Nepal – Travel & Food For Thought
Russian born, when I first came to Nepal, I was not going to see the difficulties nor mountains that seemed to capture the imagination of every traveler, and no, I was not going for the food either. In fact, I was dragged here. You see, the first time Nepal taught me, was at the age of six, so the usual tourist highlights did not yet interest me. Frankly, Nepal did not interest me either. My mother and at the time her boyfriend were going to Nepal on vacation and to visit my aunt (mother's sister) who had married a Nepali studying in Russia at the time. Although I do have a memory of the Nepal I saw in the 80s, it certainly did not leave me on as an impression as the food; for the little that I do remember, for the most part, had little to do with the Himalayas and Pagodas. My mother and I would later immigrate to the US and I would not get a real taste of Nepali food, other than the occasional taste of achhar (a spicy Nepali pickle) or a rather "not the same" substitute Indian food, until I was 24 years old when the Nepali food, once again excited my memories and taste buds.
When I came to Nepal, this time in 2007, little had changed. My families view has been, that there was now more traffic, the cites were now more congested, but the core of Nepal remained the same. I loved it, but what did draw my attention were the tourists. Nepal certainly is more popular today, than it was then, and the flourishing tourist industry has sadly, in an effort to accommodate the Western tourist's fear of trying anything new has obscured in my view the true taste of Nepal by making it too easy to abstain from Nepali food.
Not unlike the thousands of others that now come to Nepal to experience trekking in the Himalayas, I too ventured out to do the same. Granted, the area I was traveling through, the Annapurna Conservation Area, was the most developed trekking route in Nepal, but I was very put off by what I saw. The villagers that once only served traditional Nepali dishes were now offering pizza and Cesar salad among other typical Western items to accommodate the new age trekker tastes.
Maybe my views are different from most, but when I come to a country I wish to experience as much as that country has to offer. The people, sights and culture and certainly those that manage to achieve the above get a great deal of what is Nepal, yet at the same time, they are leaving just as much (pardon the pun) on the table.
I must say, that what to me is really close to fingernails on a chalk board, is the fearful tourist. I frankly fail to understand how people traveling thousands of miles to come to Nepal come with such fear of a bit of travelers that they will probably get treated with simple over the counter medicine and or over the counter antibiotics available in Nepal) , that they dare not venture outside the Hyatt for a meal, all to miss out greatly. As diverse as Nepal is culturally, it is also just as diverse culinary. I think my aunt put it best, "the chances are, that the dirrhea that travelers get coming NOT from the Nepali food, but from the tourists asking a Nepali villager to prepare for them mushroom, sausage and olive pizza."
I do not know about you, but I trust a Nepali villager a lot more preparation what they know best and eat daily, much more than with trying to recreate Western food with intermittent refrigeration and ingredients "unnatural" to Nepal. Sadly, not everyone thinks alike, as I found myself, trekking along many dumbfounded travelers, who while on their trek, were questioning how they got the runs, after digesting a burger made from imported meat (beef or rather cows, are sacred in Nepal ), swiss cheese and lettuce that got to their dining table along the same 5 day trekking route that they had just traversed. The moral of the story is, think with your brain, not just your stomach.
The issue alone, with not eating ethnic food native to an area would be of little importance had the problems associated with it being confined to frequent bathroom breaks for a passing traveler. Nepal is proud of it's cultural heritage, terrain and scenery and especially its food but it's the same "Eco-tourist" that comes to Nepal with notions of preserving all that is Nepal and "helping" the Nepali people (a questionable proposition as is) , that is often the one seen eating the French Fires & Chicken Cesar salad for a meal totally unaware of how this impacts immediate (still largely trade based) local economy and the environment.
The extra preparation methods required in the preparation of these items certainly consumes more fuel, in an area where natural gas is often unavailable. If there is an increased demand for fossil fuels and uncommon food items, those materials have to be collected or bought in from where available, increasing costs which would eventually permeate through the whole economy.
Certainly those are not the only reasons to try Nepali food. The mere fact that it's delicious, has a lot to do with that. With so much to try, it's a puzzle in itself itself as to why so many shy away.
Nepal sandwiched between China (Tibet) in the north and India to the south, has for thousands of years been the stopping point for travelers from both regions. With these travelers, came the food and the mixture of foreign influences along with local cuisine has created the Nepali menu but it does not stop there.
If one was to visit a website dedicated to travel in Nepal, they would without doubt find there a bit on how culturally diverse Nepal is as a country, having dozens of ethnic groups, many with their own special food items.
There is the Newari, "sukuti" which is a delicious before dinner snack to have with drinks, featuring shredded dry meat (jerky), ginger, garlic, onion, tomato, salt, oil and some crushed green or red chillies for heat. Spooned out by bit into one's hand, the dish is ateen like one would eat peanuts, or chips.
Of course, it seems that every country has it's version of the dumpling. Called "mo-mo" in Nepal, it's a juicy, traditionally round shaped steamed dumpling stuffed with an number of things from chicken, goat (mutton), buffalo to vegetables and potatoes. Served with a spicy side sauce the dish is a favorite among Nepalis and travelers alike and is offered at what seems to be almost every food spot.
When traveling near and around rivers, you are almost certain to run into another delicacy that if found out in the west, would give the fish and chips fierce competition. This scrumptious snack, is the "tareko matza" (bam) an eel fish, usually no larger than 25cm (although other uses use much larger specimens) battered in spices, deep fried and ateen whole. Truthfully scary looking at first, they are irresistible after the first bite after a dip into a side sauce. The fish is such, that there are no inedible bones and the smaller specimens can be eaten as is. The larger, can be easily rid of the backbone by simply pulling apart the flaky & crunchy fish once cooked.
Served with almost all traditional Nepali meals, is the Nepali staple of Dal Bhat Tarkari. A lentil soupy broth is poured over rice and served with any number of vegetables and or in some situations some meat. Usually vegetable in nature, the dish, high in protein (lentils), carbs and vitamins is an important source of nutrition in Nepal. The usual meal in Nepal is either Dal Bhat and any number of side dishes to spice up the meal.
Nepal, like any other country, is not short on street food, the most popular of which in this case is either samossa or panipuri. Samosa, is a pyramid shaped pastry stuffed with a spiced potato filling and deep fried. Panipuris are golf ball sized crunchy, flower based, shells that are stuffed with the same potato filling that after being dipped into a flavorful sauce are consumed whole. Those in love with corn can at any time find husks being roasted on the open fire, turning the corn exterior a sort of chard, and crunchy consistency with a softer interior within the kernels, they are rubbed with salt and crushed chillies if desired. Also "chatpate" is the mixture of beans, corn, and any number of other ingredients that are mixed with spices and lime juice and ateen from a cone shaped paper cup.
Whatever the meal, they all have something in common. Spice! Nepali cooks are fond of spices, which are more often then not just that, spicy rather than hot. Of course hot is never off the options list. The Asan colorful market in Kathmandu, is popular with tourists and photographers for the wide range of spices for sale there. From curry, fungreek, ginger powder, garlic, cumin, the precious saffron and whatever you hearts desire.
Food carries with it a lot of the answers of what a culture is like. Nepali food is no different. Within it's tastes, textures and smells it carries history, reasons behind the Nepali daily life and many other answers if one was to simply look. There are religious festivals celebrated to welcome the monsoon season and it's no wonder when you consider rice farming and the fact that rice is the Nepali staple. Life revolves around food, and cultures are shaped by it. If you come to Nepal, immerse yourself do not be afraid to step out of your shell. Try the food it's good.