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.
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.
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!”
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!
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.
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.”