Category Archives: Customs and Rituals

Auspicious April First

This April Fools Day there is something to celebrate, apparently. We were invited to two events on the same day. Both program dates were chosen by pandits in Nepal due to the auspiciousness of the day– a bratabandha in Wisconsin and a pasni in Connecticut.

Those of you familiar with American geography will know that these two destinations are at least a time zone away from each other. And since the bratabandha invitation arrived first, P and I are currently sitting on a plane making our way to the state known largely for beer and cheese.

I attended P’s bratabhanda but it was more of a rag tag, simple ceremony… there weren’t any older family members around to make sure everything was done according to proper family tradition. It was still fun, just probably not as “official” as the ceremony we will attend tomorrow, or anything that would happen back in Nepal.

It’s actually going to be a double bratabandha as P’s cousin’s son will be undergoing the ritual side by side with his other cousin, who is flying in with his family from Germany for the event. Other family members are taking the opportunity to visit from Nepal as well, so there are bound to be a lot of new relatives to meet.

P’s mother instructed me to wear my best new sari and bring my tilari. It’s important for naya buharis to make a good impression. It should be fun, although I get a little nervous when I’m around a lot of P’s older relatives. I’m embarrassed I still can’t speak or understand Nepali very well, and I’m generally worried I’ll do or say something stupid– but I guess most people feel that way around new people.

Sadly the event we are missing is R and S’s son‘s pasni or first rice feeding ceremony. I had really been looking forward to this event, and even told R to try and avoid April 1st so that we would be around, but S’s family pandit in Nepal declared that the 1st was the best day and R was powerless to reschedule. They will have a pasni party in the summer when S’s family visits from Nepal, and the ever tech-oriented S is planning to live-stream the pasni online, so hopefully we can tune in for a little while. At least I can look forward to that, although I’m still disappointed.

So may your April Fools Day not only be filled with practical jokes but much auspiciousness as well.

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Sel Roti Prep

Team Nepal is trying to psych me out on the sel roti plan!

Tonight (Nov 4th) at dinner I was told not to get my hopes high, and that I should only try with “a little bit” of batter in case it doesn’t work well, then we can leave a small offering to god for Lakshmi puja and not worry because at least I tried. I keep being told “It’s hard! Really!” which I’m sure is true, but it only makes me stubbornly want to do it even more.

So I spent part of the evening tracking down sel roti videos on youtube and comparing the recipe I plan to use with other recipes I’ve seen online. P even called home to get advice from him mom. This sel roti plan is intense!

So the Sel Roti recipe I plan to practice with is from my Nepali Cookbook (pg 122):

3 cups white rice
1 medium very ripe banana
1 cup sugar, or to taste
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup rice flour, or as needed
4 to 5 cups vegetable oil

In a large bowl, soak rice in water overnight. Drain rice and place in a blender or food processor with banana, sugar, and butter and process, adding up to 1 1/4 cup of water to make a semi-thick puree with no grainy bits. You may have to do this in two batches. Transfer batter to a mixing bowl and beat with a fork until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel and set aside to rest for 20-25 mins.

When the batter is well-rested, mix it again. The consistency should be similar to heavy cream. If it seems too thick, gradually add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water; if it feels too thin, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of rice flour and mix well.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it reaches 350 to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Test for readiness by placing a small drop of the batter into the hot oil. If it bubbles and rises to the surface immediately, it is ready. Pour about 1/4 cup batter into the oil slowly making a large circle (pour the batter from a cup or a pastry bag with a medium-size opening). Stretch and move the batter using a wooden spoon or chopstick to create a round shape. As the sel puffs and rises, push it into the oil with the back of a spoon until it is light golden brown. Flip and fry the second side until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain it on paper towels. Repeat until finished with the batter.

Hopefully by the end I’ll have nice rotis!

Some of the videos that helped me visualize the process (since I’ve never seen it done in person)…

Traditional method with your hand… (only for the seasoned veterans)…

Plastic bottle method (with a little “Resham Firiri” in the background)…

Using a metal bowl to help keep the rotis round shape… (cheating method?)

Using a cup to add batter, and timing (skip ahead to 2:28 and watch until 3:57 it gives you a good idea of how long to cook them, the rest of the video is random and not helpful)…

And finally two Nepali women with a cooking show segment. They mostly talk in Nepali with subtitles, but it gives you a good idea as well…

My rice is soaking, and I’m ready for action.

Tune in later to see how it goes…

Planting the Jamara (in pictures)

So, little did I know that traditionally men are in charge of the jamara planting ritual, but I took charge of our planting tonight, since I seemed to be most excited. Hopefully I didn’t commit some terrible taboo. First I took a shower to “purify” myself and then started the planting.

