Food and The Nepali

Features Issue 141 Sep, 2013

Food binds families, communities and Nepali society as a whole. By describing our cultural idiosyncrasies, it also defines us as a people.

You know food is a large part of a country’s culture when everything there revolves around it. Greetings – “Bhaat khayo?” and courtesy– “Chiya khaayera jaanus na!” inadvertently involve food. Mothers make up trivia like “ladyfinger is the king of vegetables” to make their children eat better.

The communities spread across Nepal’s diverse topography have their own cuisines, usually a product of their environment. They make with what they have, they adapt.

It’s the people aspect of food that’s perhaps most important for Nepalis though. Food divides cultures but cuts across social barriers too. With so many joint families, meal times are as much for bonding as for eating. It is what binds our families and society together. A celebration of Nepali food is essentially a celebration of relationships, family and the Nepali people.

Sweet symbolism

Text By Kritish Rajbhandari

Confections are an important component of Newari cuisine and culture. From daily ritualistic puja and visits to temples to major life events like birth, marriage and death, in all occasions, mouth sweetening confectionary items of one kind or another are considered essential. Called mari by Newars, Newari confections are not prepared at home as they aren’t a part of ordinary Newari meals. They are commissioned to traditional confectioners whose family trade is to make maris and has been so for generations.

In a traditional Newari society, the caste Madhikarmi designates the trade of making maris. The word Madhikarmi in Newari means confectioner or one who works on the craft of making maris. The Madhikarmis are traditionally the ones to go to if anyone needs any kind of mari to be made for any occasion. The house of Balaram Madhikarmi is the confectionary house of Bhaktapur where people from as far as Thimi come for their maris for weddings and funerals. Balaram Madhikarmi inherited this family trade that has been run by his family for several centuries. “My ancestors used to make maris for the Malla royals,” he says. Nowadays, he caters to locals and so we go to him to learn more about this tradition.

Maris come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The most common of the maris are jeri and swaari. According to Mr. Madhikarmi, this soft and sweet combination is a traditional fast-breaker served after rituals and pujas that require long intervals of fasting. Jeri-swari is also the item served to the immediate family members of the deceased person immediately after the funeral signifying the commencement of the mourning period that lasts for 13 days. Laddu, which in itself comes in a wide variety made from different ingredients, is another common sweet often used as offerings to deities during puja, and also distributed and consumed as blessings from the gods.

Some of the most elaborate assortments of maris are required during Newari weddings. “Different castes have different requirements on the kind and size of maris,” says Mr. Madhikarmi, “Manandhars traditionally only need to take laddus as a part of supari-lyauney ceremony from the grooms family to the bride’s family, while others require up to 18 pieces of Lakhmari.” Made with rice-flour dough, traditional Nepali butter and sugar syrup, laakhamari is a confection specifically had during weddings. In the said supari-lyaune ceremony performed before the day of the marriage, the groom sends various gifts including sets of clothes, areca nuts (supari), and laakhamari to the bride. “Long ago before the system of printing invitation cards was introduced, wedding invitations were sent by sending pieces of laakhmari to relatives,” explains Mr. Madhikarmi, “Closely related families were sent bigger pieces, while distant relatives were sent smaller pieces as tokens of invitation.”

Among the various shapes and sizes that laakhamaris can be found in, three kinds can be commonly seen in the supari-lyaune ceremony of Newari weddings. Three of the laakhamaris brought to the bride’s house before the actual wedding are in the shapes of a fish, a frog and a bird. According to Mr. Madhikarmi, they symbolize the new kind of situation the bride is going to find herself in after her marriage. The fish symbolizes movement which means that the bride is going to be busy taking care of her new home after marriage. The frog symbolizes confinement, which means the bride will have to live within the limits of the new house like a frog in a well. Finally the bird symbolizes the opposite, that the bride will still be able to live a life happy and free like a bird remaining within the limits of the household. “These are old traditional meanings that have disappeared with time,” says Mr. Madhikarmi, “now these shapes are used only for style and show. They make a pretty sight at weddings.”

 The Best of What’s Around

Text By Utsav Shakya

Sherpa cuisine is more suitable for a hardy lifestyle than city appetites. With recipes that use ingredients made from what is available in the mountains of Nepal, what you get is what you use.

