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Food: A Perfect Window for Understanding Nepali Communities

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Food is truly at the heart of Nepali life and culture. In this article, Aayusha Prasain, CEO of Community Homestay Network, explores the regional cuisine found around Nepal and discovers its origins, as well as the roles it plays in community life.

Food can be a vehicle for social change. It brings people together in a way that a very few other activities can.

Since my parents loved traveling I had this great opportunity to travel around and try foods from different communities. Even back home our kitchen was a melting pot of different cuisines around, food was extremely important and at a very young age gave me a chance to understand different cultures and helped me reflect on my own. I truly feel food is a powerful way to explore local communities, how people live, who they are, and how they see themselves.

Preparing firewood for cooking food_Barauli Community Homestay
Preparing the fire at Barauli Community Homestay

Similar to the geographic and ethnic diversity, Nepalese food represents its unique culture, tradition and lifestyle. The way people grow their produce and use them in their food shows their deep-rooted history, inter-cultural influences and geographical diversity. Nepalese food is a melting pot of Khas, Himalayan and Trans-Himalaya and Terai cuisine. Dal-Bhat-Tarkari, Momos, Thakali khana set, Samay baji are some foods that present Nepal in the international community. Not just the international community but even in cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara, we have limited ideas about the range of Nepalese food.

Like many others, if I had not had the opportunity to travel, I would not have had the chance to broaden my perspective about Nepal, our culture, and food diversity. Traveling and living in different communities have made me realize that culture often refers to the characteristics that are formed through language, history, geography and most importantly, food. I firmly believe that food mirrors local communities, their culture and their tradition.

Wachipa authentic food Kirat Rai People
'Wachipa'

One of the things I love the most while exploring new places is eating the local cuisines. Be it delicious Pork Curry in Dalla, Bardiya, or Wachipa in Phalelung, Panchthar, it always helped me understand and feel connected to the local communities. Often, we say that we know ourselves while exploring other cultures, as it gives us time to reflect and understand ourselves. Foods are the perfect window for understanding different cultures and communities. With my direct engagement with communities through my work at Community Homestay Network, I feel fortunate to travel and enjoy the authentic dishes prepared by local communities. There is no better way to enjoy living locally and try local food than via community homestay, where the host prepares each meal with the utmost love.

I found out that, traditionally, a lot of food that I ate during my travels used to be prepared during the festivities; now the locals prepare them to welcome travelers to their community. With each meal that I enjoyed in local communities, I got closer to understanding their history and the cultural importance attached to it. Although it was not Maghi, the biggest festival of the Tharu people, it did not hold the hosts at Bardiya Community Homestay to prepare the delicious pork curry. Hands down, that is one of the best pork curries I had in my life. I am not a food expert, but I could not stop myself for the second serving when it was served with rice for lunch.

Similar to French Escargot, Ghonghi is another popular dish among the Tharu Communities; knowing it is their specialty, I wanted to try some of it. As it is not very popular in Kathmandu, I did not want to miss the authentic taste while I was in Bardiya. The little Tharu Escargots were good beyond my expectations (it might not be everyone’s cup of tea but worth a try). The way it is prepared might vary within the Tharu community itself. Trying it out made me happy and helped me understand how geography and soil play a huge part in defining food habits and lifestyles. As the Tharu community resides near marshlands, rivers and flooded plains, their cuisines are defined by various types of freshwater fishes, crabs, snails, among others.

traditional Ghoghi
'Ghoghi'

Along with Bardiya, I had the opportunity to visit another Tharu community in central Nepal and live in Barauli Community Homestay, where I enjoyed fish and duck curry, which was locally sourced and prepared most authentically. I can not emphasize enough how different in a good way it feels to enjoy the food that is locally prepared. 

Woman cooking at homestay in Barauli, Nepal
An authentic Tharu kitchen at Barauli Community Homestay

While exploring the eastern part of Nepal, Dobato, Ilam is one of the most off-beaten paths I have ever been. In collaboration with ICIMOD, the Red Panda Network had initiated a community homestay program to support eco-tourism in this area. Although a small community of 11 secluded households in the middle of the hills, it is rich in flora and fauna, culture, and tradition. The homestay I lived in was owned and run by an old Sherpa couple. The rich flavors of Thenthuk, the noodle soup were incomparable to any I had to date. I had had Thenkthuk many times before in Kathmandu. Apart from the organic produce and chilly weather, the love and warmth Syanghe Buwa (homestay host) put in while preparing must have made it even more special.

Enjoying Thenthuk at Dobato, Ilam
'Thenthuk'

As Nepalese culture and food  are gaining more global exposure, recently, I was watching the UK’s BBC MasterChef: The Professionals Rematch as one of the contestants, Santosh Shah, was from Nepal. Known for his innovative ways to present Nepalese food, I thoroughly enjoyed watching him in the show. Santosh Shah was later declared the winner. During one of the episodes, he prepared the dish with burnt chicken feathers, and I really loved the amount of research he had put in to make his dishes authentic and represent Nepal beyond the foods that are already famous. 

Tongba, fermented millet drink
'Tongba'

I was even happier when I had the chance to try the authentic Wachipa (the food Santosh was inspired from) in Phalelung, Panchthar, the eastern part of Nepal. I was there for a work visit and had an opportunity to explore the local areas and most beautiful rangelands for yaks.

However, Wachipa and Tongba stole my heart. Wachipa is a dish originating from the Nepalese Kirat Rai people. The traditional side-dish, a combination of rice, minced chicken, and a powder that’s made from burnt chicken feathers made a perfect combination for Tongba, a fermented millet drink. Some might not like Wachipa as it has a mild bitterness, but I loved the taste and the robust flavor that comes with it. 

Traveling to the east always makes me feel like I am home. Both of my parents were born and raised in eastern Nepal; it feels good to understand that part of Nepal more through my travel there. As I was served a simple Dat-Bhat-Tarkari with a pickle in one of the homestays in Mai Pokhari Community Homestay,Ilam I reflected on how food and culture can travel between communities and ethnicities. The pickle I ate that day is called Chop Achar, a simple achar made of oily seeds. Even though I belong to the Brahmin community, this achar (one of the traditional foods of Rai and Limbus) is one of the staples at my home, and my friends love it as it is unique to the flavors that Kathmandu or other parts of Nepal offers. I felt happy to reconnect the roots and understand why it was a staple in my household.

As my mother was born and raised in Taplejung, a place where most people live there are Limbu, the way my mother prepares food is influenced and inspired by them. Due to the cold and mountainous terrain, it must have been difficult for people living there to prepare a fresh pickle every day. Hence, chop achar was made and might have become popular in the eastern Himalayan region as it could be stored for up to a few months. 

Whether traveling around Nepal or a person trying to make Bara, a Newari lentils pancake that holds significant importance in Newari Culture, at home in Kathmandu, I believe food can help you expand your horizon on understanding other cultures and roots while appreciating your own. Had I not had the chance to travel and make friends with people from different communities, I would have missed learning so much about Nepal and, most importantly, missed the opportunity to understand Nepal’s rich culture and flavors.

Ayusha Prasain is CEO of Community Homestay Network, a pioneering Nepali company who bring tourism to remote communities throughout Nepal. To find out more about the work they do and the unique experiences they offer to tourists, visit their site or contact our team for advice.

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