So what did I do?

Step one: Soaked the jamara seeds. You are supposed to soak them overnight, but I only soaked then for about 20 mins. My housemates said that was okay, hopefully it won’t disturb my jamara growing process…

Step two: Gathered materials… jamara seeds, container for the plants, and sand.

Step three: Filled the bottom of the container with sand

Step four: sprinkled jamara seeds in a single layer on top

Step five: covered with a thin layer of sand

Step six: Watered generously

Step seven: covered and stored in a dark place (the seeds grow better when moist and dark)

Step eight: water when necessary. Jamara should be moist but not swamped.

The plants are supposed to look yellowish green not green-green… so hopefully I start to see shoots soon.

I hope my little seeds grow. I’ll let you know what they look like in ten days!

Dashain Ideas

Dashain is soon to be upon us. The first day of the ten day festival is October 8th and it ends on October 17th.

A reader asked me what she might be able to do for her Nepali partner for Dashain. In her specific situation he is across the country. I brought the topic up at dinner last night to see if my in-house Nepali focus group had any ideas.

AS: “That’s tough… Dashain is all about getting together with family and eating lots of food. So if you are far away? I don’t know.”

P: “Make some goat curry and send it through the mail.”

Hmmm… not the most helpful advice.

So I was googling around during lunch today and found a website that explained the importance of Dashain in Nepali culture and the individual aspects of it quite well. It’s not necessarily specific advice, but it might give some ideas:

Dashain is big in Nepal mainly for the following :

  • Holidays – Rest and Relaxation for nearly 10 days!
    This is the longest festival in Nepal. It allows one to travel and be with family and friends for up to a week or more.
  • Shopping – Clothes for wife, children, dad, mum… In spite of extreme hardship, during the festival season, Nepalese families manage to shop if not for all, but at least for the children. Clothes are the most selling item during the season. Those who could not afford to wear even a single new cloth in the entire year will now attempt!
  • Eating – Meat Products, Sweets, Fruits, and meat products again! Dashain’s most popular cuisine is meat, and in popularity order are goat meat, sheep, buffalo, duck, and chicken. Meat is expensive and poor to middle class families usually cannot afford it. So dashain is the time of eating lots of meat. Usually animals are bought live from the animal market such as Kalanki Bazaar, Bag Bazaar, and sacrificed at home or in temples. At home, the whole family is involved in cutting and preparing the meat which usually lasts for 2 to 3 days of feast. But some family prefer to buy the meat already prepared by Butchers
  • Visiting – Meet your Family and Friends near and far
    Dashain is also about forgiveness, kindness and respect, all of which prevails so broken families come together. Cities suddenly seems to empty itself, more people returning back in villages or terai (lower, flat region of Nepal) than that of people joining families in cities. During this season, city rushes to book tickets, bus or plane!
  • Kites – Children love the season also for flying Kites
    If you visit Kathmandu or any other city during this season, the day-sky is filled with colorful kites like shinning stars in the night!
  • Tika and Love – Receiving and Giving Tika and Respect.
    Getting a tika from an older person in your family or from relatives or from anyone is a blessing. Dashain tika begins from the oldest person in your family giving tika to the youngest then the second youngest in the family and so on. Faith, hope, inspiration and blessings, all come alive in Dashain.
  • Money Notes – stacks of notes to give!
    Receive a tika and offer money notes as an appreciation. Popular Dashain notes are Rupees 2, 5, 10, and Rupees 25. Everybody tries to exchange for smaller and new notes, so banks are usually busy during the season.
  • Cleaning – Clean and decorate homes
    Walls get a new coat of paints, roads are cleaned better than before, temples are decorated with lights, villagers join together to clean and build new trails, paint their homes using red-colored mud. People clean themselves mentally too by visiting various temples and worshiping during the festival.
  • Puja – Worshiping God for Peace and Prosperity. Various pujas are performed from beginning to the end of Dashain.
  • Gambling – although not legal in Nepal, but it’s played! Playing cards are popular during Dashain. Usually family members play cards with each-other or with friends for money.

Perhaps you could send or gift your loved one a new shirt or pair of pants and some playing cards, cook a goat curry meal, and/or send Dashain greetings to Nepali family and friends. If you live in a community with Nepali people, you might visit the homes of elder Nepalis for tikka.

Other ideas out there?

Dinner Conversations- Goats and Head Bobbles

You know you are in an intercultural relationship when…

Sometimes at dinner you talk about goats.

