Festive Delicacies

Features Issue 83 Jul, 2010

With contributions from Ivan Sada & Nandita rana

Foods made during festivities aren’t a mere concoction of recipe. They combine a taste of culture, a flavor of love and are marked with a respect for the occasion. Deliciously prepared foods will lose charm if there are no occasions to celebrate and have fun. Festivities, on the other hand, will never be complete without delicious foods to feast on. So festivities and food, delicious ones that is, are made for each other. There are a lot of staple foods we consume everyday, then there are those we prepare once in a while—not just to eat, but also to celebrate. While these foods may not be a connoisseur’s favorite, they tickle a common man’s taste buds like no other.

Yomari: Favorite Newari Delicacy
Newars are very fond of ‘yomari’. It is so popular among them that even men in the family take great interest in its preparation; an odd twist in the tradition where food is no man’s business. Every year after the paddy is harvested in November, Newari families gear up for yomari punhi, which can be loosely translated as ‘moon bread’ from yo (to like) plus mari (bread) combined with the Newari term for the full moon: punhi.

Myth on yomari goes like this: Suchandra and Krita, a married couple, decided to try something new with the fresh yield of rice from their field. Their endeavor took the shape of a yomari which they distributed among the villagers. The delicacy was liked by all;  hence the name yomari. On the same day the couple offered the new treat to a passerby who also liked the food very much. He turned out to be Kuber, God of Wealth. Kuber revealed his true identity and blessed the couple with wealth. Since then the Newars believe that whoever prepares yomari on the full-moon day of December and observes four days of devotion, will get rid of poverty.

The sub-cultures within Newari communities celebrate the festival in different ways. In some cultures men make the yomari to present to their sisters, while in others the yomaris are kept inside a bhakari (where grain is stored) on the day of full-moon and eaten as god’s gift only after four days have gone by. By keeping the yomari in the bhakari, Newari farmers intend to show respect to the god for the year’s bountiful harvest.

Though you can get as creative as you want while making yomari, they are normally made by shaping the dough of rice flour more or less in the form of a turnip and stuffed with sesame, gud (brown cane sugar) and khoya (dried milk). Some even mold the dough in the shapes of different deities. It is a common practice to make the first one in the shape of Lord Ganesha (the elephant headed god), though it is not obligatory. Then, after the yomaris are steamed for about 30 minutes they are ready to eat.

Another highly popular tradition is to serve yomaris on the birthdays of very young Newari children. A garland of yomaris is put around the neck of a child to mark his/her even birth years starting from the second to fourth and, finally, the sixth. The number of yomaris made for these occasions corresponds to the age of the child. The children are required to wear the garland of yomaris at least for a day. Now, how long can you hold yourself from eating a delicious food that is just made for you and so within your reach?

Malpua: The cuisine for the colorful day
Malpua, for example, is a very popular pancake eaten during Holi, the Festival of Colors, celebrated all over Nepal and in great jest in Nepal’s Tarai regions. Malpua’s distinct charm is well preserved by tradition. It is made once in a year at homes, only during the festival that usually falls in March. (Though, you can find it all year round in some of Kathmandu’s restaurants.) Still, when you talk about malpua, it’s not the way it tastes you like to rant on as much you feel powwowing about the nostalgia spurned by the occasion when it is served. Think of Holi and colors override all your feelings.
Faces of your family members and friends linger on your memory’s screen like a canvas you just painted in red, blue, black… with colors and vermillion. And faces of your friends? You don’t want to imagine. Mud, dung, enamel paints (silly), Mobil (sic) and then it only gets worse. But amidst all the clamor and cries of ‘jogila shararara’ (a strophe at the end of odes sung by ethnic Tarai communities during Holi), freshly cooked malpua draws all the attention as the smell wafts through the festive air. While males go around merry-making, females offer prayers and worship Lord Vishnu who, according to legend, killed the demoness Holika on this day to protect his devotee Prahalad. Earlier, women toiled in the kitchen and participated in the revelry mostly at home with friends and relatives who dropped by, but these days, females in towns and cities have begun to take to the streets in groups and do all sorts of silly stuff that boys do.

Malpua is quite easy to prepare. Add water or, for a better taste, milk to make a wheat flour paste. Mix mauli saunf (aniseed), pepper and small pieces of coconut in small quantities depending on your taste. Add sugar and whisk the concoction. Pour it into the heated oil
using a serving spoon. Use a large pot to heat the oil so that you can make 3 or 4 at a time. Heat until red without flipping it around and the pancake is ready.

