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Food blog #1 - a subject close to my stomach

As I sit thinking what to write, I'm in a small stone hut high up in the tiny "village" of Kyang (3,800m). I say "village" because all the villagers have deserted and gone to Nar or Phu for the summer, so it's more of a ghost village really. There is one small tea shop, which is where we are camped for the night. I'm warming myself on the wood stove while the hut owner fries some potatoes to go with our daal bhat (lentils, curry and rice). This will be the first of many daal bhats this week, as this is the national dish, eaten twice daily, and we have now trekked beyond the land of menus, spaghetti and apple pie.

On request a large helping of chilli has just gone into our potatoes, together with the cabbage. When you're trekking, food is one of the most important preoccupations of the day. We have progressed from having our own cook, Phurbar, in the Tsum Valley, where fried everything was the order of the day, to eating as the locals do. In the Tsum Valley, I'd never eaten so many chips or had such a longing for a plate of daal bhat . The only compensation was the occasional treats which substituted the neverending fried food, like pizza in Rainjam and chocolate cake in Lokpa. These were items of food we later dreamed about as the trek became more remote!

But at high altitudes it's difficult to beat a good daal bhat. It is not like the greasy Indian curries you find at home, and is therefore easier to digest at altitude. It also comes with an "all you can eat" clause. If you've ever seen a porter who has carried 30kgs up a mountain tuck into his own personal mountain of daal bhat it becomes clear why most Nepalis choose to eat nothing else. On our 10-day Tsum Valley trek alone, our porters carried and consumed a massive 150kgs of rice!!!

Ram with a valuable pressure cooker full of rice

Ram with a valuable pressure cooker full of rice

A plate of nutritious daal bhat
Is in no danger of making you fat
But I hadn't reckoned
On eating a second
Nor twice in one day, come to that.

No food blog would be complete of course, without a section on local delicacies. These are loosely defined as whatever is produced when Ram emerges from a smoky shack with a handful/cupful/bowlful of something suspicious and a triumphant "Here, try this!" The trek started well with some delicious samosas outside Arughat Bazar. Other wonders have included pickled cabbage and spicy dried mutton. You could tell when anyone had a mouthful of the latter, as they were still chewing it 15 minutes later!

En route to Ganesh Himal Base Camp (3,900m) we stopped at a yak herder's hut with a fire in the middle of the mud floor. I sat down by the fire to warm up, surrounded by huge drums of off-smelling milk. This turned out to be curd, which was offered to me in a soup bowl to gulp down. I took a small spoonful which swilled around my mouth like loose jelly, and I was on the verge of spitting it out when I realised that it tasted a bit like yoghurt. Still, seconds were not on the cards!

Vats of yak curd at a yak herder's hut in the Ganesh Himal

Vats of yak curd at a yak herder's hut in the Ganesh Himal

Milk develops into all sorts of forms in Nepal, including something called chirpi. This is a step on from curd. The moisture from the curd is extracted, and the remaining mild, cheese-like substance is then piped onto a large mat in big swirls and dried in the hot sun. You can then break off bits and eat them as a snack. I tried some but couldn't discern what it tasted of - not much was the conclusion! Once again, I didn't return for seconds.

Perhaps the most dangerous of Nepalese delicacies is the chilli pepper. Our cook Phurbar had an enormous jar of preserved chillis reserved for the porters to eat with their daal bhat. This is not westerners' food, but a pick-me-up in the evenings, especially when you're camping in freezing temperatures at 4,000m. Anyway, I was offered one of these delicious looking chillis. Thinking they would be the strength of Tesco's Finest, I popped one straight into my mouth, much to the consternation of Ram and the others in the food tent. Gasps and cries of "Not all at once!" made me spit it out before it was too late. It turns out that you are supposed to nibble delicately at the chillis. Not even our hardened porters dared chew one of these babies whole! So I duly followed suit and spent the next 15 minutes blowing my nose and wiping away the tears...

On the pepper front, we also tried fresh peppercorns. When I say fresh, I mean straight off the tree. They were growing near Rachen Gompa in the Tsum Valley. They are harvested in October and November, but they can still be eaten earlier. They are small red berries - you peel the skin off and then go for it. A strange sensation then ensues. Your tongue produces large amounts of saliva, and this lasts for about 20 minutes. Straight off the tree, peppercorns taste peppery hot, but fruity at the same time. For me, I prefer the dried version every time!

Also on the list of 'never to try again' goes packet chicken from Tibet. In Chhokhungparo a packet was shoved under my nose with the innocent sounding "Would you like some chicken?" I was greeted with a packet of pasty, wobbling wattle accompanied by a claw poking out the other side. I politely declined. Tibetan Tea is also on this list. Among the ingredients are yak butter, salt and milk. It tastes a bit like soup but without the vegetables or chicken, and there's not a smidgen of tea in sight.

One of the best surprises and most entertaining activities was shelling beans in Lho. Chris and I thought we'd help out with dinner preparations. All the locals muck in, usually to peel potatoes or chop garlic, on the proviso that approximately 5-10% reaches the helper's stomach before the plate! Anyway, I picked up a pod and popped it open to find that the beans inside were pink! Chris then opened another to find blue beans. Not just any old blue mind, think blue smarties! It turns out that Nepalese beans are really exciting... and come in all colours. The lady running the kitchen was so amused at our delight at the multi-coloured beans that she added a special portion to our fried potatoes that evening. I'm sorry to report that when cooked they return to a dull brown colour. However, they did taste good. For the record, the colours they came in were black, green, white, purple, bright blue, bright pink, white with pink spots, purple with pink spots and cream. Who said food prep was dull!

On the subject of strangely coloured food, Chris also discovered that porridge turns blue when iodine-treated water is added to it. This was valuable porridge too, as it was needed to power Chris up the Thorung La pass. There was great relief when on stirring, all returned to normal...

An evening's entertainment

An evening's entertainment

Posted by jparsons 00:19 Archived in Nepal Tagged food trekking nepal

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