Monthly Archives: October 2010

Dal Bhat: Fuel of the Nepali People

Compared to many other Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and India, Nepal doesn’t stand much of a chance to claim the most diverse cuisine in the region. For example, when attempting to pin down a “national dish” for Singapore, there are many possibilities. It could be chicken rice, or maybe it’s chili crab. Some might claim it’s rojak, and others may say it’s mee goreng. The debate could go on forever, but when aiming to isolate the “national dish” of Nepal, it’s easy. Without question the national dish of Nepal, the meal that is eaten hundreds of thousands of times per day all over the country is dal bhat.

I often wonder about the lack of major variety in Nepali cuisine and have concluded that since Nepal is such a poor country, the first priority for most (especially those outside the Kathmandu Valley in more rural areas) is to get enough food to eat, rather than to develop the flavors of the food to create a breadth of culinary options. This is not to say that dal bhat is not delicious. It is tasty, simple and substantial, which is what the majority of the population is looking for: enough food to fill up to fuel a day’s work, which is often tough manual labor. Dal bhat is to Nepali people what gasoline is to vehicles.

Dal bhat consists of various sized portions of different food groups. The meal centers around white rice (the “bhat”), which is often served in mountainous proportions. The second cornerstone part of the meal is the “dal” which is like a lentil soup, often served in a bowl and then poured on the rice to add flavor and moisture. Dal comes in several varieties, including yellow dal and black dal, both of which are often cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, garlic and sometimes ginger.

In addition to the dal and the bhat the meal, which is usually served on an enormous aluminum plate with small dividers to keep each portion separate, also comes with small heaps of vegetables (tarkari), sometimes meat (chicken, mutton or buffalo) and a dab of achar (pickle) for spice.

The small side of tarkari, or curried vegetables, adds extra flavor and spice to the meal. Usually the tarkari vegetables include cauliflower and potatoes, often with bits of carrots. Especially for an elaborate meal, the dal bhat will be served with a small mound of dark green saag, which is sauteed spinach. On one of the small sections of the metal plate is a helping of achar, or pickle, which is used as a condiment to add spice and flavor to the rest of the meal. Achar comes in all different varieties, but I find the most common achar is made with tomatoes, lapsi (a unique, sour Nepali fruit) and chillies. The achar ingredients are ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle.

Whenever I sit down to a dal bhat meal, the restaurant proprietor or home owner will usually give me a spoon to eat the meal, but Nepalis traditionally eat dal bhat with their right hand. I’ve tried using my hand to eat dal bhat as well, and it usually turns out disastrous as I have not mastered the fine art of mixing each of the parts of the meal into one mound, scooping it up and shoveling it into my mouth with my fingers. When I try, the rice usually ends up all over the place and other diners laugh at my inability to properly do a “finger scoop.” Watching Nepalis eat dal bhat with their hand (always the right hand, as the left is used for the toilet) is truly an amazing site. A hungry Nepali person can put down a massive plate of dal bhat in minutes, mixing eat bite with the perfect ratio of rice, dal, tarkari and achar. Additionally, the owner of the restaurant or tea stall selling dal bhat will often make rounds to each table with an enormous bowl full of rice to refill customers’ plates. A dal bhat meal really is an all-you-can-eat feast that acts as the fuel for the Nepali people.

Above: A traditional dal bhat meal.  Clockwise, starting from the green vegetable: 1) saag – sauteed spinach with garlic and ginger, 2) wild boar cooked with tomato, 3) tarkari – curried cauliflower, potato and carrot, 4) fried fish, 5) curried chicken, 6) achar.  There is black dal in the small bowl accompanying the plate.

Above: Another traditional dal bhat meal.  Take note of the MASSIVE portion of rice.  Second helpings are always available, too.  Photo by: gregw66

Above: More dal bhat, this time with a slice of raw onion for flavor.  Photo by: magical-world

Above: A close-up of tarkari, curried vegetables that always go along with the rice and dal.  Photo by: LilyinNepal

PHOTOS: A Walk Through Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market

After riding for an hour through Seoul’s labyrinthian subway system, my travel partner Jane and I finally emerged from the web of underground, air-conditioned tunnels into the pressing South Korean summer heat. Our mission was to find Seoul’s Noryangjin fish market. Wandering through the markets, especially markets that supply meat and vegetables to the local populace, is one of my favorite activities in Asian cities, towns and villages, so I knew that a visit to Noryangjin was definitely something I had to check off my list of to dos in Seoul. From the subway stop, finding the market was easy. Jane and I meandered through some side alleys that were scattered with vegetable peddlers selling chillis, bean sprouts and fresh tofu. As we got closer to the fish market, we began to see stalls stocked with buckets of writhing eels for sale.

