Korean Food for Thought

The East Coast city where Tri and I went to college has a sizeable Korean population, and there are some darn good Korean restaurants there. Our alma mater lies outside of the city limits, but Tri and I lived in the city over the summer. We found a little restaurant a few blocks from our appartment, and we would stroll down there when the weather was nice to have delicious dishes like beebimbap and barbecued pork.

Kathmandu also has a pretty big Korean population. So I hoped that with a Korean population in the city, there might also be some places to get Korean food, and thankfully I was right 🙂 There’s a famous Korean bakery, and you can actually buy kimchi at the supermarket chain, Bhatbateni, but to fill my cravings for Korean food, I really needed to eat at a restaurant, and luckily there are a couple of sit-down places in the city.

This morning, Tri had to work, so we went into his office for a few hours, but then we had the afternoon off. We called Mama, who knows a lot about restaurants in the Valley, and he suggested that we try a place called Everest Villa in Thamel, the tourist district.

After walking along one of the side roads in Thamel, past the House of Music, we made it to Everest Villa, right next to the Korea Nepal Friendship Association (I’m assuming the restaurant and the association are connected).

The outside spaces were quiet and cozy, with some plants and shaded areas. But the ambiance on the inside of the restaurant wasn’t great. The white color theme and tiled floors made me feel like I was sitting in either a hospital or a cafeteria or maybe a hospital cafeteria.

But the food was tasty. We ordered beebimbap, which came out sizzling hot with a couple of side dishes. Like always, the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot was the best! It really reminded me of the Korean food we would get back in the US. We also ordered chicken bulgogi, which wasn’t quite as good, I think because they had added too much sugar to the dish. But overall, I was satisfied, and it quenched my cravings for Korean food.

After eating, we sat around for a while, fondly remembering the Korean restaurants and all of the other food joints we missed from the US. Just as we were deciding on where we would eat our first meal after going back, our waiter asked me, “Are you Nepali?” I still get asked this question every now and again. I was on the bus a few weeks ago, heading home from work, and a few of my colleagues asked me if I was sure I wasn’t at least part Nepali. “I don’t think so” I said laughing. Sometimes people ask me this when I’m speaking Nepali, and because not that many white foreigners speak it (although I’m sure the population numbers in the thousands), I see how they be wondering if I am, in fact, Nepali. But at other times, I’m not sure how people come to that conclusion because I don’t think I look Nepali at all!

But maybe the waiter was just off the mark in general because he got Tri’s nationality wrong too when he asked him if he was Indian. There’s something about my husband that makes his race/ethnicity/nationality hard to identify. To me, he definitely looks Nepali, but he’s been asked many times, while living in Nepal, if he’s Indian. He could possibly pass as Indian, but he could just as well be Nepali, so if he’s in Nepal, speaking Nepali, why would they think he’s Indian? He doesn’t have features associated with most Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, features which are common in Nepal, but there are plenty of Nepalis who don’t look like that. Are they all being asked the same question?

The funny thing is that Tri is, in fact, a quarter Indian, so I guess the waiter wasn’t actually that far off. His maternal grandmother moved to Kathmandu from Assam, India as a child. Ironically, she is probably the most stereotypically nepali looking of all his grandparents.

So I guess both of our races/ethnicities/nationalities are a little bit ambiguous, a reality that highlights that the lines we draw between racial, ethnic, and national groups are not as solid and set in stone as a lot of us would like to think.

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The Story of an Arranged Engagement

One of my friend’s younger brothers is looking for a wife, and over the last few weeks, I’ve been following his story as it unfolds.

First of all, I want to get it out there that I have no beef with arranged marriages that involve two informed and consenting adults. When I first heard the term, probably sometime in middle school, I was certainly shocked. It went against my American sensibilities that dictated that two people should fall in love before deciding to spend their lives together. It felt strange to me that someone would agree to marry another person without first getting to know them thoroughly. However, after reading more about it and broadening my understanding of the cultures that still rely on arranged marriages, I came to understand it was just another of way of doing things, and like other types of marriages, arranged ones sometimes work out and sometimes don’t. Although I had no problem with arranged marriages before moving to Nepal, I didn’t really understand the actual logistics of arranging a marriage. The logistics are obviously different in different places, but in Nepal, as I’m learning, it’s very much of a word-of-mouth kind of process.

