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 🙂

Dashain 2012

The last month has just flown by. With the tropical storm that hit the east coast, the presidential election and the holidays, it’s gone by so quickly! But before the start of these busy last few weeks, we celebrated a quiet Dashain.

This was my sixth Dashain. I can’t believe it’s already been six years since I met Tri and started to get to know the Nepali community. The first year I celebrated, we didn’t have a traditional celebration, but I did go to a Dashain party on campus. The next year was pretty much the same. Dashain didn’t take on much meaning for me until I studied abroad.

A Dashain swing made from Bamboo

One of my most memorable experiences with Dashain involves watching my host family slaughter a goat while I was abroad. I wrote a little bit about it here. I had never seen an animal killed before, especially not with a knife, and I wasn’t particularly pleased about watching the goat die, but I guess it was kind of educational.

Although the extensive meat eating isn’t my favorite thing about Dashain, one of the things I’ve always loved are the blessings. Older people give younger people tika and often money or presents. I’ve always liked getting and giving tika because it’s a nice way to connect with others. The games are fun too. Card games for adults and kite flying and swings for the kids.

In Nepal, Dasain is celebrated over the course of 15 days (with certain days being more important than others), but in the US, a lot of families do most of their celebrating on one day. For the main tika day this year, Tri and I went over to a family friend’s house to get tika, have delicious food, and play games.

Tri giving me tikka

Since I still haven’t learned how to play Nepali card games, I stuck to the simpler game – lungur burja. There are six different symbols on the board game. The dealer has three dice, and when he rolls them, if the picture on one of his die matches the picture that you put your piece on, you get your points doubled.

Although Tri and I have celebrated Dashain together before, this was the first time that Tri gave me tika. Husbands usually give their wives tika, but it’s never the other way around. I feel a little bit ambivalent about the patriarchal tradition, but nonetheless, I am very happy to get a blessing from my husband.

Happy late Dashain, everyone!

Shiva’s Birthday

Today was god Shiva’s birthday. We stayed at Mama’s house last night, and this morning, during breakfast, I asked how old Shiva is today. Everybody laughed. So I guess he’s too old to count. But that hasn’t lessened the intensity of the celebration of his birth, at least not in Kathmandu.

People have been warning me this past week that Maha Shivaratri can be a crazy holiday. Hindus living in Kathmandu and many Indian Hindus come into Nepal to visit Pashupatinath, one of the holiest Hindu temples in Nepal and even in South Asia. I wanted to go there and check out the crowd, but Tri said that there would be way too many people and that it would be impossible to get anywhere near the action.

Kids stopping us on the road

Because we had the day off, though, we did get to see some of the festivities. During Shivaratri, kids gather in groups in the street to ask for money. In the morning, when we left Mama’s house, some kids stopped us on the road with a rope. A few drivers were obviously irritated by the kids and were just driving right over the rope, ignoring the poor kids’ plees for money. But we stopped, paid the toll of a few rupees and kept on going.

The parachuting man is beyond the prayer flags

We had to make a quick trip to the doctor this morning, and after we got out of his office, we looked up at the sky to see people floating down with colorful parachutes trailing behind them. Tri was so excited and spent about ten minutes staring at them. It has been six years since he’s seen this, so I understand his excitement 🙂 Apparently, the men in the sky were all soldiers. Shivaratri is a big holiday not only for Pashupathi goers but for the army as well. Last week, I saw tanks assembling in Tundikhel (a big field in the middle of Kathmandu) and soldiers preparing for the festivities.

Another thing that people do on this day is eat bhang, a marijuana derivative. A lot of people, even those who wouldn’t normally touch the stuff, have a little bit of bhang on Shivaratri, and the Nepali government legalizes it for just one day. Shiva is/was a lover of marijuana, so eating it honors him in a way. Tri was saying that we had to be especially careful on the roads today because accidents on Shivaratri are common. In fact, a few years ago, one of his teachers from high school died after riding his motorbike while high. If you’re going to eat this stuff, please don’t drive!