The Sherpa name is intertwined with a history that is full of tales of hardship and bravery and humility and success. Because of their homes in the rugged Himalaya of Nepal and because these areas are not the easiest to access, their culture and lifestyle, including their food habits are a product of their environment. The Sherpa home I visited was however in a more urban location in Kathmandu. The food though reminded easily of the family’s mountain connection.

“I am making aloo roti for you,” said Mrs. Ang Lhakpa Sherpa, with a glint in her eyes that seemed to ask if I had tried one before. “Aloo paratha?” I asked, familiar with the chapatis stuffed with mashed, spiced potatoes I had had for lunch at a Bengali restaurant every other day while in college. “That’s different. This is Sherpa food - rigikur,” she said before disappearing into her large kitchen.

Over the course of the next hour or so, using mashed potato gravy and not much else, Mrs Sherpa prepared steaming hot flat potato pancakes and laid them out on plates for us to eat. Ang Jangmu Lama, my friend from school and her younger brother Kunga were present too, teaching me how to best enjoy an aloo roti. Step one is to rub a sizeable cube of butter over the roti and then add some chilly paste for taste. Add milk for taste. For a Newar who’s always related spicy hot food to meat curries, this was new. At first I found the taste strange – milk, potatoes, butter and green chillies! A few more pieces and I was hooked; finishing off two more large rotis with an enthusiasm I couldn’t mask.

Shyakpa, a delicious Sherpa stew was next. Also called Thenthuk in Tibetan restaurants around town, first a stew using boiled mutton, radish, potates with salt and garlic was prepared. Then, cylindrical pieces of wheat dough, shaped with the palm of your hand were dropped into the boiling stew. I made room for the stew immediately.

As we waited for the stew, I chatted with the family in their cozy dining area about different Sherpa delicacies the family enjoyed during festivals like Lhosar and celebrations like marriage ceremonies. Kunga explained chhimar to me – a powder made of multiple grains and beans that Sherpas put on guests’ shoulders during any auspicious occasion and to welcome people into their homes.

Mr J B Lama, Kunga and Jangmu’s father talked of his time in their village in Ramechhap. “We would have potato dishes all the time, in the morning, for lunch and for dinner because it was all that was available. In the village, the lifestyle is quite rugged so it suited us,” he explained. “Sometimes they’d have just large boiled potatoes with salt and chillies,” added Kunga, smiling at the thought.

Forgetting the Nepali names of ingredients or dishes, mid-sentence, Kunga questioned his mother. He remembered the taste of certain dishes and the family occasion when he’d had it clearly though. Clearly, their connection with traditional Sherpa food is something that is personal, intertwined mostly with memories – of family, of life in the village and special occasions. If anything, good memories are an indicator of good food, I thought as I made a memory of my own with a bowl of Shyakpa.

Gifts of Nature

Text By Kritish Rajbhandari

From unusual animals (and insects) to use of curious techniques, Tharu delicacies are an yet-to-be-discovered gems of Nepali cuisine.

Tharu people are comprised of indigenous ethnic communities of the forested areas of the Terai belt all the way from Mechi to Mahakali. Assumed to be the first settlers in the jungles of the Terai, the Tharus have a cuisine influenced by their adaptation to the tropic forests and their dependence on agriculture. Over 90% of Tharu people are stil farmers. Their cuisine is as diverse as the ethnic group itself with several different subgroups distinguished by geographical territories, cultural features and languages.

The main component of Tharu cuisine is rice. According to Tirtha Chaudary, a Tharu of Dang who is also a chef at Momotarau Restaurant which has a number Tharu cuisines on the menu, traditionally prepared Tharu rice called Chichad is made from a particular kind of sticky rice called Anandi Chamal grown in Western Terai. “Chichad is different from normal rice in the manner of its cooking,” says Chaudary, “it is prepared by actually placing a perforated pot containing dry rice over steam.” A staple component of Tharu diet, rice is served with lentils, fish and vegetable curries as a part of an ordinary meal. According to Chaudary, Tharu cuisince is characterized by it spiciness. Any dish from curries to platters have a high degree of red chilli in it.

A special variation of rice is Khariya, which is traditionally served on the occasion of Maghesakranti, the first day of the month of Magh. Khariya is prepared in a traditional clay pot called Dhikuni. Once the rice is steamed, it is wrapped in a banana leaf and then baked under glowing embers. Dhikri is another rice delicacy, which is rice flour dough molded into elongated shapes and then steamed. It is usually prepared during major festivals like Dashain, Tihar and Maghesakranti.