And not just any old goat conversation, but about eating and slaughtering goats. You know… like “best practices.”

I remember back in college when various international students sat together in the cafeteria occasionally the Kenyans and Nepalis would start talking about goats since both cultures enjoy eating them. Each culture has a different way of killing the goat. In Nepal the goat (or buffalo) is usually held with its neck stretched tight so that when the butcher swings his axe hard and heavy the goats head is lopped off quick with one swift whack. The Kenyans on the other hand tend to saw the neck (although some groups, like the Maasai might suffocate the goat first) since they want to save the blood. Anyway, I digress…

Last night I found myself having (St. Patrick’s Day) dinner with a large group of friends at a Vietnamese restaurant (very Irish, I know) to celebrate a friend’s belated birthday. I found myself sitting on one end of the long dinner table with two Nepalis, an American planning to travel to Tanzania for summer research, and another American whose husband is Senegalese. And what did we talk about… yeah, goats.

But in the various goat slaughter conversations I’ve sat through over the years, I did learn something new. Apparently, when Nepalis sacrifice a goat, such as during Dashain when it is quite popular and ritualized, before the goat can be killed it has to “agree.” The butchers will sprinkle the goat’s head with water to get it to shake it’s head in agreement before its neck can be stretched and chopped.

“Sometimes it can be very amusing” our Nepali friend said, “if the goat refuses to shake its head, the butchers have to wait. Sometimes people get really impatient, and they have to sprinkle lots of water on the goat’s head, or they try to agitate the goat to get it to shake its head. If the goat is stubborn, it could take a long time!”

Of course, another caveat to the story is the South Asian “Head Bobble.” For those familiar with the famous “head bobble” or side to side wag that is popularized by Indians, Nepalis also tend to do this. In Nepali culture shaking your head from side to side means “yes” while shaking your head up and down means “no” (the opposite to American culture). Thus when the goat shakes its head from side to side to shake of the water on its head, Nepalis interpret this as “yes, I’m ready.”

“Good thing you don’t use American goats” the American guy (lamely) joked, “they’d be saying no, and you wouldn’t even realize it.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s harder to get the goat to shake it’s head up and down instead of side to side, so good thing we shake our head differently.” The Nepali friend acquiesced.

So the next time you find yourself eating goat in Kathmandu, at least you can rest assured that the goat shook his head “yes, I’m ready” before hand.

If you enjoyed this little goat story, maybe you’ll like this one too…

Holi and Lent

Last night we celebrated a friend’s birthday and Holi in true Nepali fashion… with momos of course!

This is me during Holi two years ago...

In between wrapping the potato/tofu/cabbage (or chicken for the meat eaters) mixture into wanton wrappers and piling them up to be steamed, we would periodically try to smear bright pink colored powder across each other’s faces.

I have yet to be in South Asia during Holi, although someday I hope to. I know it is kind of crazy to go outside during that time… you have to prepare to be pummeled with colored dust, or in Nepal particularly, color-filled water balloons, but I think it would be great fun. I remember once as a little kid someone gave me the idea of making “flour bombs” where you fill a thin napkin with a spoon or two of flour and tie the napkin shut, so when thrown with force it “explodes” white flour everywhere. Holi is essentially the same idea (if you take away the religious aspect of it), and I could see my inner child running wild. We have celebrated a few times with our friends in New England, but the festivities are usually more subdued, since it is usually too cold to go crazy outside, and no one wants a chaotic colored mess to clean off their apartment floor.

Playing Holi in South Asia

The birthday aspect of the evening concluded with some cake, which brings me to the second topic of conversation… Lent.

My relationship with Christianity has been a long and rocky one. So I really wouldn’t classify myself as religious, or even spiritual, but there is one aspect of the Catholic calendar that I do try to adhere to since I find it a fulfilling endeavor—Lent. Generally speaking, Lent is a 40 day period of time in between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday where Catholics go through a period of fasting. I’ve really tried to do this in earnest each year (but not always successfully) because I think, devoid of its religious connotations, it is a nice anchor throughout the year, a time to abstain from something that you really enjoy or rely on. It helps me to practice self restraint and control, cleanses my system, and puts my needs and desires into perspective for the year.

For many years I’ve tried to focus my 40 day fast on sugary things. I’m a huge sweet tooth. I love chocolate (mmmm, Cadbury caramel Dairy Milk and this time of year… Cadbury cream eggs), and baked goods (pies, strudels, cookies), even sugar in my tea, or a soda at a restaurant for dinner. So cutting out the overtly sugary things in my diet (like all of the above, and including last night’s birthday cake) is really tough, and kicks my butt.

