Our Food Culture:
Nepal’s food is just as diverse culturally as it is ethnically and geographically. Many of us need to learn about its richness and are less likely to learn about other cuisines than the ones we are familiar with. Although food is an integral part of a culture and has a profound relationship with it, more attention should be given to understanding, exploring, and promoting Nepali food culture. This is what defines us.
Over 100 ethnic communities exist in Nepal. Each has a unique food culture deeply rooted in its environment. Rice is now a typical staple food in all parts of Nepal, but it was only sometimes so, especially in the mountainous regions. Rice was a staple food in the hilly areas, but it wasn’t always so.
Others used locally-grown grains that were well-adapted to the terrain and low-fertile hills as their staple grains.
These traditional, nutritious grains should be more utilized. Rice is still considered a food of the rich and preferred over other grains. Rice has been flown to rural areas by donors and the government in recent decades. However, more needs to be done to promote local varieties that are healthier, more nutritious, and more sustainable.
Like other cultures, Nepali food is the center of all celebrations and festivals. This is evident more in the Newa community than anywhere else. The Newa culture is enriched by Bhoye, an elaborate Newa feast held during festivals, jars, and other special occasions. Its fertile valley, lively cross-border trade, and economically well-off past can explain the rich food culture. A Yomiuri, a steamed rice flour cake with chaku and sapumicha (buffalo tripe stuffed with bone marrow), are an example of Newa cuisine’s ingenuity. Buchika, an aromatic-nutty roasted peanut oil, is one of my favorite ingredients. Its flavor is still unknown to the rest of the world.
The greens of hilly communities are saved for the dry season, while members of the Tharu, and other southern plains communities, keep them for the monsoon. To make share, Taro leaves are combined with tiny dried fish and mixed with greens. For biriyani, greens are blended with lentil paste. Their food culture is heavily influenced by the floodplains where they live. For example, Tamang, Sherpa, and Tamang, eat fish, prawns, and mussels, but have simple flavors that are high in nutrition to sustain energy in harsh Himalayan regions. The Sherpa community makes winter soup with sun-dried green maize kernels and beans called phalgi. Tsampa is a mountain community staple that is made from roasted barley flour or naked barely. Thakali, a Thakkhola community in Mustang, uses a transitional style of cooking that combines both upper and lower mountainous cultures. Kirats are found in eastern hills and have wild lichen called yangben. This is used to cook Yangben Faska with pork. Wachipa is also made from the ashes of burned chicken inner feathers.
Cross-border trade and migration have also had an impact on Nepali cuisine. Newa traders, who had a strong trading and cultural relationship to Tibet, brought momo (meat dumplings), to Kathmandu. However they adapted the recipe to their own flavors and ingredients. They are loved greatly now. They also started to drink Tibetan butter tea. The Nepali food culture was further diversified by the influx of Tibetans to Nepal, particularly during the conflict in 1960s. The southern plains of Nepal share some of the same food culture as North India. Many Nepalis who emigrated from Burma to Nepal over the years have returned home with Burmese food. Since Muslims have settled in Nepal for many generations, they have created their own food culture and have contributed to Nepali culture. This has made the Nepali cuisine richer.
We are ignoring our ethnic food culture and heritage by embracing commercialized global cuisine. It is vital to promote Nepal’s diverse and rich food culture, not only for tourism, but also to preserve our unique heritage, history and culture for future generations. Understanding other cultures will allow us to appreciate and respect each other’s food and connect us on a level not possible with other things.