A Delectable Treat

Food Issue 114 Apr, 2011
Text by Lizbeth Lucksom / Photo: Lizbeth Lucksom

A unique dish prepared in very few Nepali households, Kinema is uncommon and unknown amongst people of most communities. Sapid insights into the country’s ethnic food culture help you better understand the Nepali way of life.

Weeks before my planned trip to Nepal, I decided to take a short tour of our local market or Haat bazaar in Kalimpong, a small town in the district of Darjeeling.  Every Wednesday and Saturday, fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables arrive from surrounding villages. Mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of the villagers, I watched them bring in their colourful produce and the town folk as they made quick purchases while scrutinizing the quality. Amidst this somewhat psychedelic sight, I caught a glimpse of small, neatly packed,  green colored bundles, tied loosely by a piece of straw. I quickly assumed it was ‘kinema’ wrapped in a banana leaf because that is how it is commonly sold. I am not aware of any kinema processing factory or unit but for all I know it is a much sought after local delicacy and a means of income for many rural households.

Now for those of you who are still wondering what it actually is, Kinema is a unique flavoursome delicacy prepared by fermenting the whole soybean. Apart from its greyish color, its sticky texture is its main characteristic. The word kinema, might sound  foreign to us but it is apparently derived from local Limbu dialect. Kinambaa, where ki means ‘fermented’ and namba means ‘flavour’. Before the unification of Nepal in the 17th century, the Limbu people belonged to the independent kingdom of Limbhuwan, present-day district of Therathum, Taplejung, Panchthar, Dhankuta and Ilam, during which they started the production and consumption of this fermented food in Nepal. However, no historical documents are available that support its actual origin. Over a period of time and mainly due to various geographical factors, making and eating kinema spread to Rai, Manger, Gurung, and Tamang communities, not to forget ethnic communities like the Lepcha and Bhutia community.

I was overjoyed to witness my cousins actually preparing kinema, a while ago here in Nepal. They do not buy kinema in the market like most of us but prepare it at home by soaking the dark brown coated seeds of soybean overnight, boiling it in a pressure cooker until soft the following day. Packed in banana leaves and wrapped in additional layers of thick cloth to insulate it, the container is then stored in a warm room for several days. Once the soybean forms a sticky texture with a typical ammoniacal odour, the kinema is ready to be prepared as a dish. Different communities follow different methods as far as its preparation is concerned and some communities might even have a different name for it. Nevertheless, it has the same unique flavour.

Trying this dish is a must if you happen to travel to the eastern districts of Nepal someday or for that matter the Darjeeling Hills, Sikkim or even the North-eastern region of India. Try and visit a local family and share this special dish which goes very well with a bowl of hot steamed rice, with a salad mix to balance the diet. I would personally recommend the infamous dallay khorsaani (hot red round chilly) found in the Darjeeling hills & Sikkim along with kinema to have that wholesome experience while you are at it.