Thursday, March 24, 2016

nepal: eating

Dal bhat.

Rice, lentil soup, a vegetable curry, green vegetables and pickles.

IMG_7521

IMG_7462
* More dal bhat

It’s the dish most local, most tasty and most commonly found in Nepal. It’s also the dish we ate the most of and which resulted in a whole lot of flatulence.

I, for one, farted everywhere. When I was trekking, when I was eating, even when I was sleeping, possibly filling up my sleeping bag with a lot of hot air.

It got to the point when Choon turned to me while we were sitting on a bench one day: Could you please turn the other (butt) cheek so I don’t smell it?

In the cities of Kathmandu and Pokhara, the cuisine is decidedly more international and tastier, with meat available. There are even hippie cafes frequented by – what else? – hippies. Ang mohs with dreadlocks and all. I notice, however, that there are a lot less fewer than there were in 1998 when I was there. Apparently it’s an earthquake side-effect.

IMG_7486
* Our one indulgence in Pokhara: Meals at the Moondance Restaurant which cost about the same as that in Singapore. US$30-40 for three of us.

IMG_7453
* From Kathmandu's Places Restaurant: The fabulous Chilli Sin Carne

IMG_7451
* The view from the Places Restaurant's 2nd-floor window

It's also an earthquake side-effect that dinner in Nepal is a very dark affair. Every time we have our dinner, it blacks out. Well the lights are all dim to start with, but then it goes out around 7pm or so. I think it's fuel shortages. Nobody squeaks, and just carry on as candles are trotted out.

IMG_7298

Food was more interesting in the mountains, as every bit of consumable, condiment and hanky has to be carried up by either man or donkey, or plucked off the land. Each dish costs US$2-3. We went vegetarian. Unless the lodge owners were also farmers who reared chickens onsite, we didn’t eat meat. 

The vegetables were organic, straight from the surrounding farms. We were told fertilizers were not allowed.

IMG_7523
* Crispy fresh chillis, which we loved. Teng always carried some with him, with instructions to slice and mix in with his fried rice when he ordered it

IMG_7586
* Fresh fruits, along with Snickers bars and Oreos, for sale along the trek. I bought a beautiful sweet tomato.

IMG_7569
* I love fried rice

IMG_7673
* Another personal favourite: Tibetan bread, for breakfast. Choon would go for oatmeal, and Teng for pancakes with honey.

IMG_7791
* Popcorn in the mountains. Apparently its a common favourite. Its very plain, nothing like movie popcorn.

IMG_7815
* The typical table set-up, with napkins arranged exactly that way in a cup, tomato ketchup and green chilli sauce. The shop behind sells the usual chips, sweets and drinks like Coke.

Of us three, I was the most conservative in my eating patterns. It was either dal bhat, or fried rice. The one time I tried a macaroni, I nearly puked when the dish was placed under my nose as it was covered with a revolting layer of melted yak cheese; which probably equals blue cheese in pungency (I hate strong cheese).

IMG_7783
* Urgh! The cheese! This was supposed to be a rosti, like Swiss rosti

Teng was the most experimental. He tried stuff, and even if it wasn’t great he’d finish it.

The cooking process is also something else. Meals take at least an hour to prepare, and typically, we ordered our 630pm dinners at about 4pm.

Why? There’s usually only one cook for an entire lodge of hungry trekkers. The cook could also be the wife of the lodge owner ie a housewife who has to do extra duty feeding tourists.

Time is needed to heat wood up for fire (gas stoves are used but there aren’t many) and prepare the food. As the trekker ‘guests’ wait in the dining rooms, the entire posse of guides and porters help out in the kitchen.

IMG_7542
* The kitchen

Choon and my favourite drink: Kalo chiya – hot black tea with sugar. I think we drank five cups a day. It perked us up on trek.

IMG_7537

Teng’s favourite was tato pani – hot water.

But wherever we ate, we had the greatest views.

IMG_7522

IMG_7672

IMG_7717
* Choon is actually sitting on a bed. In peak season, tourists can sleep in the dining room.

Most memorable meal: A soup of a wild prickly weed called sisnu, cooked by the porter who carried our bags.

The nefarious mountain weed, coated with tiny needles, attacked Choon twice. The stings brushed across his thigh once – through his pants – when he accidentally leaned on it, and once on his hand. Both times, he felt numb in the area for an hour or so.

IMG_7789

Our Nepali guide and porter gleefully told us that the locals have no such reaction to sisnu. In fact they eat it.

So one night Saita cooked it for us.

Saita, a full-time farmer who carries bags for tourists for a few months every year for some extra dough, went foraging around the village for sisnu. It wasn’t difficult. The damned weed was everywhere.

IMG_7796

He tossed the entire lot, needles and all, into a tub with his bare hands with nary a whimper, and proceeded to wash it like how you’d wash dirty socks. Toss, rub, massage.

IMG_7799
* Choon watching in wonder and horror

IMG_7800
* The dirt from the sisnu

Then he foraged for twigs and firewood, and retreated into the kitchen – a dark window-less room with one bench, set the pile of wood alight and put a pot of water on top to boil.

We backed off when the smoke, akin to Singapore’s haze at its worst, filled up the room, stung our eyes and nose, parched our throats.

In the time the water took to boil, Saita had pruned and took off the bark off a branch to stir the soup. Apparently, that, rather than a metal spoon, lends flavour to the soup.

IMG_7801

He merrily skipped back into the smoky room, dumped the sisnu into the boiling water and energetically stirred the leaves to break them up.

IMG_7802

Then added what I believe (I couldn’t stay to see as I couldn’t bear the smoke) was flour, salt, pepper and other spices, perhaps garlic.

All in all, it took about an hour from washing the leaves, to the time we were presented with three steaming bowls of thick, slightly slimy green, soup.

IMG_7804

It was good and tasty, although somewhat overly salty, with globs of undissolved flour and bits of very authentic grit which I blithely swallowed but which Choon and Teng delicately spit out.

Well that’s truly living off the land. I wonder how cow grass would taste in a soup.

Upset tummies? No, none of us came down with anything in Nepal.

IMG_7287
* Choon's medicine box. The only thing we used was water purification tablets for our drinking water