Please… No More Rice!

First off, let me assure you, I love Nepali food. As noted before, I’m lucky that P’s national cuisine is so vegetarian friendly, and having grown up in a house with relatively bland food, my introduction to South Asian spices has really positively educated my taste buds. Veg momos, pani puri, mattar paneer, and masyoura (dried vegetable nugget curry) are some of my favorite foods.

We eat a lot of South Asian food, but we also eat a lot of non-South Asian food and dinner often turns into a negotiation. If usually starts with P asking, “what’s for dinner tonight?”

Me: “hmmmm… what about pasta casserole?”

P makes a scrunched up face: “nooo pasta… how about daal bhaat?”

Me: “Daal bhaat again? We just had that, what about pizza?”

P: “I’m really in the mood for rice…”

Me: “What about burritos?”

P: “Okay, burritos works for me.” (Oh burritos, always a good compromise. It has rice, and its spicy, with lots of vegetables and guacamole. Everyone is happy).

However recently I’ve been a bit faint of heart in the daal bhaat department, and I have to get over it. Rice and daal is a *major* part of a Nepali’s daily diet, in fact not liking rice and daal is probably a Nepali-American relationship deal breaker, the equivalent of “I think we should see other people.” I’ve eaten my fair share of daal bhaat, with my hand no less (as P’s dad says, it doesn’t taste as good if you eat it with a spoon), but over the summer I had a daal bhaat overload, and I haven’t been the same since.

daal-bhaat

Typical Nepali meal... with large bhaat mound and a bowl of daal

The first time I went to Kathmandu was almost five years ago (I traveled to Nepal to meet P’s parents by myself… I was so nervous I was literally shaking on the airplane, but that is a story for another day). I was only there for a few days and was able to eat whatever was given to me with relative ease (minus perhaps the first meal, when everyone was staring at me). It was winter time, the weather was cool, and I had just spent 5 months living in India and eating South Asian every day. P’s family gave me an enormous amount of food to eat, but I took it in stride, bistarai bistarai (slowly slowly) eating my way through the mountain of rice. I remember them commenting on how slow I ate, but not my ability to actually eat the food. Plus it was only a few days. People can do anything for a few days, right?

Then in the summer of 2008 P’s family stayed with us for 5 weeks. We had massive rice-filled dinners every night. Yet I had a trick up my sleeve… I had to wake up early to catch the 5:30am commuter train to work, and so I could have a doughnut or muffin in route, skip lunch (or have something small), and be prepared for the massive dinner. They never knew about my appetite-prepping.

Now we come to June 2009. P and I arrived in Kathmandu pre-monsoon. It was sticky and hot (not as bad as Delhi, but still). Maybe it’s just me, but the heat makes me lose my appetite. When I was a kid, when the weather was really hot, my family tended not to cook. We would eat something cold… like salad, or sandwiches, but mostly salad. The sliced vegetables, which often came straight out of the backyard garden, tasted so clean and refreshing.

One summer during college I lived with several Nepali friends in a second story apartment built over the garage of someone’s house. It was like an oven in there on most days, and when the temperature spiked, it was downright unbearable. I tried to reason my logic on the really hot days… “don’t turn the stove on, don’t cook, it will make it so much more hot in here. Let’s just eat salad or something.” AD, D and P—my chicken loving friends—would hear nothing of it… and we would spend the next few hours dripping with sweat in the apartment after cooking the meal.

So back to Katmandu in June… I’m sure the heat had something to do with it, and the fact that I just don’t eat that much in general, plus I eat really slow, contributed to making meals quite stressful. I am definitely familiar with the concept of showing love through food… and I experienced this in Africa, but as a vegetarian my eating habits were strange, and so food wasn’t forced on me as much as other foreigners I knew. P’s mom is a vegetarian so at his house I didn’t get off that easy.

MamuSortsDaal

Mamu sorts and cleans daal for lunch

Each meal was massive. A huge pile of rice (and I mean Himalayan mountain sized), a bowl of daal, and several types of vegetable curries. P’s mom would usually serve the first round, so it was hard to control my portion size, and once I was almost done, she was pretty quick at putting more on my plate. I got really good, really quickly, at learning the phrase, “Malai pugyo!!” I’m full!! I’m done!! But just saying it didn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t get more on my plate. I had to practically hurl myself over my plate to protect it from getting more food placed on it while begging “malai pugyo, malai pugyo!

That first week I tried to eat everything that I was given, but I started feeling so full at each meal that I literally felt ill. Some days I worried if I put just one more spoonful of rice in my mouth I might just vomit, and I started to wonder how long it could take for someone to develop bulimia.

I started dreading meals. Sitting at the kitchen table felt like I was going into battle. I couldn’t eat any street food while out in town during the day because I just knew that there were massive meals waiting for me back at P’s house. Visiting extended relatives became painful because each visit required that I drink at least a cup of milk tea and at least a portion of a large plate of snacks. Every bite brought dread that I wouldn’t be able to finish my plate of food at dinner.

Whats worse, after a while I noticed that the family members were saying to each other in Nepali at the kitchen table, “she doesn’t like our food… she doesn’t like rice.” I would protest (in Nepali), “but I do, I do like rice, I just can’t eat this much!”

