Preserved For Good

Festival Issue 159 Feb, 2015

The preservation of food is not unique to Nepal; however, some preserved food items do happen to be quite unique.

Do you know where the word ‘kraut’ comes from? Yes, the very same word used in a derogative manner by Allied forces to address Germans during the two World Wars. Well, it is derived from ‘sauerkraut’. Now, what’s this sauerkraut? Well, it’s a German word that translates  ‘sour cabbage’, and is actually finely shredded cabbage that’s been fermented by various kinds of bacteria, so that it has a very long shelf life and can be eaten anytime. And, that’s what Nepal’s very own gundruk is, too. Fermented edibles like these have come down through the ages in various cultures all over the world. As is usually the case, a few went on to become extremely well known, such as sauerkraut in Europe, and gundruk in Nepal.  

Whether it is sauerkraut or gundruk, it is a fact that preserving food in good times to help in the bad ones is an ancient practice. In France, apparently, sauerkraut is known as choucroute; whatever the name it goes by in different countries, it was highly valued by sea-faring people, especially, because it prevented scurvy, the dreaded disease of the high seas. Funnily enough, during World War I, even though sauerkraut was also made in America, they renamed it ‘liberty cabbage’ since eating ‘sauerkraut’ was not exactly a patriotic thing to do!

Anyway, so much for the German version of the gundruk; now, let’s see how gundruk is made. First, the leftover leaves of radish, turnip, mustard, cauliflower, etc, are allowed to wilt for a couple of days. Then these leaves are shredded into small uneven pieces; in some cases, even the roots are shredded likewise. After this is done, the small pieces of leaves and roots are all packed tightly into a wooden container or a glass jar, which is then closed tightly. Now, it is kept out to dry in the sun for three to four days, at the end of which you’ll notice a strong smell emanating from it when it’s opened; the stronger the smell, the more the sourness due to higher acidic content. The contents are then taken out and dried for some more days in the sun, and your gundruk is done, ready to be devoured. 

It’s a simple enough process, and a very simple dish. However, it is a food that sustains and nourishes during the off-season, especially in the hilly and mountainous regions of Nepal where there’s likely to be a shortage of more nutritious agricultural produce during the harsh winter months. One must understand that when talking about Nepal’s ethnic cuisine, many cuisines of different regions have been derived from necessity rather than from choice. While some prosperous regions such as the Kathmandu valley excels in culinary variety, in remote regions, food like gundruk form part of a staple meal known as dheendo-gundruk. Dheendo, a porridge-like dish, is constituted from a mixture of maize and wheat, these being the produce that is usually grown in the hilly regions. 

The national staple, rice, is more often than not a scarce commodity, and more expensive, too. Dheendo, while it is pretty filling and nutritious, is somewhat bland, and so, this is where gundruk comes into the picture, because gundruk, when pickled and spiced with various condiments, or in a soup-form (gundruk ko jhol), adds to the taste. Another pickle that is commonly eaten along with dheendo-gundruk is sinki, which is another fermented product, this one made of roots of carrots, and comes in the form of a spicy pickle. Just as gundruk can last for ages, sinki too can be preserved for quite a long time. You could compare dheendo-gundruk-sinki to the popular daal-bhaat-tarkari. Another thing to be noted here is that, sometimes, so as to impart a sourer flavor, gundruk is prepared by storing the raw materials under cow dung for a few days. Anything for better taste is what we say!

There are of course other foods that are also preserved, such as sukuti (jerky meat), which is prepared by keeping lumps of meat hanging over a fire or in the bright sunlight for some days. Sukuti can be eaten raw, or it can go towards the creation of many tasty dishes; however it’s eaten, it’s a very popular delicacy that goes particularly well with a drink or two. Two great dishes made from preserved food is unique to the Newar community—it’s known as takha (means frozen stuff) and sanya khuna (sanya means dried fish and khuna means boiled or cooked). The combination is very popular among the valley’s Newars, and is particularly meant to be eaten during the winter. Takha is prepared from some particular parts of buffalo meat, such as the skin as well as the meat and cartilage from the head and the neck; small pieces of which are boiled in water for some time, and then frozen to form a jelly-like soup. Small dried freshwater fish are used to make sanya khuna, which are fried in mustard oil prior to boiling with soup extracted while making takha. Plenty of spices (including quite a bit of chili), lime, coriander, etc. are added to this and then it is allowed to freeze naturally in an earthenware container. Both takha and sanya khuna are really tongue tingling dishes that provide instant warmth, and what’s more, they can last for a week or more. 

Well, these are some of Nepal’s more unique preserved foods and foods made out of preserved food. While you may relish their taste, be warned that sanya khuna, especially, can be quite a ‘hot’ experience!