For being a massive fish market, Noryangjin smells remarkably unfishy. The market is housed inside a large warehouse-like building with high ceilings and large open sides that allows for adequate ventilation. The complex was also kept remarkably clean. Vendors wearing rubber rain boots sat in plastic chairs in front of their fish tanks and aquariums. Noryangjin was generally divided into sections: in one area there were the live fish, in another sting rays and in yet another there was raw fish bits mixed with red spicy sauce in large vats. Around each turn vendors called out to us, offering fresh fish and sashimi of all varieties. Jane and I decided to take up a few of the vendors on their offer and we tasted the freshest sashimi possible: killed, deboned and sliced right in front of our eyes. The first vendor we went to retrieved a small fish from the aquarium, knocked it out, sliced and gutted it, flayed it for sashimi and served it to us with a side of daikon radish and red spicy sauce for dipping. Of course, it tasted as fresh as can be: it was light, slightly chewy and perfectly satisfying. After our first fish sashimi we decided to go for a fresh squid sashimi to add some texture variation to our sea food taste testing adventures.

We finished up our squid, waved goodbye to the vendors and continued on, winding up and down the lanes, admiring shell fish, massive sting rays, pyramids of larger fish and live crabs. Tucked near the back of the market was a section where already chopped sashimi mixed with the ubiquitous red Korean spicy sauce was for sale in large tubs. With toothpicks we tasted tiny morsels of different spiced fish varieties.

Here is a collection of photos from our walk through Noryangjin:

Above: A bucket brimming with dried shrimp.
Above: The entrance to Noryangjin Fish Market.  The vendors sit in front of their aquariums, plying visitors with offers of fresh-out-of-the-water sashimi.
Above: A woman wraps up a piece of tentacle for a customer.
Above: Fresh octopus laid out on display.
Above: We bought some fresh sashimi from the vendor.  He plucked the fish from the water, killed it and sliced it right in front of our eyes.
Above: A vendors shows a customer the small octopi for sale at her station.
Above: I get ready to dig into our fresh sashimi.
Above: After the delicious first try of fish sashimi, we decided to try some chewy, fresh squid too.
Above: Fish choices at the market.

Above: Sting rays on display.
Above: A woman organizes her piles of fish at the market.


Above: A bucket full of tiny shrimp.

