Nepali Christmas Hath Come Early

Tri’s family are all very good cooks. His brother (I’ll call him ‘M’) manages a restaurant in Kathmandu and knows how to cook some amazing dishes. Tri’s step mom and dad also make absolutely delish Nepali food. During “Nepali Christmas” (aka the big Nepali Hindu holiday Dashain) people return home, visit relatives, get tikka (red vermillion powder mixed with rice placed on the forehead as a blessing), and eat eat eat tons of homemade food. Here in our home it feels like Dashain has come early because of all the amazing food we’ve had. Here are a few pics of the some of the great eats we’ve been enjoying:

From top left going clockwise: blackening tomatoes over the stove, fried chicken, chicken curry (i.e., chickenko rus), golbedhako achaar (tomato pickle/sauce/flavoring), chop (a mixture of spices.

I’ll admit that there have been a few arguments in the kitchen over how to make each specific dish because everyone has their own way of doing it (me included!). Honestly, though? It’s been great family bonding time 🙂

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.

Pro Divers and Goat Meat

Life has been kind of crazy these last few weeks. We’re moving next weekend to our new apartment (yay!), so this past week and weekend have been full of packing, cleaning, and organizing our stuff. Two of my classes just started, so I’m starting homework and papers again. And a lot of our friends have been driving or flying to Boston from Philly, New York, and Kathmandu.

Despite the commotion, we’ve been trying to have some fun, so on Saturday night, we decided to go with some friends to see pro divers jump off of the Institute of Contemporary Art into the Boston Harbor. We had no idea how crowded it was going to be! There were thousands and thousands of people there. With so many cars and bikes and pedestrians, there was absolutely no way we were going to find a place to park, so we had to turn around 😦

Since we had some stuff to drop off at my brother’s apartment, we drove there instead. My brother was also supposed to meet us to watch the divers, but left shortly after we did and met us back at his apartment. After we had all gathered, we walked to Market Basket (the local grocery store) to pick up some food for dinner. Then we walked over to the nearby Indian store to get some essential ingredients for the Nepali-inspired chicken salad we wanted to make, including toreko tel, mustard oil. If it’s available, Tri and I put mustard oil in anything that needs extra flavoring, and we love to make sandheko bhatmas, (soy beans that have been roasted and mixed with raw onions, garlic, chili powder, and mustard oil). So we were happy to finally have our mustard oil.

On the way back, we saw these words written across a Tibetan/Nepali store front: chala sahitko kashiko masu paincha, which Tri translated to something like, “goat meat with skin is available here.” Tri loves goat meat, especially pieces that have lots of fat and skin on them. Although the store was closed on Saturday night, we know where we’re going for goat meat when Dashain rolls around 🙂

A Kimchi Success

It worked! Today we went over to my brother’s house to pick up the kimchi, and it was deliciously sour, crunchy, and spicy. We’re hoping that as it continues to ferment, it will get a little bit softer, but overall we’re very happy with it 🙂

Kimchi fresh out of the fermenting pot

Jarred up and ready to be taken home

Kimchi 101

I’m not a particularly picky eater (maybe my family would say otherwise), but honestly although I’m wary of certain meats (and don’t eat beef or pork), I’ll pretty much eat whatever you put in front of me. I wasn’t always that way, though, especially when I first started eating Nepali food, in particular achaar.

My first encounters with fermented foods (where I actually recognized them as fermented) were in Nepal. Many Nepalis eat achaar, which is an often-fermented vegetable or fruit that accompanies the meal. During my first few meals of daalbhaat (daal and rice), I cringed at the spicy, sour and sometimes bitter taste of most achaar. It was too much for my tastebuds. But as with most Nepali food, I grew to love and crave it. In fact, of all the Nepali foods that I am hankering for, achaar is on the top of the list.

Fermented foods may make you uneasy (like they did me) when you learn that they play host to an ecosystem of bacteria, but once you get past that, you’ll never go back. While we were in Nepal, people would bring over some of the most incredible tasting pickled foods like gundrukko achaar (dried and fermented lettuce leaves), mulako achaar (fermented radish), and lapsiko achaar (fermented lapsi fruit–the sweet and tangy bite of this achaar makes it a personal favorite).

In the US, its much harder to get achaar like you can in Nepal, and I’m woefully uninformed about how to make it. Once, while at my parents’ house, I tried to make lemon pickle from an Indian recipe we found online, but it became horribly sour and then rotted, stinking up the kitchen in the process. Apparently there is an art to making delicious fermented foods, and although I am at a loss for how to do it, both my mom and my brother are really good at it. My parents visited a few weekends ago and brought with them a jar full of crunchy, homemade sauerkraut (a Ukrainian/Russian dish of fermented cabbage). I can’t get enough of its mouth puckering sourness.

My brother also makes great sauerkraut and knows how to make kimchi as well, so I suggested that we make kimchi together this weekend. Today Tri and I went over to his apartment to start a batch.

Kimchi is a sour and spicy Korean side dish made from cabbage. You can buy it at most East Asian supermarkets, and it’s often served with the main meal at Korean restaurants.

