Fresh boiled corn, slow cooked over a fire
The summer crop of maize, to be harvested in the months of Jyeshta through Asar, was due.
The permaculture farm belonging to Hom Maya Gurung and her husband Bhuwan Khadka lies across the Bheri River, in a small village a few hours’ drive from Surkhet Bazaar in western Nepal. The view becomes lush as the tarred roads of the East-West highway and the bustling bazaars are replaced by hillside settlements and sal forests. Their farm is singular, a landmark in the agrarian community of Gumi municipality. So much so that the neighbouring farmers instinctively direct a foreigner with a backpack, or the rare car that takes the long detour around the river bend to arrive in Gumi, in its direction.
Their land is marked by a bubbled boundary wall of rounded river stones picked from the shores of the Bheri. It curves subtly into a driveway defined by a dense canopy of trees, which could be mistaken for part of the forest beyond if not for the boundary wall. There are trees for fruit, for fodder and for firewood. The forms of the lush foliage gradually shrink from trees to shrubs to creepers and climbers all the way down to grass as one approaches the house.
The couple and their teenaged daughter Shrijana chimed this cheerful and familiar greeting in unison, their palms joined in a namaste. They’d incorporated this practice into all their trainings to promote the most basic principle of permaculture – “The home is the heart of the farm, all hail to this engine!”
Their farmstead and home are a popular pilgrimage for budding practitioners and permaculture experts alike – the former to make a case study of best practice or to attend a permaculture design course run by the couple, the latter primarily to discuss the bearings of the future of the movement. The highlight of everyone’s visit, with no exception, is the food Hom Maya prepares from farm-fresh produce.
I was shown straight to their kitchen. It was a meticulously maintained room with neatly arranged bottles and bags full of food – grains, pulses, spices, herbs, sundried fruits and flowers harvested from this very piece of land, as well as some souvenirs from the couple’s travels across the country. The dining table where we sat was set adjacent to a window that opened out into the depths of their farm, essentially a frame for all the activities that led up to the meal that would follow.
Hom Maya brought out a plate of boiled corn, glistening beneath the rising steam that engulfed everything around it in a delicate, saccharine mist. The pale-yellow cob was an indigenous dwarf variety with smaller sized grains, compared to the jumbo-sized cobs with perfect rows of bright yellow kernels on the market. It had a characteristic imperfection due to its uneven rows, visually the antithesis of what one sees in the supermarkets of Kathmandu, or anywhere else in the world.
As I bit into it, I couldn’t help but compare it to every other variety of corn I’d eaten until then. It was tender and juicy, its distinct sweetness surely testimony to terroir – the microclimate that contributed to its flavours – the soil, the water, the manure, and the environment. I was sure that the person serving it, too, made all the difference.
Among the first things that struck me about life on this off-grid farm was the strong aroma and flavour of everything on offer, compared to their city counterparts.
Toilet and kitchen wastes were collected into a biogas digester – an efficient subterranean infrastructure designed to convert human waste into natural fertiliser for farming. The by-product of this system not only produced usable bio-fuel connected to the kitchen stove but also generated heat, which was trapped with water tubes for showers. On a drizzly afternoon, we gathered in the kitchen over a cup of a herbal decoction brewed over the biogas stove’s blue-yellow flame.
“Tulsi is great when the seasons are changing,” Hom Maya said, passing around an aromatic cup of tea infused with holy basil, a fixture in homes across Nepal. There was a use for each and every plant in her kitchen garden and farm.
As we watched the drizzle, sitting by the window, she recollected childhood memories of her closeness to nature, and healing with herbs. She spoke of her grandfather, a traditional herbal medicine-based healer and a respected elder in their village. She owed to him much of her knowledge of foraging for wild greens and tree parts such as leaves and bark for home remedies. “My father learned from him, and I from my father, but much is forgotten through the generations,” she said.
She reflected on her training days as a young permaculturist when she was deployed to rural communities across western Nepal. She was selected to lead a programme focusing on the traditional practices of plant medicine, and developed her expertise via documentation and analytical thinking. This involved rigorous surveys and questionnaires in the villages – a systematic approach she hadn’t used before, especially with regard to herbal medicine. I wondered why she considered that this Westernised system of documentation lent validation to her existing knowledge of foraging.
She was proud to have helped structure and consolidate the field study into a handbook for rural women through the synthesis of her heritage and line of work. Not only did this experience lend her a sense of familiarity with colloquial plants and remedies early on in her practice, it also bridged her rich culture with the perma-principles of mobilising local resources in all aspects of living off the land. “Permaculture has in many ways embraced traditional farming,” she said, affirming my speculation.
