8-14 January 2016 #790

Being baklava

The challenge in carving a Nepali identity which is identifiable as ‘Nepali’ and yet not all the same
Bidushi Dhungel

Layered food is always a delight to the palette. I’m pretty convinced the reason lasagna, for example, is so yummy is because it is made up uniquely of layers of pasta and sauce. There is something about balance in layering and one can almost taste that balance when food is cooked right. Otherwise, there is almost no difference between an average bolognaise pasta bake and lasagna – in terms of ingredients—and yet it isn’t lasagna.

This actually came to mind when making an entirely different dish, baklava, earlier this week. Baklava is a dessert dish that is the Middle Eastern world’s equivalent to our own mithai. It is made up of wafer thin layers of phyllo pastry with fillings in between, drenched in butter, then baked to a crisp golden brown and then topped with sugar and honey syrup. They are cut up into these magnificent little diamonds, square and round shapes, perfect for pecking on.

Now, you might wonder why I am again writing about baked goods when the country is falling to pieces. Well, for one, it is a hobby people in search of sanity or stress relief might turn to in times of turmoil. But more than that, like all else, one cannot help but see striking similarities between the various things one is passionate about, in this case baklava and identity.

Many foods depend on a delicate balance of layers to really develop in taste and appeal. That is the thing about the great classics like the croissant or a trifle, the balance of the layers, which carry different flavours. The croissant comes in various flavours and in various shapes and sizes and yet we all know when a croissant is a croissant. It is the same with baklava too.  What really makes it is the paper-thin in-tact layers that are neither soft nor hard once baked and neither too sweet nor bland. These are the fundamentals, which are the defining characteristics of the dish which are unchanged. The interesting thing is the baklava is different in different parts of the Middle East, and often the nuts used and flavours, shapes and sizes are different, and yet one can tell off-hand when you are being served baklava. That is because the defining identity of the dessert is unchanged regardless of where you go.

The balance of the layers, regardless of flavour or shape, is the magic to its identity.

One might say it is rather similar to the notion of being Nepali, or the kind of Nepali identity we are in the need to forge. It seems the challenge in carving a Nepali identity which is identifiable as ‘Nepali’ and yet not all the same lies at the crux of the issue. Like the baklava, we want the different flavours, sizes, shapes and thickness, and also want to remain in the ‘baklava’ family without it being questioned, regardless of whether the filling is made of pistachios, almonds or desiccated coconut. 

In fact, we want an obvious element to our ‘Nepaliness’ without it being monolithic, or synonymous with only one language, dress, religion, etc. We want to break away from the Panchayat and Mahendra era ‘Nepaliness’ without compromising on the essence of a binding identity altogether.

And why wouldn’t that be desirable? Going by how well baklava has done in being united in its diversity, it seems definitely the best way forward. The management of diversity in such a way that the fundamentals remain unchanged is the key. Perhaps for Nepal, the best thing to start off with would be to identify the fundamentals, if there are any at all. 


Read also

Over-fermented federalism, Bidushi Dhungel

National identity crisis, Rubeena D Shrestha

A diverse unity, Anurag Acharya

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