The Story of Hing

I’ve been trying to do a little more Nepali cooking lately and have been venturing down the road of Nepali spices. Before I knew anything about South Asia, whenever I heard the word “spices,” I thought of back pepper and maybe paprika. But when I got to know Nepal and Nepali culture, I became aware of things like turmeric (besar), cumin, (jeera), hot pepper powder (khorsaniko dhulo), and my all-time favorite: timurwhich doesn’t have a direct equivalent in the West, although people say it’s related to Szechuan pepper.

A bottle of hing from the Indian store down the street

Although I’ve gotten to know and love many of these spices, one flavoring that still remains elusive to me is Hing. Hing is a very unique-smelling white powder that is used in South Asian cooking. I’ve actually never seen any Nepalis add it into their food, but I learned about it a few years ago when my mom brought a little bottle home from the local Indian store. I didn’t know anything about it, so I asked Tri. Apparently his mom used to put it in cooking when he was younger, and he has very distinct memories of its pungent flavor and odor. Hing has an intense smell to it, that’s both slightly sulferous and (this may sound bizarre), similar to the smell of gasoline. As I was looking it up on the internet, I read that some people think it tastes like leeks, and I do taste that in there. You can imagine this mix of flavors and smells brings out strong reactions in people.

Hing in its powdered form

Even after Tri told us about his experiences with hing, I was still mystified by this spice, especially when my maternal grandmother told us her story about hing. My grandmother grew up in a small town in Missouri, and when she was a kid, her grandmother made my grandmother wear a little pouch of hing around her neck, apparently to prevent sickness. She didn’t call it hing but instead called it by it’s Western name asafoetida (asa in Persian means “resin” and foetida in Latin means “stinking”). Since my poking around the internet told me that asafoetida originated in Afghanistan, I wandered how and why hing had become part of my grandmother’s heritage.

I found this website that describes how hing is cultivated and what it’s used for. It also includes a bit of it’s history. While reading this source and others, I kept finding information that suggested asafoetida was introduced to the Western world during the time of Alexander the Great through trade routes that ran from the East to the West. In fact, this website gives a great description of asafoetida’s ancient history. Through further reading, I found that although it was used in Europe for a period of time, it became a less popular addition to food during the middle ages. But Europeans continued to use it for medicinal purposes. Which is, I suppose, how it ended up in a pouch around my grandmother’s neck. Apparently there’s even a story called Penrod Jashber written in 1929 by an American author named Booth Tarkington that tells the tale of a little boy who is forced to wear a bag of asafoetida around his neck to ward off sickness.

Although I’m still not sold on its ability to keep the germs away, hing is apparently very healthy for you. WebMD mentions that there’s evidence that hing can help people with IBS and can also bring down high cholesterol. So despite its intense smell, I think I might try to eat it more often.

Dealing with the Bureaucracy and Learning to Shop Again

Adjusting to life back in the US has been pretty problem free. Most things feel natural and easy to navigate, but I have hit a few roadblocks. First of all, I kind of forgot how complicated life is in the US. Tri and I are working on getting our health insurance set up again, buying car insurance, finding an apartment in Boston (where we’re moving in a few weeks!), getting our phones in working order and so many other little things.

I drove with my brother to the eye doctor yesterday morning and when we were about half way there, I realized I had forgotten my health insurance card. Neither of us could remember if you have to have it at the eye doctor, so we were ready to turn around, but a call to my mom let us know that I probably didn’t need it. In Nepal, things are more relaxed. You don’t need a health insurance card; in fact, we didn’t even have health insurance, and instead of having to make an appointment weeks in advance, we could call up and get one with only a few days wait. I realize that getting healthcare in Nepal is not so easy for everybody and only minimally available for many, but thankfully we didn’t have much trouble while we were there.

I was complaining to my brother, saying that life is so complicated here, but he reminded me that I used to call and talk about how difficult things were in Nepal. It’s true (at least it was for me). There are many things that are more difficult in Nepal, but the nice thing about life there is that there aren’t so many rules to be followed and not as much of a bureaucracy to deal with. It makes things a little simpler.

It may take a while, but I’ll eventually get used to dealing with all the little details that I have to deal with in the US. What I’m afraid I’ll never get used to is shopping.

