W ithout being disparaging, allow me to quote an old Nepali saying - Brahmins are spoiled due to indulgence, and Newars, due to too much of feasting. How far it is true is not for this writer to judge, but as far as the Newars are concerned, it is a fact that they are still said to look for the slightest excuse to have a feast (bhoj). The Newars are a very sociable lot, more so within their own ethnic social structure. In addition, due to inter marriage within their own small ethnic population, Newars have large families, for every marriage means an addition of more relatives. Therefore, even the smallest of feasts in a Newar family could mean anywhere between 50 to 60 invitees.
Takha, sanyakhuna (spicy, frozen meat gravy)
And, there are quite many such feasts throughout any given year, the exception being when a family has been bereaved in a particular year. In such a case, the bereaved family and its closest relatives stay aloof from any sort of festivities for a year´s time. However, every year in Bhadra (August end or thereabouts), all those who have suffered a loss in the preceding year participate in a unique festival called, Gai Jatra. The smaller kids of a bereaved family, dressed in funny costumes, take part in a carnival like procession consisting of many other participants from other similarly afflicted families. This festival signals the beginning of the festive season. Many more festivals follow in quick succession till Baisakh (mid April), the start of one more Nepali New Year. It should be mentioned here that Newars have their own New Year, which is on the day of ´Mha Puja´, a day before ´Bhai Tika´ during the Tihar festival. Anyway, feasting starts from Gai Jatra itself and, for Newars, continues throughout the year during each and every Newari festival. Events, like birth, marriage, Bartaman (a kind of baptism of boys to the Hindu faith), Gufa and Bel Bihwa (coming of age ceremony for girls), and so on are also occasions that call for feasts.
A traditional lapte bhoj
A traditional Newari feast is known as lapte bhoj. This terminology deserves attention in today´s times because although many feasts now are planned for convenience and arranged as buffets, some Newari families prefer to have it in the customary way. So, to better prepare the guests, the hosts make it a point to mention that they will be hosting a lapte bhoj, in which case, the guest has to understand that he/she will have to come more comfortably dressed (which is essential since you have to sit cross legged for a long time), and must be prepared to give more time (as he/she will not be able to get up until the eldest, and most probably, slowest eating guest, has risen, following, as it is, an elaborate and time consuming feast).
A traditional lapte bhoj
Before entering the room for the feast, the guests take off their shoes. There is a lot of joking and jesting as the guests settle down comfortably on the long, narrow sukuls (straw mats that can be rolled up). A lapte (literally meaning leaf plate) made from leaves of the Sal tree, is placed before each guest along with a pala (small clay bowl). At regular intervals along the rows are kept brass karuwas (snout nosed vessels containing drinking water). The service starts from the eldest guest. First, two hand fulls of baji (beaten rice) are served. In Nepal there are different types of baji, the ones served in Newari feasts are the tastier types (those made in Kathmandu), which are whiter, larger and flatter than the others. The usual curries served are, gainda gudi (made of different lentils), hariyo saag (green spinach) and alu tama (potatoes and bamboo shoot curry). Achaar (pickles), which can be of two kinds, are served next. Alu kerau (a spicy concoction of potatoes, green peas, small brown peas and radish) and tamatar ko achaar (made of ripe tomatoes) are the most popular. It must be mentioned that the achars can be really spicy and hot to the uninitiated.
Then comes the dish everyone is waiting expectantly for, the meat curry. Either mutton or buff (buffalo meat), with lots of gravy, is served (traditionally, Newari feasts serve buff, but in recent times, mutton is noticed to be more preferred). This, the serving of meat, is a time consuming affair, since, at every stop, the server has to make sure that meat pieces are served according to choice. And different guests have different choices, obviously. Some take quite a while finalizing their choice pieces which only goes to prove the fact that the Newars are connoisseurs of meat. As soon as it is served, the guests start eating.
A traditional Newari bhoj in the making
THE ´BHOJ´ IS ON!