The rains had brought a flurry of pastel mushrooms to the farm. We picked them to mix into the morning soups or lunchtime vegetable preparations.
“I enjoy all forms of food but I’ve got a soft spot for seasonal foraged mushrooms. My husband worries that someday I might succumb to a poisonous one!” Hom Maya burst into a giggle.
Her kitchen shelf was a cool, softly sunlit space neatly stacked with repurposed plastic bottles displaying the range of her home-grown spices and ingredients. She brought out a muslin wrap from the back of the shelf. It had two pieces of dried mushrooms which she gently placed on her palm. “I went out in the early hours of the morning to find these during one of my trainings in remote west Nepal,” she said.
I flinched when I brought it closer to my nose. It had a sharp, funky cheese smell that took me by surprise. I’d expected a more reassuring umami, the earthy aroma associated with most edible fungi. The shrivelled brown hide happened to be that of the rare stinkhorn mushroom, Phallus indusiatus.
“It’s meant to be cooked in milk and can be dried and reused,” she said as she took them back from me, seemingly having anticipated my reaction.
“This is a medicinal mushroom and the locals swear by its healing properties. They prepare a rejuvenating drink by rehydrating it in warm milk.” She’d learned this from a local from the village, who suspected her of being a Maoist at first for wanting to explore the jungle alone, but befriended her upon learning about her love for foraging.
“I’d arrived too late in the season, the local told me. Most of the mushrooms had already been harvested and sold at the closest bazaar. They claim that it can sell for up to 40,000 rupees for less than half a kilo,” she said.
“The Chinese have inflated the value for this mushroom over the past few years. The people from the local communities rarely consume it nowadays because they see more value in selling it,” she added with a disapproving shrug. The crux of a permaculture programme, specifically the one they conducted in this village, was focused on promoting local, indigenous varieties of produce. However, the increasing trend of green shopping has been a blow to the rich cultural heritage of growing, preparing and consuming vernacular foods.
I couldn’t understand the obsession over a stinky mushroom. I wasn’t interested in tasting it.
Smoky bean broth
Hom Maya and Bhuwan-ji awoke at dawn and started their farm chores by five o’clock. The sounds of their routine in those early hours were gentle and synchronised. The crisp cracking of firewood underfoot, to be fed to the traditional outdoor mud stove. The movements of the big barrels around the stove to heat the cattle’s morning kholé – a mixture of leftover food, with some flour and shredded cereal stalks cooked to a pulpy stew to warm them in the chilly morning mist. The enthusiastic clucking of the hens upon being fed after the long, warm night. These coordinated and rhythmic sounds served as a gentle wake-up alarm for guests to make their way to the stove, around which the morning meal was usually had.
Shrijana and Junu, a niece who lived with them, did their bit too. They prepared breakfast on the mud stove behind their kitchen. This meal was usually planned the night before if it involved legumes or dried corn, since this had to be soaked. Their first task in the morning would then be to skim off the water from the soaking pot, which was left on the fire while the family collectively went about its morning routine.
The granary, with stores of grain and flour in big sacks, was attached to this outdoor stove. The back of the granary housed the cattle shed, a large wall of freshly cut fodder separating the cooking area from the livestock. All members of the family worked untiringly to keep this wall stacked at all times. This layout made it easy to stock up and feed the cattle at regular intervals.
This area was separated from the house by a narrow open strip punctuated by a cylindrical structure, the inlet to their biogas system. It had a rotating handle and a small hole where leftover kitchen wastes and cow dung were blended into the waste collection pit. The outlet of this subterranean system was orientated towards the vegetable patch on the other side of the kitchen. The soil was fed back all that emerged from the biogas unit after being digested for many months, and the cycle was complete.
From farm to table, and back to the farm.
When a fruit was broken open or bit into, the family meticulously separated peels, seeds and flesh. They all had their designated roles and zones: this added up to ‘zone zero’ of the farm. Permaculture farm design considers the house to be the centre, and subsequent activity-based zones to ripple out in concentric circles. The proximity of the house to the kitchen garden, granary, pantry, cattle shed and tool shed, used on a daily basis, was human-centric in its design approach. The stove area doubled as the morning meeting place, where Hom Maya and Bhuwan-ji planned their day over breakfast.
“Today we invite the neighbours’ oxen over and prepare the land for rice planting…the storms have brought down the big tree in the forest, we’ve got to bring it back this time, it’s our turn…how are we to do it without that noisy chainsaw they used…I’ll let my brothers-in-law know…their big saw will do it,” their conversation streamed on.
