Nepal is a fascinating, beautiful country, with a rich culture and tragic political situation. Its people are entrancing, and the food is stomach-expandingly good.
I've been there for about two months, volunteering most of the time and therefore lucky enough to be placed with homestay families, who live in a traditional Nepali way and eat traditional Nepali food.
A typical Nepali diet centres around the humble, and delicious dal bhat. Dal means lentils, and bhat means rice. It is fantastically wide-ranging and comes in many forms, from spicy and sour bean soups to thick and rich lentil curries, all accompanied with scrummy tarkari (vegetables) and pickles.
Twice a day, morning and evening, dahl baat is the national meal. People always ask me what the national dish of Scotland or Britain is and I have to apologetically explain that we don't really do food in quite the same way.
I am always faintly amused to see disbelief and bemusement when I say we eat different things all the time. And that maybe tea, toast and marmite are more our national culinary symbols than any sort of meal.
Growing to Eat
It is fascinating for them to understand my incredibly varied diet, and for me to understand their narrow yet tasty one, especially because this meal, dahl baat, is the product of Nepal's fields and gardens.
They eat it because they grow it.
We in Britain and in many other parts of the world, have lost touch with the productivity of the earth at our feet due to the wide availability of fruits, vegetables, fish and meats in a local supermarket. We eat whatever we fancy, because we can buy it. Our diets are no longer tied to our climate.
Being a Guest
Eating with my homestay families, besides fattening me up considerably and earning me the nickname Mutti Maya (fat Maya!), has allowed me to reflect on the differences in being served and cooked for vrs. cooking and eating for one's self.
I love cooking for myself, and actually even more so, cooking for others. I feel sort of impotent when I am kept out of the kitchen by Nepali hospitality where "Guest is God". At my family home, meals were cooked and eaten together, everyone helped, either in the preparation or the clear up afterwards. It is a very different atmosphere when meals are cooked, served and cleaned up entirely for you, and without your help. I suppose this is the difference between being a family member and being a guest but even so, I would LOVE to be involved sometimes!
It's even more challenging because it means I can't join in the December Challenge! Make sure you try it out - cooking 5 new recipes for yourself, yummy delicious culinary pioneering :D
Meals are Family Affairs
Here in Nepal, meals are family affairs. Some families gather together for each meal and others operate a more staggered approach. In my first homestay, the man of the house ate alone, and first. Then Swornima, the sister of the household and I ate whilst chatting and joking. The boys I was helping look after ate separately again, as I was needed to help feed them. And finally, the women, who do all the cooking, cleaning, housework and much of the gardening and veg cultivation, eat the leftovers together.
The topic of gender within Nepali deserves lengthy exploration but is the subject of discussion elsewhere as it has little to do with loneeating beyond this eating hierarchy. It has however caused a profound shift in my understanding of the nature of gender, and my position in the world.
Nepali family cooking certainly agrees with me and is very soothing and easy on the digestive system. However, now I am on my third placement, in an elderly care home in Pashupatinath, a sacred temple complex near Kathmandu, I am staying in the centre of town and back to taking meals in restaurants alone. It's funny really because having worked in restaurants since I was 14, I used to feel twinges of pity for loneeaters in Britain, but here I rather enjoy it. I bring a book, I take my time, and I savour each bite. It has instilled me with respect for the lone restaurant eaters. Go you! Defying social convention to treat yourself publicly.
Suffice to say I am definitely enjoying myself, and Nepal is certainly giving me a lot to think about, and a lot to eat! You can see what I'm doing via Instagram: @reidophile.