The Smells of Kathmandu

There is little else that has the intense power to incite such simultaneous delight and revulsion in the nasal cavity than a walk through the streets of Kathmandu. On my daily walks through the alleys and lanes of the city, I often think that for a reader who has never been here to fully comprehend the sensory experiences of Kathmandu, a scratch-and-sniff is necessary to accompany an article or a photograph. The smells, which can be both tantalizing and horrendous, that bombard the nose are so plentiful and ever-changing that a short one-hour city walk could be considered the equivalent to taking the nose on a wild up and down theme park roller coaster.
A full day’s walk around Kathmandu could probably lead to a whole book’s worth of descriptions. Instead of describing all the varied aromas from a day, I shall use my walk this morning as a small case study on the phenomenal range of nose stimuli that can be experienced within an hour’s time. This morning I walked from my house in Sanepa to the tourist district of Thamel, a walk through the heart of the city that takes almost exactly one hour.
I leave my house at 9:30 just as Gita, my neighbor, was beginning the laborious daily task of washing the dishes her children’s clothes. She crouches at the water spigot that we share, scrubbing at the kids’ school uniforms with a bar of cheap, green soap that smells of ayurvedic shops and Chinatown. I wave goodbye and she gives me her customary goodbye greeting: “Enjoy today!”
Strolling down the narrow lanes, dodging taxis and private cars that whiz uncomfortably close to me, I pass the small neighborhood butcher shop. A goat was tied to a stake with a rope, chewing blades of grass and looking as though he were overcome with melancholy. His former compatriot lay severed in three pieces on the butcher’s table, hooves jutting into the air. The butcher shop smells permanently of flesh, a kind of earthy smell that is neither pleasing nor appalling. It is the bloody aroma of death that so many butcher shops in the city smell like. I walk by, smiling and waving at the butcher, while feeling sorry for the sad looking goat that will soon meet the same demise as his disconnected friend.
Just around the bend from the butcher is my favorite shop on the street to pass by: the spice grinder. A middle-aged man dressed in ratty t-shirts is perpetually sitting on a stool in front of an ancient-looking spice grinder, pouring in burlap sacks of cumin, turmeric, coriander and mustard seed. On turmeric days, his shirt, hands and face are tinted orange from the clouds of ground spice that escape that metal tubes. Today, he is grinding cumin. When I pass by the spice grinder, I often want to stop and fill my nostrils and lungs with the spice molecules that billow out from the man’s powdery burlap sacks.
I continue on, trying to inhale every last molecule of the spice grinder’s shop because I know the horrors that will meet my nose soon enough. On my way out of Sanepa (my neighborhood), I am blasted with the gritty exhaust of school buses that surely don’t meet the emissions standards anywhere, despite displaying a sticker on their windows that say they do. According to friends in the know, it’s easy for vehicles in Kathmandu to pass the required emissions tests: a few hundred rupees of baksheesh (bribe) will do the trick.
Now, it is on to Pulchowk, the main road that connects the city of Patan, or Lalitpur, with Kathmandu. On the main streets, the smells change almost every ten feet. I walk by a man selling sliced fruit covered with a red netting, which seems to be mostly ceremonious, as flies are feasting on the sweet fruit anyway. He is chopping orange guava, which smells like an over-ripe tropical vacation.
Down the street, in front of a construction site, idle men crouch on the curb and smoke cheap Nepali cigarettes while the sari-clad women continue to mix cement and move bricks from one spot to another. I try not to breathe in the spirals of cigarette smoke, as I consider how emblematic this construction site is of what I’ve seen in much of Nepal: inert men, often smoking and drinking, and busy women, earning money that probably funds their husband’s habits.

I continue on and pass by a street-side tea stall, which is centered around a metal pot that brims with boiling milk, black tea leaves and copious amounts of sugar. The steam from the tea smells rich and creamy like the beverage that will fill the small glass cups of the shop’s patrons.

Ten minutes on Pulchowk and I’m at the bridge that connects Lalitpur to Kathmandu and crosses over the Nepal’s sacred river, the Bagmati. The sacred river, which is meant to wash away sins if bathed in, doubles as a sewer, an easy place to dispose of trash, a car wash, a toilet and a place to do laundry. The areas that line the Bagmati are crowded with squatter’s residences, or slums. The massive rural-urban migration in the past decade has meant an explosion in squatters living by the river who have inadequate access to clean water or medicine. I recently read that a resident in the squatter communities in Kathmandu dies every ten to fifteen days, most likely a woman or a child.
The stink of the Bagmati is oppressive. But when crossing the bridge that spans the river, it is hard for me not to stop in the middle and look out at the mess. It is like a horrible car crash: it’s hard not to look when passing by. Today, a man walks through the middle of the river with a large sack slung across his back. He picks up bits of plastic and empty bottles that were floating down the river. The rotten smell of the river left my mind for a moment as I considered the situation he must be in to actually take it upon himself to forage for plastic in this river. To a visitor, it would be a surprise to learn that the Bagmati is a holy river, for the banks and small islands that dot it are piled high with decomposing trash heaps. Off to one side of the river, bloated and greyish, is a carcass of something. I ask two teenage boys if it is a pig.
“It’s a cow,” they inform me.

Cows walk across the Bagmati.