My friend told me a few weeks ago that her brother wanted to get married. When she mentioned this to me, he had just arrived for a three-week visit to Nepal from the US, where he lives. The day after he arrived, she told us that he wanted to find a bride, get engaged, and then have a wedding within three weeks. Engagements and marriages often happen on short notice in Nepal. You might meet up with an acquaintance, after not seeing her for a month or two, and she’ll announce that she’s getting married in a week! Marriage dates are often chosen by a jyotice, astrologer. If you go to see him about finding an appropriate date, he might decide that you should marry in a few months time or, after reading your birth charts, he may also decide that you should do it immediately. The other thing is that getting engaged and getting married often happen within the span of about a week, so for my friend’s brother to be engaged and then married very soon after the engagement is not so unusual.

What surprised me was that he wanted to do everything within three weeks. Usually, at least in my experience, the bride and groom will have known each other for a while before getting engaged. Sometimes they will have been together for many years, as is more common among younger, urban Nepalis who have boyfriends and girlfriends. But even if an arranged marriage is taking place, families will meet their potential son or daughter-in-law at least a few months before the wedding takes place. Hearing that my friend’s brother was hoping to find a bride, get engaged, and be married all in the space of three weeks was quite a surprise. Imagine going from being single, without a boyfriend or girlfriend, to being married within three weeks! Although, because he lives in the US and only rarely gets to come to Nepal, I understand why he wants to rush things.

The process started with my friend and her family branching out, talking to all of their family, friends, acquaintances, close and distant to find out if they knew of a girl who was looking to get married. Because all of this was happening on short notice, my friend and her family really had to bust their butts to find a girl, and it hasn’t been easy. My friend was saying that finding a girl who has a similar educational background and who is not already in a relationship is very difficult. She said that she’s been hearing about a number of potential brides, but then she’ll find out that they already have boyfriends. As “love marriages” become more common, I imagine setting up an arranged marriage is becoming harder and harder.

There are professional matchmakers in Nepal that provide customers with a set of potential spouses for a fee. But from what I’ve seen, people more commonly find spouses for their children through personal connections. The person who identifies the spouse for a family’s son or daugther would be considered the matchmaker, and it can be risky business. If one of the young people back out or the marriage goes south, the matchmaker may end up taking the blame for the failed marriage. I’ve heard some Nepalis say they won’t get involved in matchmaking expressly for that reason.

Another part of having an arranged marriage in Nepal is finding someone of the right caste. Many Nepali families, especially ones in urban areas, are more open to intercaste marriages these days. I don’t think many would go as far to say that they’re okay with their son or daughter marrying a foreigner (luckily I found a Nepali family out there that is 🙂 ), but intercaste marriages are becoming not only more common but much more socially acceptable as well. My friend told me that if her brother had had a girlfriend from another caste, her family would have been fine with it. But because it’s an arranged marriage, they want to find someone within their own caste/ethnic group. Because my friend is Newar, she and her family have been looking for a Newar girl.

While arranging the marriage of someone, finding the right fit can take a few tries. In years past, I think parents would more often make the decision about their child’s spouse for them, but these days, grown children are often given the opportunity to meet their potential spouse, talk on the phone, and maybe go one a few chaperoned dates. While the decision is still very much a familial one, children now have a say.

This period of negotiation also happened with my friend’s brother. A few years back, he started the process of looking for a wife. Pictures and descriptions of girls who were also looking to get married were sent to their house. He then chose a few girls he wanted to meet. But after meeting the girls, something or the other just didn’t feel right, so no engagements moved forward at that time.

But when I saw my friend on Tuesday, she said that they had found a girl they really like. Everything seemed to be going well. They were planning to be engaged on Thursday, and if my friend’s family had its way, they would be married before her brother left this weekend. However, I saw my friend today, and something was wrong. Apparently the bride and groom called the engagement off. I don’t know what happened; even my friend isn’t sure. But I can say that no matter whether it’s an arranged marriage or not, finding a someone you can spend the rest of your life with takes time! And probably shouldn’t be rushed in three weeks.