There are aparently two types of bhang, one that doesn’t make a peson high and one that does. The first kind is added to achaar. I guess as a flavoring? The kind that does have an effect is often added to some kind of milk drink. I still haven’t seen anyone stumbling around the streets yet, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled.

For more information on Maha Shivaratri, check out nepaliaustralian’s blog.

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!

Sunbathing the Nepali Way

My family in the US has been skyping us from sunny Florida, and it’s making me miss warm weather. As I mentioned in this post about my toes, the cold is really getting to me, so I’ve been trying to get a little bit of the sun my family is soaking up this week by sunbathing on our roof.

In Nepal, there are multiple ways to balance the hot and cold in your body. One way is to eat certain foods at different times of the year or on certain occasions. Oranges are a cold food, so they shouldn’t be eaten when you have a cold or cough because they supposedly make it worse, as I mentioned in this post. I ignore this a lot of the time, though, because they have so much Vitamin C, something I was always told to eat when sick.

Sugar is a warm food. A few weekends ago, Nepalis who are part of the Newar ethnic group in Kathmandu celebrated Yomari Purnima. This is a holiday celebrated on the day of the full moon in December, and those who practice it make little dumplings called Yomari, which are often stuffed with a sweet paste made of molasses and sesame. (Ironically I’ve only ever eaten these in the US, at a family friend’s house, but never in Nepal). Anyway, the Yomaris are supposed to be a hot food, good for winter because they’re sweet. Honey is also considered to be a hot food, and some people won’t eat it in the summer because they’re afraid it will make them too warm.

I also just learned the other day that after women give birth, their bodies are thought to be cold. So a special food called gutpak is made for them to eat. This food supposedly warms up their bodies. It has sugar and spices in it and is both sweet and bitter (I think because of the methi, fenugreek, that’s in it).

My host family sitting on a sukul

The way to get rid of the cold in Kathmandu is to eat food that is thought to produce warmth like Yomari and to of course dress warmly, but you can also sunbathe. Because women’s bodies are considered to be cold after giving birth, they are often encouraged to sunbathe with their babies.

Traditionally, Nepalis might have taken sunbaths on woven mats called sukul (and many still do). To the right is a picture of one of my host families sitting on a sukul.

But we don’t have one at our house, so we’ve been using a styrofoam mat that we found in a closet.

Over the weekend, we brought a few oranges, a computer, and some books up to the roof to just hang out and relax…

Our Sunbathing Spot

A Day for Laxmi

This past week, many Nepalis celebrated Tihar, the festival of lights. It’s also called Dipawali here and in India Diwali. Tihar is a series of puja‘s (“religious worship”) that are done over the course of 4-5 days. On the first day is kaag (crow) puja and on the second kukkur (dog) puja. On the third day, there is both gai (cow) puja and Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) puja. On the fourth day, according to wikipedia, there are potentially three pujas that can be performed: gobardhan (cow dung) puja, goru (bull) puja, and Mha (self) puja–performed in the Newar community. On the last day is Bhai (brother) Tika, which is not a puja but a day where sisters put tika (often red vermilion powder mixed with water) on their brothers’ foreheads.

This year, Laxmi Puja fell on a Wednesday, our fourth night in Bhutwal. The family friends we were staying with on Wednesday worked much of the day, cooking food and preparing the alter for the puja. The day before, they made some of the traditional Nepali treats that are eaten around Tihar, like celrotikhajuri, and goje (or bharuwa). Celroti is made from rice flower batter that’s been fried in oil. It’s crunchy when right out of the frying pan but gets stale quickly, so it’s not one of the favorite desserts. However, the khajuri, made from flower, butter, and sugar was so delicious, sweet and crumbly. I also like the goje (comes from goji, meaning “pocket), which was stuffed with ground coconut and sugar.

There were already enough hands in the kitchen, so I went with one of the girls to help make the rangoli. A rangoli is placed in front of the door to the house and is be made from colorful powder (avir) and flowers (often marigolds, sayapatri). I didn’t see these in Kathmandu when we returned on Friday, and Tri told me that they’re more popular in Southern Nepal. I also found out through my friend’s blog that South Indians living in Indonesia make rangolis as well.