RHeats

P's dad, RH and P eating a candle-lit dinner during one of Kathmandu's many electrical blackouts

I tried to convince P’s family that if you don’t grow up eating rice every day of your life you can eat less rice and feel full. In P’s family they think that if you don’t eat rice it isn’t a “real meal” and P has told me stories of his grandfather going to wedding receptions only to come home and eat more rice because he didn’t feel full enough at the ceremony. I think P’s mom and I almost started reaching an understanding about rice portions when our friend RH (our Irish neighbor) came to join us on our Everest trek. Even back in America RH’s appetite is legendary, and here he was, sitting at P’s kitchen table, chowing down on the mountain of rice and then…unbelievable… asking for seconds! There went my whities-can-eat-less-rice theory out the freaking window!

BhaatOnTrek

P and RH eat daal bhaat along our trekking route. If you order daal bhaat you get unlimited refills, much to RH's and P's delight

One day I kind of freaked out a little at the table. I thought if I had rice, I would just be sick, so I begged to eat cucumber and mango. That’s all I wanted. Sliced cucumber and mango. It was probably the strangest lunch request ever made in their kitchen. “You just want cucumber and mango? No rice? Do you have a fever?” Nooo… I just need fresh uncooked vegetables. I need something that isn’t a starch today.

Shortly thereafter P and I left for our trek. I was so happy not to be force fed that I practically ate nothing for the next two days. I felt like I was being cleansed. I lost my appetite for most of the trek probably due to altitude anyway. By the time I came off the mountain I felt refreshed and empty. It was a nice feeling.

EatsTooMuchRice

Me, feigning death, after eating another massive rice-filled lunch

Back in Kathmandu I started requesting smaller and smaller portions of rice. P’s mom would complain that I eat the “rice of a 5 year old” but at least it helped me to get dinner down.

When we returned to America the last thing I wanted was to see a plate of rice and daal. I’ve eaten the combo since, but it has quickly dropped from being a tasty food to being a somewhat dreaded food in my mind. Every time I think of it I think about that over-stuffed-I-think-I’m-gonna-vomit feeling I had at P’s kitchen table. I’m hoping if I take a little break from it, then I’ll feel better about daal bhaat again, and hopefully I’ll forget that sinking awful puke-y feeling.

I’m happy to eat rice, as long as it is the “rice of a 5 year old.”

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19 responses to “Please… No More Rice!

  1. oh come on… I was thinking of having a dal bhat thanksgiving dinner instead of turkey??? ready for that? LOL

  2. Wonderful post, C. As soon as I read the title, I could guess what situation you were going to describe! Next time I find myself with an Everest of rice looming over me, with my hosts standing at the ready to replenish it (over my protests) at a rate of two scoops for every one I eat, I’ll think of your experience in Katmandu.

  3. Yeah, I always get scolded for not eating enough (rice & everything else, tho) when I’m with my in-laws. And I inevitably gain a few pounds while they’re visiting.

  4. I think you will like this story. This happened when I was in 8th grade. My cousin & I took a trip to Pokhara where we stayed at my mom’s distant cousin’s (referred as auntiji henceforth) house. We got there around 5 PM and after putting out stuff away and washing up, we were ready for dinner.

    Auntiji had prepared quite the spread filled with the regulars Daal & Bhaat, a heavenly mutton curry, a chicken dish, saag and few pickles to give that extra kick. I was ecstatic until I noticed that there was also a significant portion of cabbage on my plate. I HATE cabbage. Can’t stand it, especially the way its cooked back home.

    Now if it was my house, I could have easily told my mom I was not having cabbage and that would have been the end of it but I could not say no to anything on the plate that poor auntiji put so much love & energy preparing. It would definitely be hurtful & offensive (yes, people take this kind of stuff personally back home).

    I had to think quickly and I decided that the best strategy would be to eat as much of the cabbage early on so I could end the meal with only things that I love. It was a great plan and I was happy with my strategery. However, I gave myself too much credit too soon. Seeing that I had finished the cabbage before anything else on my plate and sporting a huge smile my aunt ran to the stove to get me a second serving of cabbage that was twice the size of the original one.

    I could see my cousin across the table struggling to keep a straight face on. He knew how much I hated cabbage and he knew what I was going through. It’s safe to assume that I paced the cabbage consumption to match that of other items on the plate from that point.

    Moral of the story, those who grew up in Nepal also struggle with the portions issue. P may have had the luxury to say no to few things at his house while you could not but I am pretty sure he shared your pain when he was visiting relatives. I remember one break where I used to eat 3 lunches & 5 dinners with countless cups of tea & snacks in the middle.

    • AD, I didn’t know you were such a hater of cabbage. I’ll keep that in mind the next time you visit.

      Did I tell you the story about when someone invited me over for momos and thought he would make veg (cabbage instead of potatoes… which I don’t really understand, potatoes are so good…) momos as a treat? This person wasn’t used to buying too many vegetables at the store so he went to buy cabbage and accidentally bought lettuce (he didn’t know the difference). He made lettuce momo… ewwww… can you imagine? steamed spiced lettuce in a dumpling?