A Nepali Thanksgiving

Initially I didn’t think we would be having any kind of Thanksgiving celebration, but then my mom started talking to me about her Thanksgiving preparations. And then I read a few articles about Thanksgiving food including this one from DesiGrub and this one about what to do with Thanksgivings leftovers. After drooling over those pictures from the New York Times, I knew I had to make some kind of effort to have a Thanksgivng.

I didn’t have that Thursday off, so Tri and I had our Thanksgiving on that Sunday. Before Sunday arrived, we made a list of dishes we wanted to cook including some kind of meat dish, pea soup, mashed potatoes, and apple pie. We then went to Bhatbateni and stocked up on all of the ingredients we needed. Over the past few months, I’ve heard a few people mention that there are turkeys in Nepal, but nobody seems to know where to find turkey meat, so we decided to cook chicken instead.

Cooking Chicken

On Friday night, we marinated the chicken meat. I am no meat expert, and while Tri knows a bit more about cooking than I do, he isn’t an expert by any means either. So to marinate the chicken, we mixed in some ingredients that we thought might work including soy sauce, mustard oil, vinegar, garlic, ginger, hot pepper powder, and cumin. The meat soaked in those spices and flavors for about 24 hours before cooking. On the night of our feast, we decided to try baking the chicken in our miniature oven. Most Nepali houses don’t have built-in ovens, but you can get little ones that plug into the wall, which is what we have. After about half an hour of me squinting in through the window of the oven, trying figure out if things were actually cooking, the first batch was done. To my surprise, the chicken was actually good and not just tasty but tender and juicy as well. I’m not sure why it turned out the way it did because I have never cooked meat that way before, but I was very pleased with the result. Tri thinks that the vinegar may have had something to do with the tenderness.

Pea Soup with Mustard Oil

Before our guests arrived that night, we made the pea soup and mashed potatoes. There’s a dried bean found in Nepal called kerau that is similar to dried green peas, so after soaking some of those for about 12 hours, we started cooking them in the pressure cooker. We were trying to cook the soup American-style, so we didn’t add in too many spices, but predictably it turned out a little bland. I’m not saying that American pea soup is always bland. It’s just that I must have failed to add in some important ingredient. So in the end, to give it a kick, we added in a little bit of mustard oil.

The mashed potatoes were pretty straight forward. The key is butter, which I added lots of 🙂 And they turned out great.

Bhatmas are on the left. The spices to be mixed in are on the right.

To compliment the American dishes, we had a Nepali appetizer. Buwa made some sandheko bhatmas, a snack of soy beans mixed with spices. He first fried the dried bhatmas (soybeans) on the stove and then added hot pepper powder, raw garlic, raw ginger, spring onions and salt to the cooled beans. It was delicious.

Some family members also brought over a couple of pizzas. But the pièce de rĂ©sistance was the Thanksgiving cake. I had initially set out to make a pie, as is traditional on Thanksgiving, but I don’t really know how, so I downgraded it to an apple crumble. However, when I baked it that night, something went wrong. It was dry and tough (maybe the apples weren’t the right kind?). Anyway, we didn’t end up serving it, but luckily we didn’t have to because we had the delicious cake that Mama and Maijiu (Tri’s uncle and aunt) brought over.

Thanksgiving Cake

We were all a bit surprised to see the icing flower that the bakers had plopped right over the word “giving,” but after we took it off, we realized why. They had misspelled the word and used that decoration to hide their blunder! 🙂 I’ve never had a Thanksgiving cake before, but it’s a tradition I’m open to keeping around.

Although our Thanksgiving wasn’t exactly traditional, I felt pretty good afterwards. I certainly missed my family in the US, but I had a good time with my family here and got to eat good food. I couldn’t ask for much more. Now I’m trying to think of ways to celebrate Christmas. We’re not supposed to be celebrating holidays this year, but since Christmas is not a Hindu holiday, I might be able to get away with doing something.