Tharu food also features a variety of delicacies prepared from fish, pork and and even mice. Considering that most Tharu settlements are close to rivers, these communities have a special affinity towards fish. Fishing is a major means of livelihood among Tharu communities, and it is also considered a sport. “Fish is a quintessential component of Tharu cuisine,” says Mohan Tharu, proprietor of Tharu Homes in Bardiya, “Fish has an important cultural presence as it is a must for festivals, weddings and other special occasions.” A wide variety of fish dishes, particularly fish curries heavily seasoned with spices can be found in different Tharu communities. Pork is another major non-vegetarian component of Tharu cuisine. Barbecued pork known as Pakuwa is often used as offering to deities during religious ceremonies and festivals.

Tharu community is probably the only ethnic community in Nepal to have mice as a part of their special delicacy. Mice served in Tharu dishes aren’t just any kind. They are the ones that are found and captured in rice fields during the time of harvest. According to Mr. Tharu, whenever any one sees a mouse while working in the fields during harvest, work comes to a halt to capture the mouse. Once the mouse is captured and killed, it is either grilled or prepared as a curry with gravy and then consumed by the farmers.

Another peculiarity of Tharu diet is Ghongi, a type of snail that breeds during the monsoon in ponds. Ghongis are captured alive from ponds and are placed in rice flour and water for 24 hours. During that time they ingest rice flour while discharging all the soil they have inside them. Once they are filled with rice flour, they are cooked in spices and gravy, and usually made into a soup. The technique of eating a ghongi is to break the pointy end of a ghongi’s shell, and suck in the innards by mouth. Ghongis are found towards the end of monsoon and the dish is prepared and served in big occasions like Dashain and Tihar.

Tharu people are also famous for their love of liquor. Alcoholic beverages prepared from fermentation of rice have a perpetual presence in Tharu homes. Whenever you visit one, you shouldn’t be surprised if you are served a glass of Jaand, a fermented rice beverage, as a welcome drink.

Tharu people have coexisted with nature over centuries and their cuisines have also evolved accordingly. “Our food is derived from nature,” says Mohan Tharu, “it helps to keep in balance the ecological cycle.”

 That time of the year

Text By Mridula Saria

The way Marwari delicacies bring together food, festivals and family has to be an indicator of superior food!

Food and festivals undoubtedly go together; not just in the rhyming sense of it, but one always reminds you of the other. In our generation though, trends have changed immensely with more access to restaurants to eat whatever food we want, when we want it, without having to wait for ‘that time of the year’.

My father always says how as children they would wait every year for Holi to eat aloo-puri, and the fact that both their hunger and the anticipatory taste of the food escalated even further after tiring days spent running around and playing with water and colors. Even though Diwali is better known as the festival of lights and crackers, we might as well go ahead and call it the ‘festival of food’.

The innumerable sweets that fill any Marwari home, starting almost a week before the actual day of the festival is unbelievable. Sometimes it feels like we could survive on just those sweets substituting for meals, without having to cook anything for a week. Let’s not forget the delicious dahi–vada my mother makes, besides the other mouth-watering dishes. Taking my words back, even though I could always order dahi-vada any day at a restaurant, I don’t remember myself doing so. Not that I am overly fond of the dish, but the charm of eating it during Diwali every year is something else, a unique experience on its own. Not to forget the thandi roti, meethabhaat and dahi.

Another word that goes well with food and festival is family. It’s amazing how food and festival combine together to get you closer to your family. The synergy of these three words- food always coming first on my list – cannot be delineated. Festivals remind one of being invited for numerous lunches and dinners at your mausi’s (maternal aunt), mama’s (maternal uncle) and bua’s (paternal aunt) homes. Not that they don’t invite you otherwise, but on festivals, no matter what plans you have or how busy you are, you can’t even think of missing that ‘badaam ka halwa’ your favorite aunt makes.

In retrospect, like they say, there is always a right time to do the right thing. The different festivals that punctuate our calendar are indeed the best times to enjoy particular dishes, which won’t necessarily taste bland on other days, but will never feel the same as eating it at ‘that time of the year’.