The first two weeks are usually the hardest. I gaze longingly at trays of cookies set out at university events, or mentally debate with myself about how bad it would be to just have a bite. I’ve been eating a lot of apples to help me through… and at the end of the 40 days it will feel really good to know that I didn’t give in to desire.

As a kid I tried to give up different things, like soda or television. I told P that this year we should try to give up eating out, but that would be really tough, because with our work schedules, and his exam studying (he passed! Hurray!), sometimes it’s just easy to grab some quick Chinese or burritos, but I’ll keep that one in mind for the future. Sugar seems to be a good one—a tough challenge, something I use as a crutch, and in giving it up I feel healthier at the end of it all, and it usually helps me decrease my overall sugar intake (after the previous few years fast I prefer less sugar in my tea, and sometimes forgo sugar for honey). Last year our friends R and S gave up rice. I commend them on that feat. I’m sure it equally kicked their butts.

So anyway, 13 days down… 27 more days to go.

A “Female” Taboo

A few days ago AS, N, P and I had dinner together and got into an interesting discussion about female menstruation taboos in Nepal. I don’t know if other people would be turned off by this topic, so I am warning you all outright in case you don’t want to read further.

Along the lines of the toilet paper discussion, sometimes things that are deemed to be really private are some of the things that I’m most curious about…

Anyway, I forget how our dinner topic began, but I remember a few years ago P and I somehow started talking about the taboo.

P was telling me about a time when he was young, and he noticed that for a few days each month his dad would do all the family cooking instead of his mom. As Little P, he couldn’t understand why this was happening, so one day he decided to ask at the dinner table. Uncharacteristically his grandfather shushed him up, saying it was an inappropriate topic of conversation, and something he shouldn’t be thinking about.

Little P was perplexed, he didn’t really understand. Eventually he found out that his father cooked for a few days each month because at those times his mother was menstruating and in traditional Nepali culture menstruating women are considered “unclean” and are not allowed to touch food that others will eat. Some strict families might not even serve the woman food in the same room as the rest of the family during these restricted times.

I found this both fascinating and terribly embarrassing. Particularly during my adolescence, I remember being very much a prude when it came to my body. I didn’t want people knowing what was happening to it, and I was horrified to think that if I had grown up in Nepal, it would basically be advertised to my entire family… even my brothers and father and grandfather, that I was having my period. Ick, who wants that?

It also made me really worried the first few times I spent extended periods of time with P’s family… long enough periods (excuse the pun) of time that they must have assumed I menstruated at some point. I fretted, what if they found out that I was? Would I be banished from the kitchen? Would I not be allowed to cook? Would it disgust them if I touched something that someone else would eat during this “taboo” time. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about it, because nothing was ever said, and I never noticed P’s mom, aunt or female cousins separated out unless it was done in a way that was not very noticeable.

“If you really think about it, the taboo at one point probably made some sense,” P said, during our dinner conversation, “if you think about rural villages, especially a hundred or more years ago, it was difficult to have good hygiene in general, let alone at that specific time for women. Fresh water might be limited, material goods were limited, during that time of each month women probably were unclean because of the conditions they were surrounded by in addition to her own condition.”

The taboo unsurprisingly seems to be enforced much more in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, one  development website states, “Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in the culture of some Nepali castes… During menstruation, some girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, touch water, attend religious functions, and in extreme cases, are not allowed to drink cow milk, eat fruit or sleep in a bed.” My guess is that as time goes on this taboo in the general Nepali public will probably slowly start to become less widely adhered to, perhaps more like an “old wives tale.”

But even if the taboo in the cities is less strict, a few of my female friends have explained how it affected them in their own childhood households. Every family is different, and different castes have different variations as well, but one common story seems to be that of confinement during a young woman’s first menstruation cycle. The girl is not able to see any of her male relatives or the sun, instead she has to stay in her room with the door and windows closed and shaded. Many of her female friends and relatives will probably come to visit to keep her company, but she is not allowed to do any religious activity during her period of confinement. The length of time seems to vary, around 12 days, although I think P’s younger cousin only did it for 3 or 4 (J Phupu didn’t want her missing out on too much school). Sometimes the young girl might be dressed up in a sari to be portrayed as more “womanly” during  this time.

I also think that it is around this time when Newars have a more elaborate custom for young girls, called the “Bael  Byah” or “bael fruit marriage,” but I’ll talk about that another time.

Anyway, the conversation was interesting, so I wanted to share. Since menstruation taboos isn’t a topic talked about everyday, does anyone else out there have any stories?