A cat goes vegetarian in Nepal

Hanniah Tariq could not quite find what she was looking for in Kathmandu. Then she discovered rural Nepali cuisine

A cat goes vegetarian in Nepal
Kathmandu is a strange city in many ways. But something I found particularly curious was the food, which came across at first sight as an odd clash of cultures. The breakfast buffet, apparently, can have bhaji, chapati, chicken chow mien, cauliflower in white sauce and fried rice – all sitting there like a crazy mélange of cuisines. I found that amusing and kept asking for “authentic Nepali food”. The hotel only offered the famous “momos” (which, of course, are dumplings!) and something they called Thokpa. This also just seemed a bit too familiar: a noodle soup in a spicy broth. It was all very delicious but still it somehow wasn’t quite the food experience I was looking for.

As fate would have it, I found it in the strangest place. ‘Careful what you wish for’ is a lesson I never seem to learn. After an unfortunate brush with a careless motorcyclist there was no rock-climbing to be had but something had to be done with the vacation time. So, on the suggestion of a friend I decided to find a yoga retreat for some peace from the traffic, noise and dangerous amounts of air pollution in the city.
They don't taste it while cooking. You must leave some of your food outside as an offering for a cow, crow or dog before you can have any yourself

I found it by chance, made by a lovely family in the village of Nagarkot, Bhaktapur, (32 km from the chaos of Kathmandu) that runs a homestay. As it is off season there aren’t many options, so taking the risk that this might be another fiasco, I arrived nervously to the little house. They do everything themselves in what seemed like a very basic setting (the yoga shala didn’t have windows, making both morning and evening practice both a test of your patience – with a hurt back as well as the imperative of not shivering to death). I was later to find out that it was only half complete because they had lost their home in the earthquake that shook the country in April 2015. Rajan, the charming owner who had been studying at an ashram in India, had to abandon his dream of pursuing higher studies to rush back. He rode his bike miles every day loaded with bricks and helped his aged father rebuild the house. It was then that he found his new calling: running a homestay in his picturesque little village. In that moment, his experience resonated with mine: where my own dream of climbing in Nepal was taken away by an accident. He had taken on an unpleasant situation and in the process started something wonderful – teaching at a family-run institution. A gentle and respectful teacher both of yoga and his culture, having dinner every night with him was more informative than anything in the Lonely Planet guides.

The food that I had been seeking, I had finally found it here: made with the efforts of the entire family. The grandfather, about 62 years old, grows all the vegetables himself. Fit as a horse, working the small field while smoking a pack of local cigarettes a day, he grows a surprising range of fresh vegetables. Brinjals, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, beetroot – the list goes on and on. There are also fruits to be had in the future as the trees planted are gradually maturing. Future wanderers like me will be able to munch on guavas, pineapple, avocado, strawberries, banana and much more. It is all grown using only natural ingredients and harvested with the care and love of this gentleman. Just watching him hard at work and producing all this variety was unbelievable and inspiring.

Lunch on the roof

Everyone has their limits though, it seems, as I found out while sharing a cup of ginger tea. Lovingly served by the wife several times a day, It is made from ginger from their garden and a pinch of pepper. I never thought something like that would taste better than my usual chamomile tea. He was complaining about the milk bill – the one thing they must buy from the market. I very naively suggested they get a cow. The hilarious man turned to me and replied (in his delightful broken Hindi), “Do I look like I could use more work in a day?”

The lovely grandmother and wife, with the help of a daughter (when not in school), makes all the food in a tiny kitchen. Everything organic, everything vegetarian and prepared completely from scratch – basically everything we don’t really do in Pakistan. Belonging to a Pathan family, I have an uncle who simply left and went out to eat once when his wife made bhindi (Okra) and there was no meat on the table. Meat is a staple that we are used to. But this family of three generations introduced me to an entire world of food that was as unique as it was delicious.

For each meal we would get a thali heaped with a variety of heavenly little dishes. I have no idea how they fit all the ingredients – as well as both of themselves – into their tiny kitchen when cooking. They make chapati the same way as us in Pakistan, but the ladies would put a little white Ajwain in it, which seemed like a milder version than ours but gave the roti a completely unique quality. I would gobble three down with just with a bit of chutney. The variety of chutneys that they were making I fell so deeply in love with that I left yoga practice one evening just to squeeze into their tiny kitchen, so I could learn. It was shocking how simple the ingredients were for each item – the quality of produce going in was such. The chutneys are just so good, you could eat a large quantity with a spoon, and forget about bread.

The grandmother in her kitchen

They dry beetroot in the sun, soak it and then mix it in the bread for special occasions. Dal, something served with most meals, I thought would be like ours. But honestly it’s nothing like our dal. It sometimes even had soy beans and mushrooms in it. But we are not speaking of the simple button mushroom that we get at home: they were astonishingly tasty wild mushrooms, courtesy of the grandfather, of course. Simply spiced but equally appealing little stir-fries of brinjals, cauliflower and spinach graced the rest of the thali. At the appearance of popcorn for breakfast on one occasion, none of the four guests (Canadian, Singaporean, Sri Lankan and Pakistani) looked too thrilled. But sitting in the sun on the roof we all tasted a different version and enjoyed it very much. The corn was grown right there, and the wife had lightly sautéed it with a little bit of turmeric and spice. Very interesting indeed!

The most surprising thing is that they don’t taste it while cooking. Rajan the owner, explained to us that in their culture you must leave some of your food outside as an offering for a cow, a crow or a dog before you can have any yourself. How these ladies make this heavenly vegetarian food without tasting it while cooking is beyond me. But perhaps it could have something to do with the fact that they light incense and perform puja (Shiva in the mornings and Lakshmi at dinner) before making every meal – seeking blessings for all who eat the food. So much more than just material ingredients go into the food!

Watching the wife wash all the dishes in the freezing water, outside in the garden in 8 degrees, blew my mind. I so badly wanted to be brave enough to help, but I told myself it’s my back that is keeping me from helping this strong woman. In reality, of course, the prospect of washing dishes in that temperature while squatting on the floor frightened me more than the motorbikes of Kathmandu.

Rajan also explained that when a loved one dies, they don’t eat salt for 12 days. I was floored by this immensely respectful culture again and again during my stay. I could almost bet they can still make the best food without a key element like salt, though! “We make our food with the most important ingredient,” he once said, “Love.” It may sound cliche, but common truths almost always sound that way, I suppose.

The thousands of houses razed to the ground in 2015 included the one that belonged to this amazing family. They have rebuilt their lives and come back stronger than ever. Anyone wanting to experience true rural Nepal and the love and faith they represent must visit the Yoga Home Nepal Niru Yoga Homestay for the best experience of yoga, peace and family life. And the food there can make a cat go vegetarian (but not for long… the minute I get back home I’m going to eat an entire lamb leg all by myself).