As they eat, all the while bantering with each other, more dishes continue to be served and these are the tasty morsels of different varieties of meat. A Newari bhoj has from half a dozen to a dozen types of such delicious morsels. Hakuchoila (grounded meat broiled and spiced up), bhuttan (deep fried intestine and other stomach parts), senla mu (steamed and sautéed liver), swanpuka (lungs filled and fried – see recipe below) and mainh (fried pieces of tongue) are particularly delicious, as are other edible parts of the head, whether of a buffalo or a goat. It is customary to serve various head parts according to guest seniority. Therefore, the right eye, cooked well, is served to the eldest, the left eye to the next oldest, and so on.
While these tit bits are being offered, somebody will be busy pouring aila (homemade fiery liquor made from barley or rice) into the palas. The serving of the aila is an art in itself. The fiery liquor is poured by an expert hand (often, female), from an equally special container, the anti, a brass vessel with a long narrow snout. The aila is poured from quite a height and the liquor flows in a long graceful gush into the small palas without overflowing. Often, the standard of a feast is judged by the quality of the liquor served. The best aila bursts into a bluish flame at the touch of a spark. Raw carrot, radish, cucumber, onion and tomato slices with soaked peas come next. This is known as chuse muse and is a salad of sorts.
A traditional spicy pickle
It is to be expected that the general mood becomes much more jovial after the first palas have been downed. Appetites also become heartier, and second servings are generous. Now the aila server is the busiest person around, and the mood of the feast is, yes, very festive. As can be imagined, a Newari bhoj, particularly the lapte bhoj, is not one to be taken lightly. A lot of preparation goes into the making of one and the proper conduct of a Newari bhoj is a backbreaking affair, as service will have to be continuous and efficient. Therefore, if invited to one, guests shouldn´t mind if they have to give a lot of their time. No doubt it will be highly enjoyable, to say the least.
Signaling the final stages of the bhoj, small leaf bowls with sweet and sour lapsi paun is served. This is actually the dish that will help in the digestion of all the rich food consumed during the magnificent bhoj. It is made of sour lapsi which is said to have very important medicinal properties, particularly concerning indigestion and flatulence. Finally, a hand full of baji is served once more. Curd and sugar come next. The curd specially is an important part of a Newari bhoj, the Newars being particularly well known for making delicious curds as can be confirmed by tasting Bhaktapur curd (known as juju dhau). Jeri, and often, rasbhari (two kinds of sweet meats), are also served simultaneously. These constitute the dessert.
How To Make Swanpuka (lungs filled and fried)
1 pair of lungs of lamb
1 tsp turmeric powder
3 cups gram flour
1 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp salt
3 cups water
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp fresh ground ginger
3 tbsp oil (for mixture)
1 tsp fresh ground garlic
Oil for frying
Check that the lungs are fresh and confirm that it is not punctured, by blowing into it. Clean the lungs, and put into it one tablespoonful of oil, patting it all over while doing so. Then turn it upside down to make sure that all the remaining blood and gas is expelled.
Mix all the ingredients (except eggs), and to this, add water gradually until you have a smooth mixture. Now beat the eggs into the mixture. Pour this mixture into the lungs very slowly. Press down firmly with your fingers as the lungs fill up to the trachea. In this way, pour in all of the mixture. Now blow into the lungs a couple of times. You will know that it is fully filled when it stands hard and there is a lightening of color. Add more mixture as needed.
Next, fold the top of the trachea and tie it up with a string so that the mixture does not flow out.
Boil the filled lungs. Cut into small pieces (about 2 inches square and ½ inch thick). Heat oil in a pan. Fry the small pieces of filled lungs until well done.
Voila! Swanpuka, one of the exotic dishes of the Newars is ready for your eating pleasure.
After everybody has finished, three servers go around to each guest, one holding an empty bata (a large, circular and shallow vessel); one holding a karuwa of water and the third, a towel. Each guest washes his hands in the bata while water is being poured from the karuwa. The end of the feast (maybe to the relief of those feeling cramps at having to sit cross legged for a long time), is confirmed by the eldest guest rising up from his seat. The others follow suit dutifully. It can be said that the Newar bhoj is no ordinary feast. It is quite scientific in nature. The food is well balanced. Liquor keeps the appetite going, thus making the host happy at his elaborately prepared feast being appreciated. Lapsi paun makes sure no one suffers after-feast pains, and of course, there is no washing up to be done as the laptes and the palas are entirely disposable!