Grand Gastronomic Delight

Food Issue 174 May, 2016

The Newars are born epicureans whose culinary skills are a vital part of their rich culture. 

Much of the different cuisines of different clans and regions of the country are derived from the need to fill stomachs, rather than the practice of any special culinary skills. However, it must be said that Newar cuisine is a bit different from the pack, which perhaps reflects on the fact that the more prosperous a people are, the more varied their cuisine. The Newars have a really large variety of dishes. Just imagine, bread alone comes in a score of diverse varieties, and these you can taste at the traditional mari pasals (bread shops) around the valley. Like other cultures universally, religious functions, festivals, auspicious occasions, and celebrations call for a different kind of foodstuff, and here too, the Newars excel. They serve a mix of items collectively called ‘sangha’ that includes wo (lentil pancake-like dish), fried meat and fish, duck egg, curd, and aila (local alcohol) right after a ritual is over. It could be said to be an appetizer, for the feast is yet to come. 

The feast is known as ‘bhoye’, and it requires meticulous planning, organization, and implementation, because it is something that will make or mar a family’s reputation in their society. It involves a score and more kinds of dishes, each served personally to each guest by servers who go around ladling or spooning a specific dish onto a leaf plate in front of the guests, who sit on a sukul (straw mat). It is back breaking work that is, nevertheless, made tolerable by the cheerful banter all around, and the inherent satisfaction servers derive from seeing their guests in high good humor. Doubtless, the way to a Newar’s heart is through his/her stomach. 

While steamed rice is the national staple, the Newars prefer dried beaten rice (chiura) to go with the numerous other dishes served at feasts. Buff has a major role to play, as well, as does curd. Talking about the first, the Newars have made buff cuisine into an art; creating a great many kinds of tasty dishes from almost all parts of the water buffalo. Some popular ones are kachilaa (raw and marinated), hakuchoila (hot and spicy), bhuttan (fried intestinal parts), swanpuka (lungs filled and fried), takhaa (jellied), senla mu (steamed and sautéed liver), mainh (fried tongue pieces), cho-hi (steamed blood and marrow, spiced), etc. 

Aila is served on small clay bowls (palas), poured from quite a height using an anti (a special vessel with a long snout) by ladies whose skills are such that not a single drop falls on the floor.  It should be mentioned here that the quality and purity of the homemade aila is another barometer by which the family’s standing is judged.  The purity of alcohol content should be such that, putting a burning matchstick near to it should result in the aila burning with a bluish flame. Sometimes, thwon (homemade rice beer) is also served. 

Of course, a ‘bhoye’ is not only about meat and aila; equally delicious seasonal vegetable dishes are also served, along with gainda gudi (different lentils and beans), spinach, and alu tama (potatoes and bamboo shoot curry), and a couple of fiery pickles (achaar). Two of the most popular are alu kerau (a spicy mix of potatoes, radish, green peas, and small brown peas), and tamatar ko achaar (made of ripe tomatoes). The feast also features a salad like dish called chuse muse, which is a mix of raw radish, cucumber, carrot, onion, and tomato slices, and soaked peas.

Near the end of the feast, small leaf bowls containing sweet and sour lapsi paun is served, a concoction that is very helpful in the digestion of all the rich food consumed. It is made of sour lapsi (Nepali hog plum) which has important indigestion and flatulence preventing property. At the very end, signaling the close of the ‘bhoye’, a handful of baji is served, followed by curd and sugar. Now, curd is another very important part of Newari culture, and so you can expect the very best in taste and texture. The Newars of Bhaktapur, especially, are pretty famous for making delicious curd known as juju dhau, and this is the most preferred curd to be served at feasts. It is accompanied by sweetmeats known as jeri and rasbhari. This constitutes the dessert, and it is the finale of a feast that is so grand, only the Newars could have conjured it!