When I first came to Nepal, being Russian born, I wasn’t going to see the temples nor the mountains that capture the imagination of every traveler. I wasn’t going for the food either. In fact, I was dragged there. You see, I was six the first time I was in Nepal, so the usual tourist highlights didn’t interest me. Frankly, Nepal didn’t interest me either.
My mother and her then boyfriend were going to Nepal on vacation, to visit my maternal aunt who had married a Nepali. Though I do have a memory of the country I saw in the 80s, it certainly didn’t leave me with a lasting impression.
When I came to Nepal the next time in 2007, little had changed. There was more traffic, more congestion, but the core of Nepal remained the same. I loved it. What drew my attention were the tourists. Nepal certainly is popular today. Sadly, in an effort to accommodate the Western tourist’s fear of trying anything new, the true taste of Nepal food has been obscured.
Not unlike thousands of others who come to Nepal to experience trekking in the Himalayas, I too ventured out to do the same. Granted, the area I was traveling through, the Annapurna Conservation Area, was the most developed trekking route in Nepal, but I was slightly put off by what I saw. The villagers who once only served traditional Nepali dishes were now offering pizza and Caesar salad, among other typical Western items to accommodate the new age trekker tastes.
Maybe my views are different from most, but when I go to a country, I want to experience as much as that country has to offer. Those who manage to see the people, sites and culture of a particular country leave just as much (pardon the pun) on the table.
What to me is really close to fingernails on a chalk board, is the anxious tourist. I fail to understand how people traveling thousands of miles exhibit fear getting a little diarrhea, inevitable and treated with simple over-the-counter medication or antibiotics (available in Nepal). They are afraid to venture out of the Hyatt. Of course, they miss out greatly. As diverse as Nepal is culturally, it is also diverse in its cuisine. My aunt put it best: The chances of a traveler getting diarrhea from the food is much lower than from their insistance on Nepali villagers preparing mushroom, sausage and olive pizza.
I trust a villager a lot more preparing what they know best and eat daily, rather than trying to recreate Western food with intermittent refrigeration and ingredients “unnatural" to his country. Not everyone thinks alike. I found myself trekking along with many who questioned how they got the runs, after eating a burger made from imported meat (cows are sacred in Nepal), swiss cheese and lettuce that got to their dining table along the same 5-day route they had traversed. The moral of the story: think with your brain, not just your stomach.
Think about the local econsomy and environment, as well as the extra preparation required to make Western dishes. Fuel is another consideration. Longer preparation means more fuel is needed, more fuel demand necessitates an increase in costs to deliver the goods from wherever available.
Food in Nepal in delicious. Nepal is sandwiched between China (Tibet) in the north and India to the south. For thousands of years it has been the stopping point for travelers from both regions. These travelers in turn influenced local cuisine. As a result, there are dozens of ethnic groups, many with their own special food items. The Newari, sukuti is a before-dinner snack to have with drinks. It features shredded dry meat (jerky), ginger, garlic, onion, tomato, salt, oil and some crushed green or red chillies for heat. Spooned out bit by bit into one’s hand, the dish is eaten like peanuts, or chips.
Nepal’s version of the dumpling is called mo-mo, a juicy traditionally round shaped steamed dumpling stuffed with anything from chicken, goat (mutton), buffalo to vegetables and potatoes. Served with a spicy side sauce, the dish is a favorite among Nepalis and travelers alike, and is offered at almost every food spot.
When traveling near and around rivers, you are almost certain to run into another delicacy that if found out in the west, would give the fish and chips fierce competition. This scrumptious snack, is the "tareko matza" (bam) an eel fish, usually no larger than 25 centimeters (though other dishes use much larger specimens) battered in spices, deep fried and eaten whole. Truthfully scary looking at first, they are irresistible after the first bite with a dip into a side sauce. The fish is such, that there are no inedible bones; the smaller specimens can be eaten as is. The larger, can be easily rid of the backbone by simply pulling apart the flaky & crunchy fish once cooked.
Served with almost all traditional Nepali meals, is the Nepali staple of Dal Bhat Tarkari. A lentil soupy broth is poured over rice and served with any number of vegetables and or in some instances, a little meat. Usually vegetarian in nature, the dish, high in protein (lentils), carbs and vitamins, is an important source of nutrition. The usual meal is either Dal Bhat and any number of side dishes to spice up the meal.
Nepal, like any other country, is not short on street food, the most popular of which is either samosa or panipuri. Samosa is a pyramid shaped pastry stuffed with a spiced potato filling and deep fried. Panipuris are golf ball sized crunchy, flower based, shells stuffed with the same potato filling that after being dipped into a flavorful sauce, are consumed whole. Those in love with corn can always find husks being roasted on the open fire, turning the corn exterior a sort of chard, and crunchy consistency with a softer interior within the kernels. They are rubbed with salt and crushed chillies if desired. There is also chatpate, a mixture of beans, corn, and any number of other ingredients, mixed with spices and lime juice, eaten from a cone shaped paper cup.
Whatever the meal, they all have something in common – spice! Nepali cooks are fond of spices, which are more often then not spicy rather than hot. Of course hot is never off the option list. The Asian colorful market in Kathmandu is popular with tourists and photographers for the wide range of spices – curry, fungreek, ginger powder, garlic, cumin, the precious saffron and whatever your heart desires.
Food carries with it a lot of the answers of what a culture is like. Nepali food is no different. Within its tastes, textures and smells, it carries history, reasons behind the Nepali daily life and many other answers. There are religious festivals celebrated to welcome the monsoon season and it’s no wonder when you consider rice farming and the fact that rice is the Nepali staple. Life revolves around food, and cultures are shaped by it. If you come to Nepal, immerse yourself. Don’t be afraid to step out of your shell. Try the food. It’s good.
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