Published: October 16th 2009October 16th 2009
Right now a big festival is going on here in Kathmandu called Tihar. It’s the fun festival—the one where people, after the sacrifices of Dashain, can celebrate the good things in their lives, the world, and the future. Tihar lasts 5 days: kag puja, kukur puja, gaya puja/Laxmi puja, mha puja/Newari New Year, and Bhai Tika. Kag puja is a worship for crows, because crows are messengers that bring news. Kag puja is celebrated so that crows will only bring good news in the coming year. The next day, kukur puja, is for dogs, because dogs are loyal and hardworking and helpful to people. The next day, Gaya puja, is for cows, because cows are sacred animals with the essence of holiness. Gaya puja is also Laxmi puja, a day to worship Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. The whole city lights up on this night with Christmas lights and candles to beseech Laxmi to ensure success in the coming year. The next day is split between Brahmin/Chhetris and Newars; Brahmin/Chhetris do a legend-based religious celebration, and Newars celebrate the New Year with mha puja, a worship of the body. This is done to ensure good health in the coming year. The final day is the most important day: Bhai tika. Bhai means brother, and on this day sisters do worship for their brothers and cook them delicious foods. In return, brothers give their sisters gifts. The whole day is a big family celebration, and often men with many sisters have to go to all of their households for pujas.
Tihar is a time for fireworks and lights, and the whole city becomes beautifully decorated at night. On Bhai Tika there will be a big public parade where everybody can come out and celebrate together. Also, the water reservoir called Rani Pokhari will open for brothers who have no sisters; there they can do a puja to substitute for Bhai Tika. This is the only day that Rani Pokhari opens to the public. Another great tradition associated with Tihar is called ‘Diusi Re’, and it involves groups of people going from door to door and playing special Tihar music to bring the households good luck. Big bands of Diusi Re fill the streets and sing and play the special Tihar music. The households like it because it brings luck, and they give the musicians money and candy in return. It’s quite a bit like Christmas Caroling.
I promised a food entry, so here it is. The main, staple food here is a dish called ‘daal bhat tarkari,’ and it consists of a mountain of white rice (bhat), a portion of stewed vegetables (tarkari), and a lentil soup sauce (daal). The tarkari is usually made from potatoes, tomatoes, onions, chilies, and cauliflower, but variations are possible. It’s served warm, is generally yellowish in color, and the sauce sticks to the vegetables. It can be spicy or salty to taste. The daal is a soupy, mealy, bitter, light green liquid made of lentils that is poured over the rice (bhat) before eating. Daal bhat tarkari is meant to be eaten with the hands. First, you separate a little bit of bhat from the big, hot, bhat mountain for mixing and quick cooling. You then pour some daal over your small portion of bhat, and mix in a couple tarkari vegetables. After mixing it well with your hand (generally right hand) by squeezing it around a little bit, you pick some up, cradle it in the first joints of your cupped fingers, bring it to your mouth, and push it in with your thumb. You then keep replenishing your mixing portion with more bhat, daal, and tarkari, and repeat (seemingly endlessly) until you have eaten more rice than you previously thought possible.
Daal bhat tarkari is the main dish, but there are many variations that are possible as well. Sometimes you can be served a portion of cold, spicy, pickled vegetables called achar. This might have cucumbers, squash, chilies, onions, or other such vegetables cut into small chunks and coated in a spicy, vinegary sauce. I’ve had some really good achar that reminded me of Mexican salsa. Sometimes you might also be served a little dish of stewed, unidentifiable meat chunks. Generally chicken, mutton, or buffalo (water buffalo), these chunks are immersed in a greasy liquid with chilies and other spices. When in the middle of a meal, it is not culturally acceptable to refill your own plate (you eat with your hands, so your hands would make the community food polluted). Instead, it’s somebody’s job to come around periodically and refill your plate for you, and this person will always assume that you are much hungrier than you actually are. To keep from receiving more food, it’s necessary to put your hands over your plate and say ‘poogyo’ (enough/full/arrived). Dessert is generally a sweet curd, like thick yogurt, also eaten with hands.
The Newari ethnic group, the people who originally inhabited the Kathmandu Valley, have their own repertoire of spicy, salty, savory snacks and dishes that add variety to the standard daal bhat. One of my favorites is battered, boiled, and fried slices of buffalo lung. It’s difficult to prepare—first the lungs need to be inflated and filled with a floury, eggy batter, then boiled. After boiling they are cut into thin square chunks, fried, and spiced for serving. The buffalo lung, I found out, is what I was really eating in my previous entry as described as ‘a fusion of bread and meat.’ Sometimes, some people don’t like to tell me what I’m really eating. The lung has an aftertaste that is reminiscent of French toast. Another fun Newari food is something that was served me during a birthday celebration; it looked like sliced, lightly fried mushroom. I asked what it was, and my friend told me to eat it before he would tell me. It sounds a little bit risky, but everybody was eating it, and it was served to me on a plate of food, so I went ahead and ate it. It tasted like mushrooms. It was actually buffalo brain. The final weird food that I had that night was blackened, hard fried pieces of buffalo intestine. Other, less exotic Newari foods include beaten rice (rice that’s been flattened with a hammer—it’s dry, but it absorbs sauce, and it looks like oats), a bready pancake made of daal, ginger peanuts with dried soybeans, straw-smoked spiced bits of general buffalo meat, and different kinds of achar.
Nepalis also have their own kinds of home-brew alcohol. The hard stuff is called rakhsi, and it’s just rice moonshine. Experts can make it really well and spice it with cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, ginger, etc., and amateurs can make it really badly so that its rightful place should be in a chemistry lab storage area rather than a dinner glass. The less hard stuff is called chang, and it’s a brewed, bubbly drink similar to beer. It is also made from rice, and the final product looks a cloudy white color, and tastes a little bit like sweet wine. The good stuff tastes like sweet wine, and the bad stuff can be really sour. Both are accepted as a cherished part of Nepali culture, and not demonized as black market commodities like American home-brew is.