Malpua is eaten only after it is moffered to gods and goddesses. Once offered to the divinity, the delicacy becomes a divine food and thenceforth referred to as prasad.

Tired after indulging in the psychedelic celebration and pranks, everyone looks forward to eating delicious food. Malpua is offered to anyone who drops by. Apart from malpua, a sumptuous meal on the occasion includes meat, specially made pickles and vegetables, and is served to visiting friends and relatives.

Revelers spend the late afternoon scrubbing their skin and hair to get rid of the Holi colors. There is a fair chance of getting rid of all of them—in a few days. The color of joy, however, sticks on for a while. 

Chinese Spring Festival Cuisine
The Spring Festival is the most important festival for the Chinese people and is a time when all family members get together, just like Christmas in the West. All people living away from home go back, becoming the busiest time for transportation systems of about half a month from the Spring Festival. Airports, railway stations and long-distance bus stations are crowded with home returnees.

The Spring Festival falls on the 1st day of the 1st lunar month, often one month later than the Gregorian calendar. It originated during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC) from the people’s sacrifice to gods and ancestors at the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one. Strictly speaking, the Spring Festival starts every year in the early days of the 12th lunar month and will last till the middle of the first lunar month of the next year. Of them, the most important days are Spring Festival Eve and the first three days. The Chinese government now stipulates people have seven days off for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Many customs accompany the Spring Festival. Some are still followed today, but others have weakened. On the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, many families make laba porridge, a delicious kind of porridge made with glutinous rice, millet, seeds of Job’s tears, jujube berries, lotus seeds, beans, longan and gingko. The 23rd day of the 12th lunar month is called Preliminary Eve. At this time, people offer sacrifice to the kitchen god. Now however, most families make delicious food to enjoy them-selves. After the Preliminary Eve, people begin preparing for the coming New Year. This is called ‘Seeing the New Year in’. Store owners are busy then, as everybody goes out to purchase necessities for the New Year.

Materials include not only edible oil, rice, flour, chicken, duck, fish and meat, but also fruit, candies and nuts. What’s more, various decorations, new clothes and shoes for the children as well as gifts for the elderly, friends and relatives, are all on the shopping list. Before the New Year comes, the people completely clean the indoors and outdoors of their homes as well as their clothes, bedclothes and all utensils.

Then people begin decorating their clean rooms featuring an atmosphere of rejoicing and festivity. All the door panels will be pasted with Spring Festival couplets, highlighting Chinese calligraphy with black characters on red paper. The content varies from house owners’ wishes for a bright future to good luck for the New Year. Also, pictures of the god of doors and wealth will be posted on front doors to ward off evil spirits and welcome peace and abundance. The Chinese character ‘fu’ (meaning blessing or happiness) is a must. The character put on paper can be pasted normally or upside down, for in Chinese the ‘reversed fu’ is homophonic with ‘fu comes’, both being pronounced as “fudaole.”

What’s more, two big red lanterns can be raised on both sides of the front door. Red paper-cuttings can be seen on window glass and brightly colored New Year paintings with auspicious meanings may be put on the wall.

People attach great importance to Spring Festival Eve. At that time, all family members eat dinner together.

The meal is more luxurious than usual. Dishes such as chicken, fish and bean curd cannot be excluded, for in Chinese, their pronunciations, respectively ‘ji’, ‘yu’ and ‘doufu,’ mean auspiciousness, abundance and richness. After the dinner, the whole family will sit together, chatting and watching TV. In recent years, the Spring Festival party broadcast on China Central Television Station (CCTV) is essential entertainment for the Chinese, both at home and abroad. According to custom, each family will stay up to see the New Year in.

Upon awakening on New Years day, everybody dresses up. First they extend greetings to their parents. Then each child is given a gift of money, wrapped up in red paper. People in northern China will eat jiaozi, or dumplings, for breakfast, as they think ‘jiaozi’ in sound means “bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new”. Also, the shape of the dumpling is like a gold ingot from ancient China. So people eat them and wish for money and treasure.

Southern Chinese eat niangao, a New Years cake made of glutinous rice flour, on this occasion. The homophone ‘niangao’ means “higher and higher, one year after another.”