The girl I was helping bought some avir from the market. After bringing it home, she added very finely ground cement to thin out the brightly colored powder. To start, she made a rectangle of marigolds and then used the lid of a big pot to trace a circle inside of the rectangle. Then she added some designs with white powder inside of the circle and filled them in with color. To do this, she took a bit of powder between her fingers and slowly sprinkled it inside of the white lines. I thought it looked easy, so I tried it, but my work looked awful. It was clumpy and uneven, so, due to my lack of skill, I mostly just watched the making of the rangoli. After about half and hour, it was finished…

Footprints were also painted on the stoop outside of the house.

They lead up to the room in which puja was performed and are supposed to guide Laxmi into the home.

Before the puja started, our hosts lit lots of diyo‘s (small ceramic bowls with wicks) and put them in front of every room in the house. They also prepared them for the puja…

Then everyone, dressed in their finest, gathered for the puja.

I like Tihar because it’s about respecting things that are important in our lives. The crow and dog are worshipped because they perform important services; they are messengers and guards. The cow and bull are respected because of the milk and work they provide. I’m not sure about why cow dung is worshiped, although it is considered a sacred substance because it comes from the cow, a representation of Laxmi. Although my family doesn’t celebrate Mha Puja because they aren’t Newar, I think that’s my favorite of the pujas. nepaliaustralian describes it here. It’s an opportunity to formally show respect to ourselves. I also enjoy Bhai Tika, the last day of Tihar, because it acknowledges the important and unique relationship between sister and brother. I’ve been told me that when we celebrate tihar next year, I’m going to have to perform Bhai Tika. I have to two brothers back in the US, so maybe I’ll have to give them tika through skype 🙂

The Natural Lawn Mower and The Unusual Passengers

The other day Tri and I were driving home from work, and as we were passing the golf course off of Ring Road, I said, “Look there are some goats on the lawn.” Tri half-jokingly said, “No silly, those are the lawn mowers.” It looks like the long-held tradition in Nepal is being picked up in other parts of the world…

This morning, Tri showed me a 2009 post from Google’s blog. Apparently they use goats to mow their lawn at their Mountain View Headquarters. It’s a pretty awesome alternative. No air pollution and free fertilizer 🙂

In other goat news…

During the Dashain festival, Nepali families often eat goat meat and sometimes slaughter the goats themselves. When I Iived with my host familiy in Kathmandu as a student, they brought a goat home, killed it, cleaned it, and shared the meat with the neighbors.

I felt very mixed about the whole process. My gut instinct was to turn away in disgust, but I forced myself to watch the slaughter. I had never experienced the killing of an animal, but of course I had eaten lots of meat in my life. When the meat comes all nicely cooked and spiced on your plate, it’s hard to remember that that product came from a living thing. It certainly made me think about where the meat was coming from and what the animal gave up for us to eat.

While my host aama (“mother”) was cooking the goat, no part of the animal was wasted. The head was cooked over a fire, the innards were fried, even the blood was boiled down and eaten. I wanted to experience the slaughter as fully as I could, so I told my host aamaa that I would eat anything she put on my plate. I was able to down some of the goat blood, but I just couldn’t stomach the fried stomach. My family members in the US are generally pretty adventurous eaters, and my parents taught me to always try new things, but I got to thinking about that live animal, and I just couldn’t eat it all. The experience didn’t turn me into a vegetarian, but I do try to eat less meat, especially mammal meat.

As Dashain nears this year, the streets of Kathmandu have been filled with all sorts of activity. Hoards of people, streams of cars, puja being performed, and much much more. Last night on the way to a party, I saw a goat standing patiently in the back of a taxi:

The family wasn’t taking it home to raise; they were taking it home to eat. It’s pretty amazing that the taxi driver okayed the unusual passengers, but maybe they’re not so unusual in Nepal 🙂