Over the weekend we went to visit some friends and family in Washington DC. My aunt and cousin were driving up that way from further down South and wanted to meet us before they headed to another destination. We had lunch at a diner and then went to a nearby mall to check out the lego store. I was shocked. This place was a huge shopping complex with what must have been hundreds of stores. Stores for clothing, shoes, computers, stands to buy jewelry, get your eyebrows threaded, even a store selling only steinway pianos. It’s incredible. In some ways, it’s not all that different from big markets in Nepal like Ason where you can get most of the everyday things that you would be looking for. However, a place like Ason is overwhelming in a different kind of way. Its noises, smells, and intensity make it a lot to take in for a foreigner like me. But this mall was overwhelming because of its size and the huge range of items available. I mean, who ever thought that there would ever be a store dedicated just to plastic toy blocks?

When I was in high school I read a book called The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a story about a white American missionary family that moves to the Congo in the late 1950’s. It’s a really great, detailed story full of interesting symbolism, but I remember it as being very sad. The youngest of the four daughters dies, and the other three daughters and the mother eventually all all find paths that lead them in very different directions. There’s this one scene from that book that stuck pretty strongly in my mind.

Leah, one of the daughters, marries an African man and decides to settle with him in the Congo. At one point, they visit the US to see if they want to move here. I don’t have a copy of the book, and I can’t find the specific details of this scene on the internet, but I remember them walking into a grocery store and being overwhelmed by the items they find and shocked at the abundance of it all. As far as I can remember, when Leah and her husband were in the Congo, they were living in a rural area, growing much of their own food; the ease of just walking into a store to buy food was the shocking part. I’m not experiencing the degree of shock that they did, but I can relate to the feeling. There’s just so much here, so much stuff available and so much variety. It’s amazing and wonderful but makes me a little sick to my stomach.

Negotiating Skin

Source: famouswonders.com/positano-on-the-amalfi-coast/

In fifth grade, my parents took me and my brothers to the rocky beaches of Italy. One day when we went down to the water, I was utterly shocked to see grown women casually going topless, lying on their blankets, sunbathing, and swimming in such a public place. In the US, from just a wee age, girls (even female babies) are often expected to cover up on top, whether there’s anything to cover or not, at least at the places and beaches I frequented. It’s silly really, but what I was used to. I remember one time when I was at my grandparents’ house as a kid, my grandmother had let my brothers take off their shirts in the hot whether while we were playing baseball outside. My feminist 7-year-old self insisted that I too would take off my shirt in the heat. And I did. But really, I’m quite modest and uncomfortable when it comes to showing skin. I’ve never felt at ease wearing short shorts and bakinis, although I used to wear skirts and pants to the knee pretty frequently and bathing suits at the beach.

Before I came here, I suspected that women in Nepal would be fairly covered, but I found out that it really depends on where you are. Women in urban areas generally cover their legs, but more and more, you see girls and women wearing shorts or very short skirts. In rural areas, older women sometimes bathe bare chested, and it’s really not a big deal. Then, of course, there’s the sari. You can wear it without showing any mid-section, but many women do show at least some of their stomachs.

Some people in Nepal are able to get away with showing more skin, but I have taken a fairly conservative route while living here. Since people already assume all sorts of things about me as a foreigner, I didn’t want to give them any fodder to fuel their opinions, so I’ve always tried to wear simple and conservative pieces that don’t show a lot of skin. Especially as a married woman. If I were to go around in shorts, I would get stares and possibly scowls from those who know me (at least that’s the impression I get).

The other day we had to wear a sari to school for our class photos. I was dreading it because I don’t particularly like wearing them. I only have one, and it’s quite heavy and hard to walk in, but all the other teachers were planning to wear saris, and I didn’t want to be the odd one out. I mind saris not only because they can be uncomfortable but also because they show the stomach. I always feel very exposed in one. I suppose I could tie it in a way that would allow me to cover more of my midriff, but that’s more of a trend among matronly women, and I think people would be bugging me to tie it in a different way. In many places in the US, it’s moderately inapropriate to be walking around with your stomach showing (outside of the beach or another area where people are wearing bathing suits), so I understand where my discomfort comes from, but I’m not sure why I can’t just loosen up and not worry about it.

