Diversity is their hallmark; feasting is their passion. They are the Newars, the indigenous folk of the Kathmandu valley who work at different professions and excel in all. From architects to artisans, goldsmiths to blacksmiths, farmers to shopkeepers, the Newars have done it all. Most importantly, they are known for their food culture, which is rich and varied, though the rest of the world has yet to taste it.
A Newari Bhwe (feast) is a food event that reflects the various cultures and traditions prevalent among Newars. A typical Newari bhwe begins with a serving of baji (beaten rice), along with green vegetables, a variety of beans, spiced ginger, radish chutney, spiced pickled potatoes, and spiced buffalo meat. The feast then moves on to the second serving that includes aila (local Newari alcohol poured by the hostess from a decorative antee), along with more beaten rice and moderately spiced buffalo chunks. The third serving consists of yet more baji, and a mixture of tasty chutneys, grams, tomatoes, cauliflower and more aila. By the fourth serving, chunks of gravied buffalo and chicken or goat meat are included, followed by even more beaten rice, plus special spices, fried buffalo intestines and more drinks. The sixth and the final serving consists of yours truly, the ubiquitous beaten rice, with yoghurt, sugar, a mixture of fruits, radish, sugarcane and grams, and another antee full of aila.
The cooking utensils that the Newars generally use include a large copper cooking pan for the meat, sometimes large enough to accommodate a whole water buffalo!, a smaller copper cooking pan, a bamboo basket, clay vessels, a stirrer made out of metal alloy, a spatula, a small clay vessel used to serve thho (a popular Newari alcohol). There are also leaf plates, small clay cups for alcohol. When eating, Newars sit on a long mat woven from straw which is called sukul.
Newars are a socially diverse ethnic group, with many castes and with a wide variety of food habits, but generally the roots are common and some of the different groups have very close ties to each other. For example, the Jyapus, Tuladhars and Manandhars have virtually similar food habits, although the Manandhars start serving food as soon as the guests arrive while the Jyapus wait for all the guests to arrive. The Manandhars will continuously offer second helpings, while the Jyapus wait for 15 minutes before serving a second helping. The Shakyas, on the other hand, are somewhat different. For example, their word for soma is khhwala. Religious practices also differ. The Shakyas are more orthodox, with the Aaga dya (the god of fire, or Agni) being most important in the context of a feast or bhwe. For them, no one from outside the family has access to this important deity. The Shakyas also like to include more sweet dishes such as sweet pumpkin chutney, burfi (sweet dish made out of milk, sugar and nuts) and lots of yoghurt in their feasts. In a traditional Shakya family, the sons-in-laws eat first and are treated to extra servings of the more savory dishes.
Crucial stages or ceremonies known as the cycle of ten karmas (das karma) also relate to food where different types of food are served during each of the cycles. The cycle begins with naito katne (separation of the umbilical cord at birth), nwaran (birth ceremony), annapraashan (first rice feeding, at five months for girls or six months in boys), and busa khakegu (first haircut). These occur during childhood. Approaching adulthood, the life cycle continues with kayata puja (purification of boys) and barha tyagu (purification of girls). One’s wedding is called vivah. At old age, one is honored by the whole community with pratham janko (on the occasion of one’s 77th year, 7th month, 7th day), the dwitiya janko (when the person turns 88 yrs, 8 months and 8 days old), and the tritiya janko (the timing for this varies), where the person is pulled from a window. The death ritual is mrityu sanskar, followed by the shraadhha (where family members offer prayers for spiritual bliss of the deceased).
A special type of socio-religious institution called guthi has a pivotal role to play in association with Newar food culture. A network of guthis binds the Newars together at three levels: caste, patrilineal grouping (clan), and locale. For example, one important type of guthi is the Sana Guthi, which has eight major senior members. During a funeral procession, the corpse has to be covered with a red cloth called deva, which is provided by the members of this guthi. The Shee Guthi, on the other hand is responsible for the cremation of the corpse. Some other prevalent guthis are the Nasa Puja Guthi, Ashtami Guthi, Chare Guthi, Bijili Guthi, Nisala Guthi, Holi Guthi, Saju Puja Guthi, Dashami Guthi and the Bhimsen Guthi. At most guthi events, a special Newari bhoj is prepared and offered to the guthi members.
Newars celebrate innumerable festivals which cater to Newari appetites. A major part of each Newar’s life is spent in celebrations and feasting. A very popular saying in Nepali goes like this: ‘Parbate bigryo mojle, Newar bigryo bhojle’, which translates loosely as ‘A hill Nepali is ruined by his pleasures, whereas the Newar is ruined by his feasts’.
Feasting by festivals falls into two broad categories, one by locality or community (and the main festivals of the Kathmandu valley come under this), and the other follows the Hindu calendar and is celebrated by individual household members. Community-based festivals include Bhairava or Bhairavi Jatras (for male and female deities, respectively), and others that are known by the names Gatha Mangal, Gai Jatra, Vanra Jatra, Indra Jatra, Kumari Jatra, Machhendra Jatra, Narayan Jatra, Ganesh Jatra, Bhimsen Jatra and Krishna Jatra. (Jatra means procession or festival.) One very important occasion is the Bisket Jatra. Animal sacrifices and lots of Newari liquor characterize these festivals. The second group of festivals, those at the household level, include such important rituals as Mha Puja (worship of the self), Kija Puja (prayer for the brothers in a family), Mukha Asthami (considered auspicious because it represents the day when the Pashupati Linga was saved from destruction at the hands of the demon, Virupaksha, by the Buddha), Ekadashi (a day on which meat is not eaten!), and Bala Charhe (dedicated to appease the mother goddess and the souls of the dead). The Yomari Puni is another remarkable event in which the delicious yomari sweet is prepared and eaten. Yomari is a delicacy that consists of rice-flour cake stuffed with chaku or khuwa (sweet delicacies). Yomari plays a very important role in the Newar society. According to some, the triangular shape of the cake is symbolic of Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom.
With so many festivals and such rich culture of food and drink and worship, celebrated for ages, the Newars are cultural standouts when it comes to feasting. A recent restaurants survey shows that among foreign visitors who enjoy eating Newari meals, the Chinese savor them most, followed by the French, Germans and Italians, Spanish, Indians, Koreans, Japanese and Americans, in that order. For all of you out there who have yet to experience Newari gustatory delicacies, there are a number of good restaurants in Kathmandu to check out. Or, if you have Newar friends, perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to be invited to a traditional Newari Bhwe!
My love for cooking stems from a root planted when I was fifteen and I got the worst writer’s block...