“There is no sincerer love than the love of food” –So aptly stated by George Bernard Shaw, Irish comic dramatist and literary critic of the late nineteenth century. Food is the basic necessity for survival, too. It is amazing how the food habits of humans have evolved since the first primates to present times. And, as intelligent creatures, we adapt our food habits to the environment, as well.
At this time of the year, each day gets colder than the previous, and temperatures drop throughout the country. People take out their winter wear to brave the cold, and the kitchen prepares special food to warm the soul. As diverse as Nepal is, with many cultures, the food habits are also equally varied. Elaborate preparations are made in the kitchen of every community for heart-warming food to battle the cold.
Beginning with the Tharu community, who live in the Terai, where the normal climate is hot and humid, however, the winter is an obnoxious ordeal! The mercury dips due to the cold wave sweeping over the whole region. A thick blanket of fog engulfs the area, blocking sunlight and warmth for many hours, and sometimes for many days. To brave this cold climate, a special preparation of rice from the Anandi variety is consumed throughout the winter with other food, reveals the Tharu cook at Nana Holiday Resort at Amalpari, Nawalparasi. Soaked rice grains are cooked in ghee or butter, stirring continuously while adding water. This is a sticky variety of rice that is supposed to give extra energy and heat to the body to counter the cold. This variety of rice is grown in small quantities, mainly for personal use due to its high price. Most Tharus practice farming as their prime occupation, and so grow this variety to suffice their needs.
Another Nepali winter favorite is the kwati soup, a concoction of nine varieties of beans or pulses. At present times, we mix the dried beans available in our kitchens, but traditionally, black gram, green gram, chickpea of two varieties, soybean, garden pea, kidney beans, gandharien beans, etc. were used. All these dried beans are soaked overnight in water and cooked the next day along with garlic and ginger paste. Before being served, it is seasoned with ajwain seeds fried in hot oil. This preparation is consumed all over Nepal by various hill communities with their indigenous touches to the flavor. The Brahmins, Chhetris, Rais, and Limbus all relish this scrumptious soup. Sometimes, they are prepared after the beans sprout, providing more energy. This soup is consumed with rice, roti, or just by itself. Kw?ti is a national delicacy consumed for its health benefits, as the concoction of so many beans will provide enough protein and energy to battle the cold of winter.
The Newars of the Kathmandu valley and beyond have a festival called the Kwati-puni, the day from which the soup is consumed. It falls on a full moon night during the Nepali month of Shrawan (July-August). In olden times, that must have been the advent of winter, although, nowadays, with the effects of global warming July-August is still considered hot. Newars of the valley consume kwati with meat dumplings, too, adding to health benefits of this nationally popular dish.
The yomari is another winter food of the Newars. It is a sweet delicacy, a dumpling made of rice flour dough with a delicious filling of molasses and ground sesame seed, which oozes out while eating. It is celebrated with a festival on the full moon around the end of December. The very name “ya”, which means likable, and “mari”, which means a delicacy, indicates its popularity among all ages. This festival is at the core of Newari agrarian culture and has a special significance till today.
Winter seems to be the time of soups for many more communities, although the ingredients vary according to the availability and recipe. The Thakali community, who originally live in Mustang, at the foothills of the Himalayas, savor the aalang-khu during winter, says Pratima Thakali, lecturer at Centre for Art & Design, KU. Another soup made of buckwheat pasta in the shape of shells, radish, potato, yak or lamb dried meat, and churpi, a traditional soft cheese. Preparing churpi, whether in the soft or hard form, is a way of preserving milk produces in the icy cold climate.
Living higher in the mountainous region are the Sherpas, the community of people who have the genetic adaptation to high-altitude and extreme cold, where the air is thinner with lesser oxygen. The barren topography of the mountainous region does not allow much vegetation; therefore, they are heavily dependent on meat. There is an annual season for slaughter, and the meat is dried to be used throughout the year. Some favorite Sherpa foods are soup-momo, thentuk, shyakpa, and tsampa, says Urgen JD Sherpa, a resident of Boudha and second generation migrant to Kathmandu from Khumjung, Solokhumbu. All these are soup-based and have different methods of preparation.
Momo is the popular Nepali meat dumpling, which when immersed in a soup base makes soup-momo. Thentuk is also a soup with pasta, dried meat, and other vegetables, whereas shyakpa is more broth-like, with thicker soup, most of the other ingredients being the same. Tsampa is a powder made by grinding various roasted grains like soybean, barley, gram, buckwheat, etc. It is an easy and instant food that can be consumed simply by adding hot water to the powder. These foods have a high nutritious value and provide extra energy to warm the body. A common and regular ingredient to the food of the mountainous region is Sichuan peppercorn, locally called timur. This spice is indeed one of the richest sources of essential oils, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, and so added to all kinds of foods and pickles. A brief research about its popularity shows that this spice has the ability to stimulate the circulatory system, strengthen the immune system, build strong bones, and prevent age-related conditions. A spice definitely needed at such high altitudes!
Besides these delicious soups and delicacies, alcohol is very popular, especially in cold climates. Popular alcoholic drinks are tongba, or hot millet beer, of the Limbu community, aila and thon of the Newar community, chyang of the Sherpa community, and jhaye katte of the Thakali community. But, who needs winter to delight in a few sips that reduces anxiety and elevates the mood!
In the modern age of globalization, intercontinental or international food trends are easily assimilated into societies globally. However, every society has traditional food habits, indigenous to their culture, and these heart-warming winter delicacies are recipes passed down through many generations, which are still prepared with love and consumed culturally as well as popularly till today.
The author is a scholar of Nepalese culture, with special interest in art & iconography. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org