Efficiency seemed to be their religion. This was just a teaser to the meticulous organisation that the family farm was run on, and it whet my appetite to learn more about this layered system.
A steaming bowl of red kidney beans and corn soup warmed my hands and stomach in the morning mist. The dried corn and bean from the previous year’s harvest were customarily soaked overnight, and the beans had been boiling for hours. “This ensures they are easier to digest,” Hom Maya explained.
The soup was very complex in flavour, despite being seasoned only with a pinch of salt. It had a variety of textures going on too, with some beans disintegrating in the slow cooking process and lending a melt-in-the-mouth, buttery purée consistency, and some still holding their shape. The corn was slightly firm, giving the jaw a good wake-up workout. The broth itself was delicate, with flavours from the cooking liquids of the beans and the corn, and sweet, savoury, and smoky from being cooked over the fire for hours.
Hom Maya prepared a round of salty butter tea soon after, using butter from their buffalo and some rock salt she’d brought back home from their travels in the higher Himalayan villages. A lasting savouriness kept me company all day long.
Foraged greens in mulberry vinegar
Hom Maya was unlike a typical woman farmer from the village, both in appearance and ideals. She wore pants even at home and on her farm, unlike her neighbours and sisters, who donned the traditional kurta or sari. “An oddity in her own hometown,” I thought to myself.
She didn’t bear any of the symbols or ornaments of marriage either, like the tikā on the forehead, bangles, earrings, or a beaded necklace. We were similar in this respect, and this was the basis of the affectionate bond that we shared. Or so I assumed. She seemed to effortlessly manoeuvre between being a farmer, a wife, a mother and a teacher. I aspired to be more like her when I grew older.
Their daughter Shrijana, all of thirteen years of age, cared for her own little nursery of flowers and cacti. She was familiar with most of the plants on their farm and their specific uses. She maintained a handwritten log at the back of a notebook of all these plants, and the count went up to sixty. She often trailed behind her father or mother, looking like a smaller version of them, with similar apparel and carrying the same tools. Her parents encouraged her to learn from their practice.
One Saturday morning, when she was enjoying her day off from school, Shrijana offered me some sundried mulberries. She had picked them from the trees along the edges of their demarcated land-zones. She didn’t differentiate the ones still on the tree from the ones fallen to the ground. I tried one of the shrunken, black, dried berries and noted how much like raisins they tasted. They were one of her favourite snacks and she often munched on them after school or during breakfast.
Shrijana went to a government school during the day, and helped out on the farm and in the kitchen after doing her homework. She also accompanied her parents on their trainings sometimes. Her access to learning was not limited to the local school but was supplemented and enhanced by her travels across Nepal with her parents. She skipped school during those weeks but the teachers always obliged since she was a top performer in class. Additionally, she was continually exposed to other forms of knowledge through the guests who visited her parents from near and far. Diversity in learning is much needed too, I thought to myself.
When spring is at its peak, the mulberry plants put out a purple bouquet of sweet, granular berries. They evolve over the weeks, shifting from tart green to sour red and finally to sweet purple. They are popularly enjoyed in two ways. As is, or macerated with a sprinkling of chilli powder, salt and sugar to make a sour-sweet-spicy relish.
Hom Maya processed the mulberry into juice and then wine once everybody had had their fill of the ripe fruit. Her Western friends and colleagues who visited their farm seemed to love this fermented berry juice.
She had run out of wine but brought out an old bottle with a deep purple liquid in it. “Kimmu vinegar”, she said. “Vinegar is formed when wine is stored through the changes in temperatures around the year. The next stage of fermentation.”
We shared a delectable salad at midday, seated on the floor of their cool corridor. A plateful of salad leaves, mostly rocket leaves dressed in tangy mulberry vinegar. “Seeds from friends,” she explained.
We’d been going out to the farm in the evening lately to avoid the blazing afternoon sun. We were to plant beans in a patch behind their kitchen. This wasn’t a clean, brown patch of soil. There were already some bushes, trees and climbers weaving an intricate web on it, some flowering, some fruiting. There were also a few remaining cornstalks which bore young bulbs. There were many butterflies, worms and insects visible amidst the foliage of varying heights, colours, textures and smells, bearing food for everyone.
Amidst this thriving patch, Hom Maya demonstrated while Shrijana, Junu and I watched. One hand holds the seeds, while the other makes deep holes in the soil with an index finger. The hand with the seed slides one seed into the hole and the other brushes the soil back in in circular motions. Thus, a complex grid is mapped organically, sowing around existing plants.