Where does this leave me? I think I’m caught between American customs and Nepali ones. I’m not comfortable doing it the way I used to, wearing shorts and skirts that at least come to the knee, but I can’t fully adopt the Nepali system either. I don’t want to be so averse to showing my skin, especially when it’s hot out and more comfortable to wear lighter clothing that’s less prone to covering skin. Maybe I I’ll relax a bit when we get back to the US and can find a system that feels both appropriate and comfortable.

Say It Like It Is

Anthropologists and Sociologists make a distinction between cultures that use an indirect style of communication and ones that use a direct style of communication. I like the way that this website explains the difference, so I’m going to quote them:

Direct communication is when the meaning of the message is communicated mainly via words.

Indirect communication is when meaning is not only in the words, but mainly in the surrounding context of a conversation. In other words, somebody who is indirect will leave it up to the listener to fill in the blanks and make out the meaning by correctly reading the contextual clues (e.g. non-verbal communication, status and/or age of people involved in the conversation, attire, etc.).

Before I spent time in Nepali, I thought of it as being a very indirect place. And from what I’ve heard about Asia as a whole, most cultures here supposedly employ indirect communication styles.

To an extent, it is true that things in Nepal are said in an indirect way. For instance, it’s rude to say no to something outright unless you have a very good reason. I have a good example of this. The organization that our friend works for was organizing a community cleanup the other day, and she and the other members went door-to-door around the neighborhood asking people if they would like to help. She was lamenting to us at lunch yesterday that although everyone would agree to help out when she met them face-to-face, she knew they weren’t going to come for the clean up, and very few of them did.

When I first visited Nepal in 2009, I thought almost everything would be expressed in an indirect way, in a style similar to the one mentioned in the example above. However, people can be surprisingly open and direct about certain things.

Weight is one of them. It’s pretty rude in the US to talk to people about their weight, except with close friends or family. Even then, it can be a touchy subject. But here, it’s completely the opposite. Everyone is always talking about how someone has lost or gained a few pounds. People talk about it with each other and say it directly to the person whose weight is being discussed. It can be strange or even offensive to people who aren’t used to discussing something that may seem so personal, but weight is not considered to be such a personal thing in Nepal. Discussing someone’s weight is also a way to show that you care about them. You might be concerned that they’ve lost some weight, maybe they’re sick or stressed out at work, and you show that concern by commenting on it.

I’ve gotten used to people commenting on weight, but I still find other, very direct comments pretty off-putting.

The other night, we were at dinner with some family we see very rarely. We were talking about water problems and how it’s important to treat or filter the water that comes from the tap. Buwa was asking two of the people (a mother and daugher-in-law) if they brush with the untreated water from their house tap, and they said yes.

“You can’t do that,” Buwa said. And then he added, while pointing to their teeth, “duijannako dant bigriyo,” translated as, “Both of you have damaged teeth.”

Their teeth did look kind of black, but I could never imagine pointing that out to them. Of course, Buwa’s relationship with them is very different than my relationship with them. He’s much closer to them than I am. But to me, that comment sounded so very direct! I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say something similar in English. I could imagine someone trying to torment another person by turning it into a gibe, but never could I see it said in good faith. Buwa was definitely saying it in good faith.

Another direct comment took me by surprise today. I had to go to the asthma doctor to get my medicine adjusted. I don’t know this man personally; I had never even met this guy before today (although he does know Tri). As I was getting up on the examination table, he asked, “How long have you two been married?” Tri exagerated a bit, answering with, “almost a year” (even though it’s only been about eight months).

The doctor replied by saying, “In Nepal, if you’ve been married a year and are not pregnant, people start asking questions.” He proceeded to give me an awkward eyebrow raise.

I think I turned bright red on the exam table. I’ve had other people ask me if I’m planning to have kids, but they’ve been very close to me and it has always happened in a private setting, not in a public exam room with about 10 other people in it! I guess he could have been more direct by saying, “Why aren’t you pregnant already?” Maybe I should thank him for his indirectness.

Would a doctor have said something like that to me in the US? I don’t think so. I’ve heard of women in the US being asked when they’re going to have kids, but only by other women they know.

This type of directness really catches me off guard sometimes. Will I ever get used to it?

Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Nepal 2011: A Mixed Bag

Before the holidays started, I was surprised to learn that there are many Nepalis who celebrate Christmas in Nepal. There is a population of Nepali Christians who celebrate Christmas similar to the way I did growing up (with a Christmas tree and presents), but there are also a number of Nepali Hindus and Buddhists who celebrate without the tree and gifts.