On the other side of the river, near a squatter’s colony, a man crouches with his feet submerged in the water, shitting in the flowing, brown waters.
I cross to the other side of the bridge and continue on to my destination.
Where the bridge connects to the main streets in Kathmandu are a number of women who bring woks and kerosene to the pavement and set up snack vending stations right on the sidewalk. I walk by and inhale the fumes of greasy, fried snacks, a welcome change from the putrid Bagmati. The plumes drifting off the bubbling oil smell tantalizingly unhealthy.
I walk past the street-side barbers who sit on worn stools next to mounds of snipped black hair on the sidewalk. Punctuating the exhaust fumes are the cloying smells of Indian sweet shops, which vend small, but deceptively rich treats with names like barfi and gulab jamun. Many of the shops, whose glass windows protect pyramids of snacks, are run by sullen-looking Bengalis with dark brown skin. The smell of baking sweets and hot ghee (clarified butter) are so enticing that every time I pass one, I feel a magnetic pull to enter and gorge on the sugary desserts.

Indian Sweets


Five minutes down the street, I pass a small temple, tucked between a greasy auto-repair shop and a veterinary medicine shop. An old woman, who looks about two centuries old, sits in front of the shop with her hand outstretched, begging for money. From the bronze hulk of the temple comes a sweet and smoky fog of incense, sticks of which are lit constantly for the gods.
Now I am at the point where I must cross a main street that flows with a never-ending pulse of traffic. I make use of my usual strategy when crossing major streets in Asia: latch on to a local and follow them across. Once safely to the other side, I pass by a momo shop: the ubiquitous Tibetan dumplings stuffed with chicken, vegetables or buffalo that can be found all over Kathmandu. A young restaurant attendant lifts the lid off an aluminum momo steamer and a cloud of spicy, meaty vapors reaches my nose. He plucks out ten and places them on a dented aluminum plate to accompany a tin of red achar (pickle). The doughy momos smell better than the most expensive perfume ever could, especially because the stench of the river still lingers in my nose.
I pass street vendors who are making popcorn. They make me remember the comforts of the Western movie theater. Then I walk by Ratna Park, the main bus central in the middle of the city, where someone has recently installed a “Mobile Toilet.” The Mobile Toilet is housed in the shell of a large truck and smells like the innards of a campground outhouse. Nepali women who walk by demurely raise a fold of their sari to cover their nose. I have no nose covering, so just try to hold my breath as long as possible.
There is a stretch of sidewalk that spans the distance between Ratna Park and Asan Bazaar that I cringe even thinking about. Even in the mid-morning, this particular piece of my walk is bathed in sun. I usually enjoy walking in the sun, but the rays produce an especially heinous effect here. For some reason, this piece of sidewalk is speckled with mounds of feces, probably mostly from stray dogs. During the night, this piece of sidewalk must also get a thorough bath of urine from dogs and humans. The warmth of the sun bakes the mounds of shit and heats the urine, which releases a distinctive and shockingly foul smell. Even the Bagmati smells like flowers compared to this stretch of sidewalk. I walk as quickly as I can, being careful to avoid the smears of feces on the ground. The suffocating smell of hot urine is so difficult to endure that I consider wearing a gas mask next time I pass by. This piece of sidewalk makes me feel like retching, even passing out. I hold my breath as long as I can, but when I start to feel dizzy, I am forced to take a deep breath. The acidic, acrid stench burns my lungs.
Thankfully, I reach the end of the rancid stretch of sidewalk and my nose is soon appeased by a another fried-snack shop. A man stands in front, pouring viscous dough into hot oil, which produces a delicious, warm fragrance that reminds me of fresh baked cookies. I stop for a minute and watch as the sweet maker curls the watery dough in a circular motion, which will eventually produce the saccharine-sweet jalebi snacks.
I pass the street that leads to Asan Bazaar and hop over some stagnant mud puddles. The next ten minutes are aromatically uneventful, just some repeat smells: fried snacks, Indian sweet shops, steaming momos and the occasional whiff of sewage. Finally, I arrive in the backpacker district of Thamel. Almost immediately upon my arrival to the neighborhood, I start hearing the sounds of chanting monks that blast of the speakers of music shops. They are the same CDs on repeat that have been playing for at least three years, since I was last in Kathmandu.
Immediately the smell of incense floods the streets. There is sandalwood, and nag champa drifting from the storefronts of shops selling fake North Face gear, bootleg movies and used books.
“Taxi, Madame?”
“You want trekking, rafting?”
“Tiger balm?”
All the usual suspects crowd the street corners, trying to sell their services or products.
Finally, I get to my destination, the Northfield Cafe. I order a black coffee and a waiter wearing a collared shirt promptly brings it to me, setting it next to my open computer.