All living beings, even microorganisms, were held to be holy and known to be beneficial to the farmland. Dexterity was key – it wasn’t a mindless routine of nuking the fields, impregnating them and harvesting them with eyes closed. We had to distinguish between harmful and harmless bugs, look out for leaves showing signs of mildew or fungus attack, gently move earthworms and keep an eye out for other pests. The snails were most evident, moving slowly from plant to plant, leaving a slimy trail behind them.
I’d read about permaculture being non-violent and inclusive, prescribing ingenious ways to deal with pest-related problems on the farm. When I brought up the snails and asked her how she dealt with them Hom Maya said, “Initially, we tried to painstakingly pick them by hand and release them into the forest. Additionally, we tried to deter them by sprinkling salt on them, but they outnumbered us and it wasn’t a very effective long-term approach. Finally, the most effective solution we came up with was to bury them in a pit, which adds value to our soil when they decompose.”
She’d come up with a creative solution the previous summer when one of her students from Portugal taught her a traditional snail dish. She described how they first collected the snails and thoroughly washed them to get rid of any sand or soil. They set them in a pot with water and slowly let the water heat up. This top tip, she pointed out, made all the difference. “If you put them in boiling water, they shrink into their shells and the only way to get the meat out is to crush the shell and it gets messy. This method with the slow heat creates an illusion of warm water and once it comes to a boil, they slowly die. The meat is easy to pull out with a fork.”
She conceded she was the only one amongst her family members to have tried the dish – broiled snails from their farm, sautéed in garlic oil.
Shrijana was listening to this story and her nose crinkled up. “My friends mocked me when I said my mother ate a snail once.”
Hom Maya replied, not looking at her in particular, without a trace of emotion, “Well, you ought to tell them it’s good for our health and is full of protein.”
She had thought long and hard about this yearly infestation. Her ingenious idea was to encourage locals to try snail meat by encasing it in a sheet of dough and steaming the dumplings – voila! Snail momos. “I’d call the enterprise shankhé kira momo pasal” – snail momo shop.
What she was suggesting hit upon two related points: entomophagy – the ethnic tribal practice of consuming insects – and the ethnocentrism that this and other traditional practices are subject to. On many occasions, Hom Maya elaborated on traditional food habits that are fading in rural Nepal. Locally available wildflowers and tubers, berries and bugs, which are seasonal and need to be foraged, have been neglected because a majority aspire to eating dāl bhāt – rice and lentils – twice a day. Consequently, agrarian communities have seen a rise in malnutrition and lifestyle diseases. The more homogenised eating patterns become, the more monotonous the tastes experienced by the palate, and the harder it is to get sufficient nutrients. Diversity in food ensured a nutritionally balanced diet all year round. This was supported by diversity in agriculture. Hom Maya demonstrated the palpable correlation between these three factors every day, with every meal.
She was sure that the momo idea would be less intimidating visually and culturally and concluded, “A sense of the familiar will take over.”
First main course
The dāl bhāt dilemma
Rice planting is still a communal farm activity in Nepal wherein neighbouring farmers exchange labour (locally called ‘parma’) or pay a daily wage. This is the busiest time of the year, and the transplanting of the rice seedlings needs to be planned carefully. On flat land such as Hom Maya’s, it is relatively easy to prepare the soil before this big event. It is weeded and examined for pests such as snails or other ‘harmful’ bugs. This is also the time to introduce compost and manure.
This year, Hom Maya’s immediate family network of maternal aunts, sisters and nieces came to offer their timely help. They readied the land in a couple of hours. It was like watching a colony of ants at work. Everyone knew precisely what was to be done. Hom Maya switched between working with them, to directing the order of the events, to making sure they didn’t get distracted with too much gossiping. She also took time to organise breaks and snacks for them.
Their trajectory was radial, the house being the centre of the land. They started at the biogas outlet to collect the biofertiliser, and then moved to the shed to incorporate fresh manure, which was carried to the readied farmland. Finally, they took a break under the shade of the fruit trees at the edge of the land. They drank water and ate freshly picked plums before they continued.
When I quizzed these women about whether they followed permaculture practices on their own farms, they shrugged and said, “We can’t do everything Hom Maya does. We only do whatever we can without thinking too much.”
This provided much insight into the complexity of designing and managing a permaculture farm. It requires familiarity with the planting and growth cycles of various plants, and making sure there are appropriate overlaps. This process ensures a beneficial phenomenon known as ‘companion planting’, wherein one plant aids the growth of the other rather than compete with it, promising two or sometimes three crop harvests instead of one. A well-known example is that of beans planted close to corn and melons. The bean is a climber and requires support, which is provided by the corn. The bean also fixes nitrogen in the soil required by the corn and melon. The melon grows horizontally, creating leaf-shade and a natural mulch layer when it sheds its leaves. This creates a self-sustaining system, and the farmer can be sure to harvest all three crops when they mature.
