In Kathmandu I have, sadly, become a semi-vegetarian and it’s because I’m a hypocrite. By “semi-vegetarian” I mean that when I’m out at a restaurant I’ll gladly order a meat dish, or when I’m at someone else’s home for dinner, I’ll happily rip through some juicy animal flesh. I really do love meat. But when I’m eating at home and cooking for myself, which is most of the time, meat is not on the menu.
The reason that I don’t cook meat at my own home is because the Kathmandu butcher shops are… intimidating. There are butcher shops everywhere. There is one down the street from my house and a few more within ten minutes walking. I literally pass dozens of butcher shops on my morning runs. But, no matter how many times I pass a Kathmandu butcher shop, I still cannot help but stare when I walk by.
The butcher shops are generally quite small, probably no more than 10 feet across, open air stalls. In front of the stall is a table that displays the shop’s product, which is most often chicken, pig, goat or buffalo (never cow, for cows are sacred animals here in Nepal). If the animal is large, like a pig or a goat, the sections are laid out in large chunks on the front table: the head on one side, the abdomen and front legs in the middle and the hind quarters on the other side. If it is a goat, the legs of the animal bend unnaturally, every which way. If it is a pig, the shop keepers often rub the whitish-pink skin with a spice that dyes the whole animal a shade of neon orange. Chickens are laid out in rows, sans head and feet, and are blow torched to singe off the tiny down feathers. The store proprietor often stands behind the meat-heavy table with a wand, made of a stick and a plastic bag, that he or she waves around the meat in a half-hearted effort to keep the flies at bay.
Whenever I walk by a butcher shop, I’m always struck by how, well, animal the meat is. The legs and hooves are still intact, the heads are sitting there, staring at me with open eyes, the hair and bristles are still visible on the skin. The “animalness” of the meat at the Kathmandu butcher shops puts me off because of how whole the meat pieces are. When I think about this, it is, of course, horribly hypocritical of me, because when I’m back in the supermarkets of the US, I make a beeline to the meat department and without any consideration pick out a plastic-wrapped package of chicken chunks or pork loins. In the US, the meat section of the store is so sanitized, so clean and sparkly, that it’s easy to forget that the little package of perfectly white, perfectly uniform, perfectly bone-free meat pieces actually came from an animal.
I think if most carnivorous people in the US saw the butcher shops in Kathmandu, they would likely feel the same way. There is blood, guts, hair and eyes. There are bones, tendons, organs and fat strips. Plastic wrapped, pre-sliced, pre-weighed meat packages do not exist here.
As a Westerner, it is easy to look upon the butcher shops here and think: “How dirty! What a bloody mess they are!” But, I think the fact that I am so put off by seeing large pieces of animal, with the heads intact, or that seeing a butcher slash away at a hanging goat carcass makes my stomach knot a bit is actually a reflection of the disconnect we Americans have with our meat. The distaste I feel at the open air butcher shops here is a negative reflection on my culture, not theirs.
Last summer I worked on two WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farms in Thailand. One farm in northern Thailand near Chiang Dao that I stayed at had a big business raising pigs. They had around 70 large pigs and would slaughter a few each week to sell at the market and eat themselves. I stood on, squeamishly, and watched the farmers slaughter a pig with a large, blunt machete. (Read the whole story here: “From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems”)
With gritted teeth, I observed as the farmers sliced open the pig’s belly, took out the organs and swiftly severed the head. I couldn’t help but think: “Gross!”
Shortly after the pig slaughter I was replaying the event in my head. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m an avid carnivore back at home. How can I think that an animal slaughter is ‘gross’?”
Seeing an animal slaughtered for food was completely new to me, but this made no sense because I’ve eaten animal meat my whole life. The farmers in Chiang Dao, Thailand, were actually shocked that I had never seen an animal killed before. For them, eating meat meant killing the animal themselves. For me, eating pig or goat or chicken in the US means going to the nice and neat meat aisle. I found that the farmers, who raise and slaughter, and then eat the pig themselves, had a much higher degree of respect for the animal and a much greater understanding of the food they ate. They ate almost every bit of the pig, including the blood and the organs: nothing went to waste. In the US, I’ve never seen an animal slaughter because this “dirty” work is done far, far away from my home, in a meat factory, probably in another state. I don’t know who kills the animals I eat, how the animals are killed or where my meat even came from in the first place. Is it imported from Mexico? Was it raised on a cow farm in Alabama? Was it raised on corn or grass? Was it injected with hormones and steroids? Who knows? This system makes no sense and when I consider it, is actually far more off-putting than seeing a locally grown, grass-fed animal slaughtered by the butcher, who also lives down the street from me.
So, as I walk by the butcher shops here in Kathmandu, and see the dead, glassy eyes of a recently slaughtered orange pig staring at me, I can’t help but stare back. The realness and the wholeness of the animals makes it difficult for me to order meat at the butcher shop to cook for myself, but I think this is not a negative reflection on Kathmandu butcher shops, it is a negative reflection on me and the food culture in my home country. It’s difficult for me to visit the butcher shops here because I am a product of a broken and disconnected food system in which people have no idea where their food comes from. As long as the food comes in a tidy little package, with no eyes, bones, tendons, or fat, I guess no one really cares.
Above: Recently slaughtered pigs in a row.
Above: The butcher slices and dices recently slaughtered pigs. When I look at this my first instinct is to think: “Gross!” In fact, it’s not gross at all, I’m just used to a food system that raises, slaughters and packages animals behind closed doors.
Above: A recently slaughtered pig. This pig was most likely raised locally, within the Kathmandu Valley.
Above: The butcher cuts up a pig into different pieces on one of the open air tables.
Above: An orange and bristly pig head at a butcher shop near Thamel, Kathmandu. Photo by: Rick McCharles
Above: Kathmandu residents line up to purchase meat at one of the local butcher shops. Photo by: John Pavelka