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. It was a greeting between gods. 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.
My girlfriends kept it real and ordered cheeseburgers and fries. As a self-proclaimed culture vulture, 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.
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, 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.
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.
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!