And then, as if to cleanse my nose of the delights and horrors it has smelled in the past hour, comes the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee. In just an hour I’ve marveled at the smells of fresh ground spices, frying snacks, incense, momos and milk tea. On the flip side, I’ve wanted to douse my nostrils in the sterilizer after passing the Bagmati, baking urine, feces and sewage. After the last sixty minutes, the warm, comforting aroma of plain black coffee could not be more welcome.

BLOG: Things I Miss About Home

I find living abroad to be immensely pleasurable. I love being an outsider in a culture that is very foreign to me, as being in this position gives me innumerable opportunities to discover and see new things. Living in a foreign place also allows me endless material for observing and writing. There are, of course, some things I miss about home, which is Portland, Oregon, but could more generally just be the United States. There are the obvious things, like friends, family and home cooked meals, but there are also some other things I’ve been thinking about lately that I do not get in Kathmandu.

Here are a list of things I miss about home:

1) Being able to walk in a straight line

Must dodge sacred cows.

I miss being able to walk in a straight line, on a straight path, without having to constantly be on the lookout for obstacles to dodge. Whenever I walk in Kathmandu, I feel like I am in some sort of bizarre, real-life video game where I must dodge things ever 10 seconds including dogs, people, food carts, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, feces and 6-foot deep sewer holes in the sidewalk. While it can be entertaining and stimulating sometimes, I often long for the peaceful, straight and uninterrupted paths and walkways of home.

2) Walking on a flat surface
This one is sort of an extension of number one. I miss walking on flat surfaces, like flat sidewalks and roads. In Kathmandu, the sidewalks are in such poor conditions that I often feel that I am “urban trekking,” constantly going up and down uneven pieces of sidewalk, hopping over piles of bricks, spanning lakes of stagnant water and traversing heaps of sand. I miss the flat, wide sidewalks of Portland where there is more than enough room for people to walk.

3) Being anonymous
I know I said in the beginning that I like being an outsider and that’s true. But, there is something to be said for being anonymous in a crowd. In Portland, or most places in the U.S., I can just disappear in the crowd. If I’m walking in Portland’s busy Saturday Market or through a street fair, no one gives me a second look. I’m just another person. Here in Kathmandu, people stare at me EVERYWHERE I go. I often travel unaccompanied and I know many Nepalis may think this is strange, especially in the countryside, but I get stared at intensely even in the city. I miss the ability to be anonymous and disappear into a crowd.

4) Not being stared at
This is an extension of number three. Never being anonymous means always standing out in the crowd. It may be because I have light hair and it may be because I am young-looking and travel alone most of the time. Whatever it is, people, especially men, stare at me all the time. It is a rather disconcerting and uncomfortable sort of stare, a kind of stare that feels like it pierces your skin. The staring by men is a part of this culture that makes me feel extremely uncomfortable and annoyed sometimes. When I am walking, I often try not to notice it, but other times it is simply impossible to ignore. I’ve developed a rather bad habit of very conspicuously staring back at people whose eyes are fixed on me, even to the point where I turn my head so as not to break eye contact as I walk by. I sometimes wonder if this habit will someday have reprecussions, but I sort of want to make intense starers feel the same way they are making me feel. I know I may be an oddity here, but I miss never being stared at in Portland.

5) Being safe alone at night

I know I am not safe everywhere in Portland alone at night, but in most places I feel fine walking by myself. In Kathmandu, I absolutely do not feel comfortable EVER when alone at night. My level of discomfort at night has increased since three years ago. I don’t know if this stems from what is probably my increased level of rationality from when I was 20 years old, or if it is from the constant warnings I get from locals. Everyone says: “No matter what you do, do NOT walk alone at night in Kathmandu.” I’m not the type of person who gets easily scared about travel warnings, but this is one that I will follow. Kathmandu has received a deluge of people migrating from rural parts of the country and perhaps because of this, now has had increased crime rates and problems with drug addicts. Rather than take my chances, I prefer to be home when the sun goes down. So, I miss being able to walk around at night with no problems or fears like I can in Portland.

6) Clean air

Clean Air... Yum


Portland has crisp, fresh and clean air. Kathmandu does not. I miss the clean air of Portland and not blowing my nose to find it black from pollution, dust and smog.