Before we went to my brother’s apartment, Tri and I stopped at the local Asian supermarket to get napa cabbage, an Asian variety of cabbage and a key ingredient in kimchi.

Once we got to my his place, I started cleaning the cabbage and chopping it into big chunks. Here is the cleaned and chopped result:

Mound of chopped cabbage

My brother has a nifty pot that is used for making fermented foods. It has a lip around the rim into which you add water. After placing the lid on top, it forms a seal with the water that discourages mold spores from infriltrating the fermenting food. After I chopped the cabbage, we added it to the pot in small batches. My brother then poured in a big spoonful of salt with each new batch, some chopped green onions, chopped radishes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and chile paste.

Mashing the cabbage

After each new handful of cabbage, we would take turns mashing it really well. The picture to the left is one of us mashing one of the earlier batches. The idea with the salt and all the mashing is to get the cabbage to release water. After about 45 minutes of adding cabbage and working it over, I started to notice the water line rising. The water seemed to seep out all at once, and suddenly we had something that actually resembled kimchi. Here it is in all of its liquid glory…

After adding everything and mashing it together, this is what we got. Now it will take a few days to ferment.

None of that is added water! All of it’s from the cabbage.

After we had added everything and tasted the liquid to make sure it had all of the right flavors, my brother put ceramic plate-like weights on top of the mixture to keep the vegetables submerged, which further prevents them from getting moldy.

Now we wait. Because of the heat, it should only take a few days, maybe a week to ferment. I’ll update you when it’s done!

The Voyage of the Tomato

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a Sherpa family in the hilly region of Nepal for about a month. It was an amazing experience that introduced me to a side of Nepal very different from Kathmandu, the side I was used to. One of the best parts about living in the village was getting to know my host sister who was both patient and continually willing to teach me about her culture and life. Although her village felt very remote at the time, I eventually learned that it had surprising connections to my own home.

My second day in the village, I went to help my Sherpa sister in her fields. She gave me a scythe, and we started cutting millet. Her cutting was quick and seamless, mine clumsy and labored. But as the sun spread through the valley in the early morning, I gained a bit of confidence and settled into the meditative field work. Maybe I was too confident because within a few minutes, the scythe had slipped and it’s sharp blade dug deep into my finger.

I looked down in horror at the white gash turning to red, but my didi reassured me. “Don’t worry. Come over here, quick,” she said to me in Nepali as she motioned for me to follow her through the waist-high stalks of millet. Once we reached the hillside, she dug through the brush until she had found a thin, red vine with leaves flanking both sides. She stripped the leaves off in one sweep, rolled them between her hands, and squeezed the green juice into the gash on my finger.

I had never used leaves to heal a cut before, so that night I looked at the wound skeptically. The next morning, however, the broken skin had almost completely closed.

As I continued to live with my host sister for that rest of that month, I learned about her use of all sorts of plants for religious purposes, as medicine, and, of course, for food.

She taught me about what they grow during the different seasons and showed me the plants they burn as incense. While I was helping out in the fields, she and the other women would point out things that grew wild but were edible, like nettle (sisnu) and a tiny, almost neon-orange, round fruit…

Fast forward about eight months: I was in North Carolina at the beach, and we went kayaking to one of the small islands off the coast. As we were trudging along the island, scanning the trees for wild horses, I looked down at the dry, sandy ground. There, nestled in it’s green, leafy shell was that little orange fruit, the same type that I had seen in my didi‘s village the year before. I picked up the nearly trampled specimen and inspected it carefully in disbelief. Both the US and Nepal grow some of the same well-known fruit (bananas, apples, oranges, etc.), but it seemed unbelievable to me to find this obscure berry on both the islands of North Carolina and in a remote village in the Himalayas.

After a quick search on the Internet, I found out that the plant is called a ground cherry, a relative of the tomato. I also learned that the tomato and related plants, which are native to the Western Hemisphere, didn’t reach Europe and Asia until explorers brought them over. The ground cherry couldn’t have been part of Nepal’s landscape for more than a few hundred years.

As I learned about the voyage of the tomato and its relatives from the new world to the old, I wondered in amazement at how intricately connected our world is. I always thought of globalization as a modern thing, something of the 20th century. Plane travel and increased migration opportunities may have sped up the process, but its been happening for much longer than the last hundred years.

Nepal used to seem like such a far away place. The village seemed especially far with no internet access and my allotted one-call-per-week back to the US. But there’s been trade and connection between the East and the West for a long time. The migration of the ground cherry and tomato from its origins in the Americas to the rest of the world may seem like a small blip in the history of things, but it’s a reminder that people have been traveling, sharing ideas, crops, and food probably for as long as we’ve been around.

It also raises a whole bunch of questions. Tomatoes are a part of the Nepali cuisine, but they’re not necessarily a main feature. Consider the chili pepper, though, which is another imported plant and an integral part of the Nepali and South Asian diet. What did South Asians eat for spice before chili peppers? Was spicy food as big a part of Nepali cuisine before they used the chili pepper in their cooking? And where did all of the Nepali names for these foods come from? golbedha (tomato), aloo (potato), khorsani (hot pepper). Are they loan words? Did they arise within the Nepali community?

