously explored, before total agreement that they were brilliant. More arrived and people now took 4-5 each and another round of Aila was poured.
Urmila entered again now with a bowl of fried potato chips, lightly spiced and golden brown. No hesitation here, each guest took a good helping onto their banana leaf. Naturally, more Aila too, remember it’s 60% alcohol! Fairly quickly Urmila returned with a bowl of Haku Choyla, which means “blackened meat” in the Newari language and it dawned on everyone they should have slowed down with the spicy potatoes to go with the meat. Haku Choyla is another speciality Newari snack, usually buffalo meat sometimes lamb, spiced and grilled. Delicious. I won’t keep mentioning the Aila as it could get tedious, but not if you’re drinking it! The next dish to arrive was Masco Bara, it looks a little like a flat dumpy pancake and is made from black lentils, soaked overnight, pounded into a paste then mixed with spices including asafoetida, cumin, haldi and some ginger paste. Totally vegetarian and a nice contrast to the previous meat dishes.
Now it was the turn of the Aloo Achar, a potato “pickle” to be brought in, small pieces of boiled potato which had been mixed with raw pieces of onion, cucumber, tomatoes, fresh peas, mixed with fresh coriander, lemon juice, and finally tempered with hot oil containing haldi and black onion or mustard seeds. This was served with a small flat bread roti.
Everyone is now looking rather “stuffed and flushed” snacks plus Aila is having an effect, so you can imagine the horror as Urmila enters the room again and announces “dinner is ready now, please come through”! Nobody moved ….. except yours truly, and I creaked my way upright after an hour sitting cross legged on the floor and gently coaxed my friends to follow me into the kitchen where they were met by a large table covered in Daal Bhaat Tarkari Maasu! This is classic and traditional Newari hospitality with my friends looking at each other rather guiltily about having eaten so much of the offered snacks”
FOOD: A FEW THINGS TO UNDERSTAND AND REMEMBER
• To the Nepali people food is a gift.
• Receiving food is an honour and often used as a personal welcome.
• Food is a part of Nepali culture with a ceremonial role in festival days, marriages, religion and “significant event” days.
• Meat is a luxury and the majority of the population get very little or are vegetarian. Beef is not eaten at all with Buffalo, Lamb, Chicken and Goat being the most consumed.
• Daal Bhaat Tarkari (Rice, pulses and vegetables) is the staple food
• Many foods are regional or caste based, Newars having their Samay Baje snacks as tradition, and the Kirati people having Pork as their main meat when available for example.
• Beware of, even totally avoid salads or anything uncooked, even though a family or cafe may try for everything to be hygienic, the untreated water can contain bacteria unwelcome in YOUR gut!
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