A hotel all decked out for the holidays

The first Christmas tree I saw was at Bhatbateni, the grocery store. They had put out a few trees and thrown some light strings over their bushes, and as Christmas approached, I saw more and more hotels, restaurants, and stores putting out decorations. During Tihar, one of the holidays here, people cover (sometimes from roof to ground) their houses with lights, so many people have lights in store.

I asked some Hindus here why they celebrate Christmas, and a lot of them told me that it’s just for fun. One person said that she has special “Christmas friends” who she calls up every year to celebrate with. Another person told me that Christmas and New Year’s are just another excuse to drink!

After our Thanksgiving celebration, I was trying to think of ways to celebrate. And some people were debating wether or not I was even allowed to celebrate at all. Before my break started, I was sitting in the lunchroom at school talking with some of the people who work there, and we had kind of a funny conversation about celebrating. They were asking me about whether I was a Hindu or a Christian. After women marry in Nepal, they traditionally take on the caste and religion of their husbands, so some people assume that I’m Hindu because Tri is. But then they were trying to figure out if I could be both Hindu and Christian and therefore be allowed to celebrate Christmas. I would definitely say yes! I’m allowed to celebrate 🙂

But my plans pretty much amounted to nothing. Even though I wanted to celebrate this year, I was feeling both lazy and sad on Christmas Eve. I was really missing the US and sort of wallowing at home in the dark (because there was no electricity), thinking about how hard it is to celebrate a holiday without having others around to celebrate it with. It makes me all the more impressed with those people abroad who work so hard to organize Dashain parties and celebrations. But anyway, I started to feel better once the lights came back on, so Tri and I decided to make some cookies.

Roasting the Peanuts

Peanut Butter

One of the things I miss most from the US is good peanut butter. I used to slather it on bread, crackers, put it in my cereal. It was seriously a staple food for me. They have a few brands of peanut butter here, but they’re all incredibly sweet and have trans fats in them, something I try to avoid. So lately we’ve been making our own. There’s a little shop on the way to our house that sells different types of daal and nuts, and it’s convenient for us to get our peanuts from them. Once we get the peanuts to our kitchen, we roast them in a frying pan. We then throw them in a small food processor with some oil and honey, which results in some pretty darn good peanut butter.

Because we had made some peanut butter that day, we wanted to incorporate it into our cookies, so I looked for a recipe for peanut butter cookies. I found one online for cookies with peanut butter filling. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again, but trust me, those cookies looked amazing. We decided to try it out, but I can get kind of lazy about following recipes, so I just winged it. I mixed a simple batter of butter, flour, and sugar and then rolled out little patties onto which we put peanut butter balls. We then sealed up the cookies and stuck them in the oven for a while.

You can imagine that without following the recipe, the cookies didn’t come out right, and surprise, surprise, that’s exactly what happened. They were far from fluffy with a gooey center, which is what the picture on the website insinuated we were going to get. In fact, they didn’t really taste like cookies at all. They were more like little dense buns.

So it wasn’t the Christmas cookie I was hoping for, but it wasn’t all that bad either.

For New Year’s Eve, because we hadn’t done much for Christmas, I wanted to actually put some effort into celebrating. That day we were trying to figure out what to do, and I suggested we try to go to the Chhauni museum. I know, I know, going to a museum is not necessarily the typical way to ring in the New Year, but I’ve heard this is a neat place with a collection of old Buddhist and Hindu statues, something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve been wanting to go for a while, so this would have been a real treat. But it closed too early for us to make it, so we scrapped that idea.

Toasting to the New Year

Then Tri called his friend, and she said that she could meet us in the afternoon. We drove over to Jhamsikel, where she works, and ate pizza and pasta at the Vespar Cafe. Then, since none of us had any other plans, we decided to stay in the area for the evening. We made our way over to Saleways to buy snacks and refreshments and then drove over to where she’s staying. We just hung out and talked and talked until late with a few of her friends. (late meaning about 9:30, which really is late in Nepal 🙂 ). No, we didn’t go to a big bash or stay up till midnight, but for the first time in a long time, I felt really relaxed. I miss being able to talk to people other than Tri in my own language (I talk to Tri in English all the time, but I don’t have deep conversations with anyone in English aside from him). I guess it kind of felt like college again.

Anyway, Happy New Year everybody!

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 résistance 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?