  5. Guess what my husband likes with his rice and daal? Potatoes!!! Could we put just a little more carbs on the plate?

  6. Oh my; you know I sympathize. Ji is a beanpole but can eat anything. When we go to India, all the aunties say, “look at your skinny husband! he can eat it!” and then they put more food on my plate. When my parents were visiting we had paranthas AND aloo AND rice with every meal (and my dad is diabetic!). I was so sick and cranky. After they left we ate plain kale for dinner for three days.

  7. Wells that nepali love for you. More they force you to eat, the more they love you.

  8. Oh I can eat anything but those soy nuggets!

    I love Pakistani food and we eat it almost everyday, but luckily my husband isn’t averse to eating other foods and he has an adventurous palate. I know some non-desi wives married to desis who will ONLY eat desi food and even when they travel they will have to hunt out a desi restaurant. A lasagna night or a Chinese (and I don’t mean desi Chinese) night could never be done. And I have been asked “how can you Americans eat salad? It is just leaves!!!” but thank God my husband loves salad and is okay with a lot of different things. His family ate non-desi foods, too in Pakistan like chicken breast steaks with mushroom sauce, roasts, and all. Anyway, even though I do love the food, I can totally appreciate it that you need a break sometimes. If we have eaten too much meat for a few days, my husband also wants daal chaawal. It is his all purpose comfort food.

    By the way, what is the short fat rice that Nepalese prefer called?

    • I think I would probably die without some form of salad every now and then (even if it is just sliced cucumber, carrots and radishes like you occasionally see on platters at wedding receptions). It might sound sad (salad is like grass… and cows eat grass!… whatever), but salad is one of my very favorite foods, it just makes me feel so good and fresh to eat it.

      P likes to joke that he is a “well adjusted” Nepali because he has learned to eat these “other” foods, and that he is better prepared than his friends to eat a variety of things over a longer period of time (I guess we all adapt in these situations!)

      Although when we were in Nepal over the summer one day P’s mom suggested that I make pasta. I assumed this meant for everyone, later I found out it was only for me and RH. I thought this was silly… everyone should try it, but she insisted that pasta would not fill you up, and no one was interested in eating it… I was disappointed by that. Eventually P’s dad diplomatically put some on his plate, and P ate some of course, but that was it.

      I asked around (my poll of two people who were online at the moment, very scientific)… they said that basmati rice is obviously the nice, expensive, thin rice that most people prefer to eat. Wealthier people eat it more frequently, less wealthier people might have it only for special occasions. The other kind they mentioned was mansuli. They mentioned that “short fat rice” is usually eaten by less economically well off, and that people prefer the thin/slim rice if possible. To be honest I don’t really know, other then when we go to the Vietnamese store around the block for rice and get a bag of jasmine it isn’t as popular as basmati from the Indian store.

  9. I have seen laboring class Indians eat mountains of rice, when it is given free as in weddings

    I guess in their poverty stricken life, unlimited food comes available rarely and they do make full use of it

  10. Okay. My housekeeper always made me buy her Egyptian rice (short, fat, slightly sticky, but not low quality) because she said it was more like the rice that Nepalese eat. She didn’t like basmati and only ate our basmati rice when she ran out of her special rice. This must be one of those times when someone says “People in my country do this…” but it probably means just people from her particular community, not the whole country. Maybe it is the mansuli you mentioned.

  11. I was searching for history of nepali politics and I came across this blog page…hope to read more about Nepal’s political history in future

    Nice to see someone writing about different issues and topics about Nepali culture…However, never expected to read issues around “bhaat” culture being discussed in some blog.

    All I can say here is : “food is very cultural, social, geographical, environmental issue..so less generalised the better”

  12. All I can say is when I go to Nepal…I think I will be able to hand the rice….it’s the pickles and just lentils with out spices that kills me…but of course I’ll eat it to be polite.

  13. Loved reading your daal-bhat story. What was the most common food on your plate when you were growing up?

    • Hmm… probably some sort of potato (mashed, baked, or french fries). That was probably followed by some sort of frozen vegetable like boiled corn or green peas. I guess potato was our version of rice ;)

  14. Hi!
    I cracked up when reading, but at the same time I was nodding and going “same here, same here”. When visiting my in-laws in India I always have to control rice portions… sometimes getting up and putting my plate away before the next big scoop of rice lands on it! And salads… that’s what I miss the most! Last trip I also asked for cucumbers and magos, and getting them made my day!

  15. ROFLOL! I just had to tell you that your story about rice gave me a good laugh, because that is exactly how I felt in Nepal. I love rice and could eat it almost ever day, but not 2-3x every day. I was traveling from village to village for a whole year, and every home tried to feed me more than the last because I am naturally thin! Ooooh, I longed for fruit and cereal! Finally, when I went to a school for a week, I brought along my own food—bananas and a whole flat of grapes from India. For 3 precious days I went on a “fruit fast” to the dismay of all around me! But it wasn’t a home and the kids couldn’t do anything about it except feel sorry for me.

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