I am lucky that I like traditional Nepali food (maybe a little too much!) because most of my days in Nepal centered around meals (or, more accurately, around a near-constant influx of high-calorie, heavily spiced food products into my now-overstretched stomach). In Nepal, I was constantly extremely full.
The first thing you need to understand about Nepal is that having seconds is not optional, but mandatory. Further, when you say no, it really means yes. A nod of the head means yes, as does a shake of the head. Even variations of “No…no thanks…please, no” really implies yes, give me more! in Nepal. This topic led to frequent discussions and lots of laughter between my host family and me, enjoying our wholesome and, at times, absurd cross-cultural exchange. My 12-year-old host brother Himal shaking his head yes to everything, always to my utter confusion, is one of my favorite amusing memories of my time with the Pandeys. We also decided if I really meant no, I would say, “American No!” instead of just “no, thanks”. “American No!” was code for “If you force me to eat more, I actually might be ill.”
Here is a typical dialogue that I had every few hours during my first weeks in the country (I later just gave up on arguing and submitted):
Any/all people serving food: You want more? [hovers overflowing ladle above my plate]
Me: Oh no, thank you so much, but I’ve had enough.
Server: Yes, have more. Have some!
Me: No, really, I’m full, it was delicious, thank you, but no.
Server: Ok, you have a little more. [Dumps ladle onto plate, usually followed by another serving of something else.]
REPEAT AT LEAST ONE OR TWO MORE TIMES.
In Nepali culture you are actually supposed to say “no” first. If you immediately say “yes” to an offer of more food, it implies you’ve been waiting and waiting for more. So, say “no” a few times, then give in. Or don’t give in, and you’ll still get more food. You will always get seconds, you sometimes have no option but to have thirds, and you better clean your plate lest being considered an ungrateful guest or a “small eater” (while trekking, my Nepali guide referred to me as a “small eater” while apologetically explaining to a server why I didn’t want a fourth helping of rice. And I am fairly confident he said it with a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “She is…[sigh, pained facial expression]…small eater…”).
Anyway, here is how you will eat if you go to Nepal and choose to integrate with local culture (which I obviously recommend for so many more reasons than the food).
The typical day in Nepal begins with what I have decided to call “stomach priming”. You wake up around 5:30 AM, pull yourself out from under many thick blankets, and quickly pull on at least three layers of clothes. Finally, you wrap your entire body in a yak wool blanket to shield you from the early morning freeze of the Nepali winter. You head to the kitchen where your host mom (Aama) is already hard at work boiling water, heating milk, making daal (lentil soup) and baht (rice) and other foods to be eaten throughout the day.
You are promptly handed a mug of freshly strained milk tea, made by boiling ginger and masala and pepper and a variety of other incredible, fragrant spices in fresh cow’s milk (on a trek, you may exchange cow’s milk for the slightly more pungent and thicker yak’s milk). You are also handed at least 3 clementines, which you peel and eat, spitting the seeds politely into a cupped left hand. Next, you may be served a large plate of popcorn, or a bowl of corn flakes with hot milk, or, if they are on-hand, a croissant or pile of toast. Sometimes you get at least two of these options.
After breakfast you have a few hours to go about your business. However, if you happened to wake up and prime your stomach before your host siblings were up, when they rise you will once again be summoned to the kitchen: “Emily-didi, it’s time for tea!” You will then complete a second round of stomach priming only about 30 minutes after the first. I call this “second breakfast”.
Around 10 AM, you are called back to the kitchen for your second large meal of the day (“third breakfast” or “lunch”). This consists of the following*:
- At least 1-2 cups of white rice
- At least 1 cup of daal (thin lentil soup)
- At least 1 cup of curried vegetables (usually potatoes or cauliflower, sometimes saag, a leafy green)
- A pile of pickled vegetables, such as white radishes
*This is all just the first serving.
You eat this delicious food by mixing and squeezing and pinching it together with all the fingers of your right hand, and scooping it into your mouth at rocket-speed (or, if you’re like me, slowly enough that people notice and look at you quizzically or laugh with you at your apparently clumsy hand-to-mouth performance). You are then served seconds and possibly thirds of everything. The fact that you feel like you might actually burst open at the seams is irrelevant. You eat it all because Aama is an incredible cook and the flavors are always amazing. And also because you are supposed to.
You wash everything down with 1-2 glasses of hot water.
“You want orange?”
Yes, of course you want the orange. You don’t know why, but you want it. And the orange is actually a clementine, and it’s not one clementine, but three.
Next you have a few more hours to do whatever you need to do, but before long, Aama calls you from the kitchen. “Emily-didi??? Come! We will have tea.” Spoken in a manner like there is no question about the matter. You will have tea.
I love the tea in Nepal, though the high frequency of teatimes took some getting used to. I have never been much of a milk drinker. At home, my only dairy comes from Greek yogurt in the morning and maybe some cheese during the day. In Nepal, the tea is made from milk. The instant coffee is made from milk. The paneer and ghee and porridges and many, many other things are made from milk. And not skim milk or 1% – we’re talking fresh-from-the-utter, thick, fragrant, fatty fatty fatty milk. Oof. Oof, but delicious in masala tea, at least. And in Nepal, you have a lot of masala tea. In fact, you overcome your coffee addiction because of masala tea. It’s just that good (and the coffee is just that bad).
With your tea, you will eat another few clementines, a packet of Digestives or other biscuits, or anything else that may be lying around the kitchen just waiting for already-extremely-full foreigners to inhale anyway.
After tea it’s nearly suppertime. Aama is busy as a bee in front of the gas stovetop, filling the house with the smells of saffron and curry and broths and sautéed vegetables. Soon, you join the family at the low table, and are passed another plate of the same food combinations you had at your 10AM meal. You clean your plate, draining the last of the broth by tipping your dish up to your mouth, following the example of your host parents. Aama sometimes licks her plate clean. You eventually do this, too, after you stop feeling awkward about it. You are served seconds, maybe thirds. You clean your plate again and again, drink your hot water, and then may be passed biscuits, rice pudding, or bits of chocolate.
In a half hour or so, it’s time for coffee. In the US, I never drink coffee after around 7PM unless I am pulling an all-nighter, but in Nepal, coffee is simply a half-teaspoon of instant coffee in a large mug of hot milk and sugar. It actually kind of makes you sleepy. So, you drink your piping hot coffee, maybe down a few more clementines, and, feeling more sated than you ever thought possible, say goodnight and go to bed. It’s somewhere between 8:00 and 8:30 PM.
You get at least 9 hours of sleep every night in Nepal. You have probably not experienced this much sleep, this regularly, since before you were in high school. It is glorious, but soon you realize most of your time in Nepal involves eating and resting, and you sadly bid adieu to your yoga abs. Goodbye, yoga abs. I really enjoyed you during the short period of time you existed. Goodbye…