Nepali Times
Khaire Bhai
Speaking in tongues


The first time I came to Nepal I was kind of intimidated by the food. Placed in front of me was a plate piled so high with rice that I feared having to reject half of it, an act which many have told me was one of the worst insults a person can commit in this country. Having managed to eat it all somehow, I had to fast for a day afterwards.

A friend in Kathmandu doesn't eat rice because she is allergic to it. I am impressed she is able to survive in Nepal. The only places where you can do this are big cities, or ironically, the poorest villages on the Mahabharat Lekh and remotest mountain districts, where people eat dhido or potatoes.

It's a shame that people look down on alternative staples like makai, alu and kodo, as poor man's food. All of them are actually more nutritious than polished rice. Many rural Nepalis know this too, but those without khet would still rather sell cash crops and buy rice than eat makai day in day out, even though they remember that they used to be stronger on a maize diet. I suppose rice is more prestigious than maize and the rest, and if you're eating the same every day, it tastes more interesting.

Nepali cuisine does not have the glamour which is afforded to that of certain other countries. Some people regard it as the poor cousin of Indian food, but this view is ignorant of the subtleties of Nepali gastronomy and is unfair.

The problem is that the most delicious Nepali foods are really hard to explain to the uninitiated. How do you explain what gundruk is like? By describing the preparation? "Well, it's kind of half-fermented dried spinach." By describing the taste? I don't think there are words in English to describe the bouquet of gundruk ko jhol. Many foreigners are initially suspicious of gundruk, but once they have tried it lose their hearts to it.

The same can be said for tama. The first time I had it I was somewhat perturbed to find out I was eating bamboo. But now just thinking about alu tama with golbheda ko achar makes my mouth water.

There is also something lost in translation when they tell you sekuwa is "burnt meat". Only those who have tried it (preferably with jad or tongba, which I am saving for another column), know that pork sekuwa at the Airport Sekuwa Pasal can be one of the most delicious dishes in the world. Who cares about the tapeworms?

Part of the reason for Nepali food's low profile outside of Nepal is translation problems. I have been served things in Nepal for which there is no word in English, or probably any other language.

Some of these I have only tasted in one or two households. Although the holy trinity of dal, bhat and tarkari holds sway in most of the country, its preparation varies between districts, villages and even from house to house.

Many of the real Nepali delicacies are home recipes, sometimes made from ingredients which are specific to that area and unknown elsewhere. I have had foods in Panchthar which people had not heard of even in Ilam.

Many - not all - \'Nepali' restaurants in England serve Indian food. A token hat is dipped to Nepalipan by including momos in the menu. But then again most UK Indian restaurants don't serve real Indian food either. They conform to British expectations and tastes, which are used to canonical vindaloo, madras and tikka masala.

Hopefully with time and the spread of the diaspora, the profile of Nepali cuisine will rise internationally. Sadly, many of the local ingredients which make the food special in each place are not available outside the country (some are not even available in Kathmandu).

I just hope Nepali food doesn't sell out, and remains true to its salty, sour, and other tastes that I can't even name. The world will eventually understand the genius. Let them come.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)