The Boundaries of Collectivism

Wikipedia defines collectivism as, “any philosophic, political, economic, mystical or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals…over individual goals.”

That definition describes a lot of what I see and experience in Nepal. Nepalis I know recognize the importance of interdependence and gravitate towards and actively work to support each other.

Much of that collectivist attitude and interdependence is seen in the family structure. Family needs are often put above individual needs. People are consistently expected to do things that will benefit their family. Few young people live away from their parents, and there is not much of a tradition of “striking out on your own.”

There are also certain built-in cultural expectations that increase the interdependence of Nepalis on one another. In the US, when friends go out to eat, they often each pay for themselves. In Nepal, the expectation is that one person will pay for the whole group. The person who invited everyone to go out might pay or sometimes friends take turns. This increases the interdependence of people on each other and tends to increase social interaction. If you paid for me last time when we went out to eat pizza, I’m more likely to suggest we go out to again so that I can repay that favor.

People here also tend not to separate themselves out from the group. When eating out with friends, no one will order a particular dish for themselves unless they have some kind of restriction (like an allergy or are vegetarian). Instead, multiple dishes are ordered, and the same food is eaten by everyone. People also always share food that they have bought or brought from somewhere else. While traveling or hiking, if someone pulls out a snack, it’s very rude not to offer some of it to everyone. In the US, although people share food with each other, it’s acceptable to bring food for yourself and only yourself.

Another Nepali custom that promotes interdependence and reciprocal relationships is gift giving. As I mentioned in this post about achaar, people often bring little gifts (especially for those younger than they are) when visiting others.

This collectivism and interdependence is present in almost every social encounter I have. At work, when I go out, when I meet new people, I sense this tendency to stick with the group, do things for the whole.

But just how far does this collectivism extend?

Residents of Kathmandu often don’t often take care of public spaces or think carefully about what’s good for others when it comes to the streets and roads. People litter all the time, just chuck their trash right out of the car window. When I studied abroad, I was suprised to see all of the fences carefully built around houses and property. People here keep their own little space nice and neat, but throw their trash right over the fence into public areas and even onto others’ property. Drivers are also often not thoughtful about other drivers and pedestrians on the road. It’s not uncommon to see cars or buses stopped squarely the middle of the streets, mindless of other commuters. It particularly irritates me to see the buses letting passengers off in a busy spot, clogging up the road when there is a convenient place to pull off just 20 feet away. In Kathmandu, it seems that there’s little attention paid to doing things for the “greater good.”

In the US, there are plenty of public spaces that are dirty, and it’s certainly not like everyone is always keeping the “greater good” in mind. I remember my parents telling me that my grandmother (who was a smoker) used to dump the ashes from her cigarettes out of the window of her car onto the road. They said that a few decades ago, people used to throw trash out of their windows without a thought. But I think that there have been successful governmental campaigns to promote the preservation of public areas, and certain traffic regulations and their successful enforcement keep the roads a bit safer than the ones in Kathmandu.

Although there are people here who are really trying to raise public awareness about the upkeep of urban areas, people like Anil Chitrakar, I don’t think there have been any large, successful campaigns that have really changed the way Nepalis treat their public spaces.

I think an important way to promote people to do things for the “greater good” is to make sure they feel ownership for the place they’re living in. While I was talking with Tri about this topic, he mentioned an interesting fact about Kathmandu that helped me understand what I’ve been experiencing. Many people who live in Kathmandu moved here from outside of the Valley, so they may not feel like this is truly their home or “their place.” A lot of people here have a gaun, “village,” outside of Kathmandu that they visit during holidays; maybe they have some land or family there. Sometimes their grandparents, parents, or they, themselves, moved into the Valley from those areas looking for better opportunities. Others settled here during or after the 10-year conflict to escape the sometimes more dangerous rural areas. Could the fact that Kathmandu is a valley of migrants be affecting the way that residents here treat their public areas and each other?

There is such a culture of collectivism in Nepal. If this could be harnessed somehow and extended beyond the boundaries of family and friends, I think there could be some real change. Pollution would decrease and politeness and consideration for others on the roads and streets would go up. Now somebody has to figure out how to get that in motion. Any ideas?