Food for the Gods

Bhaktapur and Kathmandu, Nepal

February 23 – 27, 2013

Namaste, literally “I bow to the divine in you,” was a word I often heard in Nepal. A greeting between gods, if you will. I had the chance to manifest the god within when I tried Nepali traditional food for lunch: the Newari khaja set, a solo-size smorgasbord of root veggies, meat, and spices. The dish included samay baji, a blessed food offered to the gods during festivals and family gatherings. The occasion was neither, but our guide decided on the dish as a worthy introduction to Nepali cuisine.

Newari Khaja Set / Samay Baji and Aaloo-Tama (soup) @ Bhaktapur, Nepal
Newari Khaja Set Meal: Samay Baji and Aaloo-Tama (soup) @ Bhaktapur, Nepal

Western Fastfood for the Girls and Traditional Nepali Food for the Boys @ Bhaktapur

My girlfriends kept it real and ordered cheeseburgers and fries. As a self-proclaimed culturist, I fancied partaking of local culture, even literally. My order arrived looking all curry bright around a mound of rice. Not big on spices and curry, I took an exception for experience.

Only the rice did not threaten to burn in spicy hotness, so I dug in. Unlike any kind I had had, pounded rice was tough and dry. It had the texture and taste of raw oatmeal. The flakes were hard to swallow unless mixed with the rest of samay baji: boiled fried egg (the least exotic, and easily my favorite, in the dish), spicy beans, boiled potatoes, and broiled buffalo meat, which was too funky for my taste. I downed each bite with Coke. I could not beef about the meat in a Hindu country where cows were considered sacred. Apparently, the god within me, if any, could barely stomach this food offering.

Souf or Fennel Seeds (L) and Bettle Nuts with Sugar Crystals (R) @ Bhaktapur
Momo @ Roadhouse Cafe, Boudha, Kathmandu

Suppressing a grimace, I shyly made excuses for not wiping my plate clean. I would make it up at dessert, Or so I thought. There was none of the sweets and caffeine I had hoped for. In Nepal, dessert was more practical: a plate-full of seeds and nuts to aid digestion and leave a refreshing breath. Both were common in my country. My mother tended potted fennel, but I never tried its tiny greenish seeds. Betel nuts were chewed on – and spat out – by country folks back home. My great grandfather was addicted to it, much to the dismay of my grandmother who was grossed out by the red spit he shot between bamboo slats on the floor. In this meal, at least, the nuts were gentrified with sugar cubes.

I knew I could not be an adventurous foodie when my favorite Nepali food turned out to be momo, or better known as steamed dumpling. No doubt, its familiarity to my eyes and palate was the clincher. It was an obvious influence from north of the border (Tibetan/Chinese, culturally closer to my side of Asia) than south (Indian). At times, northern and southern food influences met in one dish, such as alu tama, potato soup with curry (Indian) and bamboo shoots (Chinese). It was practically Nepal in a bowl.

Pizza @ Roadhouse Cafe, Boudha, Kathmandu
Burger @ Namaste Cafe & Bar, Thamel, Kathmandu

In all fairness to the khaja set, it was not unpalatable. My bad. Much as I tried to fight it, my taste buds had succumbed to the tyranny of globalized fastfood. Our first meal in this McDonald’s-less Hindu kingdom was a burger in a place called, ironically, Namaste Bar & Restaurant. Could the patty had been ground beef? Surely, buffalo or yak meat did not taste comfortably familiar in comparison.

I was an epicurean failure as a Bourdain wannabe. The girls and I were on a constant hunt for comfort food, like pizza at Roadhouse Cafe and pasta at Gaia Restaurant and Coffee Shop. Surprisingly, Kathmandu, especially in backpacker haven Thamel, did not lack in gourmet-worthy Western fare.

Pasta @ Gaia Restaurant & Coffee Shop, Thamel, Kathmandu
Continental Brekkie @ Hotel Buddha Land, Thamel, Kathmandu

What sacrilege, then, that the continental brekkie of sunny side up with bread and jam, not deity diet by all accounts, was the closest I had to a home-cooked local meal, prepared by the multi-tasking concierge at Hotel Buddha Land.

On our first night, I bought a hand of bananas, grown in Nepal’s Terai region all year round, from a tween fruit vendor near my hotel in Thamel. In ritualistic absolution before bedtime, I chomped on this fruit offering to the god within. Namaste!

Concierge-cum-Cook @ Hotel Buddha Land, Thamel, Kathmandu
Tween Fruit Vendor @ Thamel, Kathmandu

9 thoughts on “Food for the Gods

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  1. It’s not really that easy to adapt with the other country’s taste of food. Risky that your money might get wasted, but what’s rewarding is that you were able to have a taste of their tradition and culture. Who would not want that? And definitely, Nepal. Hoping to get to go there soon. 🙂

    1. #realtalk Jeff! Better to waste money on local food you might not like than on another soulless fastfood. “A taste of their tradition and culture” – couldn’t agree more. You are what you eat, after all. A country’s food reveals much about its people, geography, economic status, cultural influences, history, religion…so on. You’re a true travel foodie!

      1. Honestly Sir AJ, I’ve never traveled. Balo-i, Lanao del Norte – Cagayan de Oro, Misamis Oriental and vice versa, is the only route that I’ve been. LOL. This saddens me. I know life means more when traveling to places, meeting new people and learning new culture. That’s why I’m aiming to start soon, a poor traveller version. (chuckle). Back to the words I’ve said, maybe they were influenced by most of the travel blogs that I’ve read, just like your blog, inspiring me to become one, hopefully soon. Looking forward to more of your travel posts Sir AJ! Kudos!

      2. Awwww don’t despair Jeff. Travel is not measured by physical distance but by richness of experience. I have many posts about my home city, QC, too. You’d be surprised how much we can still discover in a familiar place. And don’t let money (or the lack of it) hold you back. TBH, I never spent more than P35k in any of my trips. My average expense, as in all-in, is no more than P20k.

        Go out to the world, Jeff! Travel and write. Drop the link here. Godspeed!

      3. That’s a relief Sir AJ! Thanks for inspiring me more. And actually, I’ve already started making a blog. Not yet a travel blog but I began with discovering local food places here in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines (I currently stay here). Here’s the link: Hopefully to be able to fill it with my travels. *fingers-crossed. It feels good to really communicate with veteran travel bloggers. 🙂

      1. Thanks Sir AJ! And yes, a lot of locally owned restos and shops have already swarmed CDO so there would be no excuse to avoid food trips here plus there are a lot of activities and leisure venues too. Again, thanks for the encouragement Sir AJ!

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