The first five days after the Spring Festival are a good time for relatives, friends, and classmates as well as colleagues to exchange greetings, gifts and chat leisurely. Burning fireworks was once the most typical custom on the Spring Festival. People thought the spluttering sound could help drive away evil spirits. Such activity was completely or partially forbidden in big cities, however, once the government took security, noise and pollution factors into consideration.
As a replacement, some buy tapes with firecracker sounds to listen to, some break little balloons to get the sound too, while others buy firecracker handicrafts to hang in the living room. The lively atmosphere not only fills every household, but permeates to streets and lanes. A series of activities such as lion dancing, dragon lantern dancing, lantern festivals and temple fairs will also be held for days. The Spring Festival then comes to an end when the Lantern Festival over.

Magar’s ‘Maghe Sankranti’ cuisine
Magars are the largest ethnic group of Nepal accounting for slightly over seven percent of the total population (according to 2001 Census). As indigenous people of the western hills of Nepal, theira settlements stretche over the western and southern edges of the Dhaulagiri range and eastwards to the Gandaki river basin. The homeland of the Magars is divided into two sub-regions: the Athara Magarat (literally, ‘18 Magar Regions’) and Bara Magarat (‘12 Magar Regions’), belonging to the Karnali and Gandaki river regions, respectively.

Although some cultural differences exist that arise from the distinction between these two Magarats, the festivals and rituals celebrated by Magars remain nearly the same. Among them ‘Maghe Sankranti’ is regarded as the most important annual festival. It has been declared the official festival of the Magars by the Ninth General Assembly of the National Magar Association held in 2064 BS  (2007 AD).
The festival is celebrated on the first of Magh (ninth month of the Nepali calendar, in mid-January) a time that marks the transition from winter to spring. According to the Magar terminology, Maghe Sankranti commemorates the end of udheli (literally ‘down’), which is a period that lasts for six months starting from mid-July, and the initiation of ubheli (‘up’), the period lasting for another six months starting from the mid-January. (The down and up periods probably correspond to the annual cycle of herding livestock up and down from high pastures, an historically important economic activity of the Magars.)

The occasion of Magh Sankranti is celebrated with a host of gatherings and special invitations to chelibetis, one’s daughters and other female members of the family. They organize special songs and dances on that day and put a white tika mark on their foreheads. The tika is made out of rice as blessing;  the color white symbolizing the strength of a mountain. Jau or jamara (green barley) is worn on head or ears to denote prosperity with coming of spring, and varieties of food, wine and other delicacies are prepared on the day.

The principle delicacy of Maghe Sankranti is kandamool, the wild yam. The yam is gathered in forests and specially cooked for the occasion. It commemorates the traditional lifestyle of Magars as hunters and gatherers. The Magars of Gandaki region (Bara Magarat) prepare special bread, called bara, from black lentils because of the high yield of lentils there. The lentil is soaked overnight and ground to form a thick paste. It is then mixed with salt, pepper and turmeric and fried in oil. A perfect round shape is given to a bara patty by placing it in the cup of the palm, which also determines its goodness.

Other specialties include sel-roti, a thin, deep fried donut made of rice flour; railwa, a thin bread made of rice grain and cooked in ghee; birmala, a type of red rice grain that is simply boiled; chokya, a chutney made from ground soya, sesame seed, pumpkin seed and sunflower seed; and bhomlya, a special wine made from fermented rice or millet grain. Ngangti or sisnu (nettles) is cooked fresh or served as sukuti, the dried version of the plant, and is used in curry.

Fish is another specialty; so is boiled egg and curd. The use of meat, however, differs according to the Magarat regions. Magars of Bara Magarat consider pork meat to be special, while those of Athara Magarat consume buffalo meat. Due to geographical differences, the food varieties made from jau (barley) are more common in the latter and kodo (millet) items, including dhedo (a gruel), in the former.

Celebration of Maghe Sankranti is not uncommon among other ethnic groups of Nepal, but the festival is regarded as most prominent in Magar culture owing to their ancient practices of shamanism and nature worship.

Feel, don’t just fill!
No, connoisseurs cannot comprehend the delights of festive foods, as their judgment is restricted to the tongue. Their palates are more accustomed to judge the foods that are sold, not celebrated. Commoners, not connoisseurs, relish festive delicacies as they let the taste seep through their tongue and infuse into their being, releasing a whole new energy into their body. Festive delicacies aren’t for eating as much they are for enjoying. This philosophy of festive delicacies cuts across all countries and cultures. We in Nepal are fortunate to have people from many different cultural backgrounds, for the opportunity it allows for tasting and enjoying special foods in all their variety.