Eating Locally in Kathmandu

Recently I saw the move Food, Inc. I’ve been hesitating to watch this film for a long time because I was told it’s incredibly depressing, but I gathered my courage and watched it one day a few weeks ago. I’ve heard a lot of what’s in the movie before, about how animals mass-raised for consumption are kept in awful conditions without proper ventilation, about how some chickens are bread to have extra breast meat and are so top heavy that they can only walk a few feet before falling down, about the antibiotics fed to livestock. I did learn a lot from the movie, though. Before I watched it, I had never heard of Food Libel Laws, which make it easier for food producers to sue for libel. Opera Winfrey was sued in 1998 for making some kind of disparaging remark about beef and Mad Cow Disease on her show.

I also didn’t really know the extent to which The Monsanto Company has been affecting small famers in the US. Their policies and practices are particularly on my mind these days because they’re trying to set up test plots in Nepal (with the support of USAID), something I think would be awful for the farmers here. Here are three articles that describe the issue in further depth: Nepali Times article, Republica article, ekpantipur article.

Food, Inc. is part of a movement that’s been generating speed for at least the last decade, although probably much longer. There have been a number of books and movies about fast food and mass food production in the United States. The two that come to mind are Fast Food Nation, published in 2002, and Supersize Me, a film featuring Morgan Spurlock, that documents his month eating only McDonald’s food. Other books and publications that have tried to promote alternative ways of eating are books like Michael Pollan’s Eat This, Not That and a book called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. (Courtesy to my mom and brother for introducing me to a lot of these people and books).

I have a pretty cursory knowledge of this movement and its impact, but it has always seemed to me that one of its problems has been its inability to get a socio-economically diverse group of people involved. However, the basic messages that a lot of the books and movies set forth could benefit anyone. Some of the messages that I’ve come away with are things like mass-produced food is not so good for us and some of the food our grandparents and great grandparents cooked and ate should be reintroduced into our diets. The movies and books also suggest that we eat organic and local when available and when it fits within our budgets. None of these ideas are revolutionary or new, but probably good to remind ourselves of.

Living in Nepal has made it feasible for us to follow some of these suggestions but impossible to stick with others. For instance, organic food is hard to find here. There is a small market that I know of that sells organic produce and daal, but it’s far away and expensive. A lot of our food comes from small farms near our house, and I doubt that they use a ton of pesticides, but I don’t think they’re organic either. When I lived up in the hills with a Sherpa family, all of the food that they grew was organic (not certified as such), but they never used pesticides and their fertilizer was natural; it came from cows and chickens. But as far as I know, most farmers do not farm organically in the Kathmandu Valley, so our vegetables are generally not going to be organic.

Organic or freerange meat is also hard to come by. Although all of the meat we eat is local, from what I’ve heard, not all of it is raised in the best of conditions. You can get local kukhura, “local/free-range chicken,” (mentioned in this post) but it’s hard to find and again, expensive.

One thing that’s really easy to do in Nepal is eat locally.  Part of the reason for this is our fairly simple diet. Our main food consists of rice, daal, vegetables, flour (for making roti), and meat. Of course, I eat candy, crackers, biscuits, etc. that are often imported, but generally, on a daily basis, almost all of the food I eat comes from inside of Nepal and often from inside of the Valley.

The fields on which most of the saag we eat is grown

A fair number of the people living the Kathmandu Valley are still famers, and there are always fresh, locally grown vegetables available. Nepalis eat a lot of saag, which is a catch-all name for greens. The fields on which the saag we eat is grown are right near our house…

As I mentioned in some previous posts, Buwa has land right outside of the valley, and it’s rented out to farmers. We buy our rice and wheat from those farmers. Here’s our huge bucket of rice that came from a Nepali field…

Nepali Rice

We also get milk delivered every day from a farmer who lives nearby. He milks his cow in the morning and brings the milk to us in a container. It’s very yellow; the milk I used to buy in the US was always white. Someone told me that it’s yellow because the cow just had a baby, and so I guess the yellow color is indicative of extra nutrients and fat in the milk, but I saw something else online that said that yellow milk is caused by carotene, found in grass and other green plants. The milk I used to buy in the US was relatively more processed than the milk I drink here, so it’s unlikely that I ever would have peered into a container to find yellow milk.

I don’t think my diet is necessarily healthier here, but it is simpler, and living in Nepal has definitely led me to eat more locally than I would in the US. Part of the reason why my diet is so simple is because I don’t have as many options, but when I get back stateside, I will have lots of option, and I don’t know if I’m going to want to limit myself to eating locally. When I’m back in the US, if I see some great-looking imported fruit in the grocery stores in the winter, I don’t think I would stop myself from buying. But I think eating locally and even more than that being around farms and farmers has made me more aware of the whole process of growing food and what that entails.