Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Five Senses of Nepal - Taste

Note: Every time I pen a new one of these “sense posts,” I realize hours or days later that I forgot some interesting tidbit. However, I have to remember that these posts are only meant to be brief snapshots. There’s no way to convey to you, my readers, the full Nepal experience—even though I try.

Taste. This is where pretty much nothing is familiar. Even global brands and products—Kit-kats, Fanta, Oreos—taste completely different. Everything sweet uses sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. No one makes sliced bread properly outside of high-end restaurants—it’s always dry and crumbly, like the nasty gluten-free tapioca bread I tried once. Putting peanut butter on it is a nightmare, because I get more crumbs on the knife than PB on the bread. 

Even the fruit and vegetables are different: fresher, sweeter, and crisper, bursting with flavor. I actually like them now. Those of you who have known me a long time, remember the days of me picking anything green and red out of my food? Gone. Eating vegetables only with ketchup? Gone. Although I still despise scallions and green onions, due to bad timing with a bout of food poisoning. And I don’t like gundruk, a kind of collection of stewed dried spinach stalks. It’s like eating soup made of flower stems. And I also won’t eat anything bitter, like the (in)famous bitter gourd. I believe its Nepali name is kerala.

The point is, everything “grown” that we eat comes from either our garden or the market, not from a freezer or a truck of organic Californian produce that’s been on the road for a week. It’s nice to feel healthy. 

The spices, though. That’s where most of the distinct foreign flavor comes in. Every day, my host dad grinds up whatever spices he’s going to use with a well-worn mortar and pestle made from smooth black stone. No powdered stuff in jars for us! I can’t say I love all of the spices, but I do love getting the opportunity to try flavors that I never knew existed.

Even in Kathmandu, “familiar” foods don’t taste like you’d expect. Take pasta, for example. Everyone makes mini-Himalayas out of my spaghetti using yak cheese, which is a poor substitute for pecorino romano. And nobody can make tomato sauce or ketchup taste quite right. The only things that my taste buds recognize are the imports, and are they expensive: stale Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, 350 rupee bags of Twizzlers… The “national” chocolate of Nepal is Cadbury, which luckily, I’ve had before during my various trips to Europe. But boy, do I find myself missing Hershey’s sometimes.

Some Choice Foods

Suntala – This means "orange" in Nepali, but they are actually clementines the size of oranges. They are sweet and juicy and refreshing, but the seeds are a nuisance.

Mo:Mos – I’ve mentioned these before, but for a refresher, these are little dumplings stuffed with veggies, buffalo meat, or chicken, and they can be served steamed, fried, or in a spicy soup.

Chow Chow – That’s “Ramen” to you Americans. Often called the national snack food of Nepal, it’s commonly eaten crushed and dry straight out of the bag. 

Chaat Paati - A street food made from puffed rice, crushed chow chow, spicy dried chickpeas, raw onions, spiced potatoes, vinegar, and a spicy sauce. A great way to get heartburn.

Channa – Nepali for chickpeas. I loved chickpeas in the US, and I love them even more here. My favorite variety is channa masala, which is Indian in origin. However, it’s impolite to call them by their English name here, because “chick” sounds a lot like a Nepali curse word.

Mahchai – Stovetop popcorn! Delicious, unless it’s cooked with ghee – some sort of rancid-tasting butter derivative.

Dud – Nepali for milk. Milk shows up mostly in the form of chiya seto (milk tea) and milk-based candies. I’m not a big fan of the latter, because other than a nice texture, the sweets taste to me like someone mixed spoiled milk with loads of sugar.

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