In contrast to this, the other women planted corn, beans and pumpkins separately, sometimes using urea to boost their growth. Not only does the use of this chemical cost them money, it needs to be physically hauled on their backs from the shop in the bazaar to their farms, taxing their health and pockets all at once.
The bio-factory of Hom Maya and Bhuwan-ji worked slightly differently to ensure abundance while adding to the health of the soil and the people who worked on the farm. Seeds were to be saved and dated. Select plants were to be multiplied by air-layering, grafting and creating greenhouses or nurseries. The couple kept a register and also used their laptop to ensure all the hard work on their farm was constantly documented and up to date. Studying the health of the plants, animals and humans over recurring cycles was key in structuring or redesigning planting patterns or zones. Hom Maya also believed in speaking to one’s plants – “it promotes their wellbeing and aids their growth,” she said.
The family’s rice reserves lasted them through the year, enough to feed guests, visitors, volunteers and neighbours on special occasions. Quality and quantity both were of utmost importance. Their farm wasn’t a mere demonstration ground, it was proof that diversity in planting ensured food security at a household level.
Each meal I ate was fresh, abundant, nutritious and different to the next. In the fortnight that I spent with Hom Maya’s family, I was never offered the same vegetable or greens preparation twice. And it was not just because I was their guest; they generally ate this way.
Her familiarity with lesser-known vegetables and greens, and experience in cooking with them came from her upbringing in a Gurung family. She recalled being sent to the forest fringes to collect fodder and seasonal greens. Marrying into a Chhetri family surely brought about some changes in her diet. She would cook the familiar ‘dāl-bhāt-tarkāri-achār’ (lentils-rice-vegetable-pickle) meal that her husband and daughter preferred at least once a day, balancing it out with an alternative meal earlier or later in the day. With the exception of salt, everything on their plate came from the piece of land they tended – the oil, the spices, the lentils, the rice, the millet, and the herbs.
Junu’s skilful wrists swiftly churning the pestle into a bunch of herbs and toasted spices was a regular sight-smell-and-sound experience at the back of the kitchen. The flat mortar and rounded pestle clicked in rhythm, churning out velvety aromatic pastes – a teaser to the fresh sauce or lentil preparation in the making.
One afternoon, we ate a seasonal delicacy of fire-roasted fiddlehead fern (niuro) and edible flowers (guroun) that we’d picked before heading back to the kitchen. Ground to a pulp, it was refreshing and light with a hint of salt and garlic to enhance its smokiness. Lentils were cooked down with taro leaf (gaba/karkalo), forming a satin-green stew. The slow cooking process always brought out a delicate range of tastes, developed slowly with a gentle flame. It grew more complex, by the minute, as if the ingredients were having a conversation with time.
These dishes were accompanied by a reassuring mound of steaming rice, with a slightly reddish skin from being gently de-husked. It was presented to us in thick hand-beaten copper plates, which Hom Maya had inherited from her in-laws on the occasion of her wedding. “This I requested as a keepsake from my father-in-law,” she told me, the only heirloom she’d asked for since moving into her husband’s house.
I looked forward to the squeak of her kitchen door over the remainder of the days I spent there. It always meant a special treat was on its way.
“We love to eat githā (wild tubers) some days. It’s not considered ‘food’ per se. Some people consider it tasteless but it is very subtle, without any particular flavour.”
Hom Maya explained the process of harvesting the wild yam tubers that sprout in the rainy seasons and how they were traditionally stored underground for many months. This tuber is taken out from its subterranean chamber and tossed in the embers of a dying coal fire to cook slowly for a couple of hours. It is then washed and peeled before being sliced and kept in warm water. “Some prefer to steam them,” she said.
It had an ever so slightly nutty flavour. We enjoyed it as an accompaniment to some of her homemade millet alcohol.
“Some women in the villages (where we went for training) showed me how they stored these sliced tubers in a vat of alcohol. They absorb the alcohol over weeks. Eating a few slices of these submerged tubers provides the same high as drinking a few glasses of the alcohol itself,” she added.
The plainness of the yam presented many possibilities for preparing and consuming it. It is said that during anikāl, or bouts of food scarcity, this dish was consumed by remote rural communities to keep going. The ability to identify and store these wild spuds in season is a timely investment for some, and a matter of ‘a change in taste’ for others.
Second main course
Pumpkin momos with leftover tarkāri
The first rains of the monsoon arrived one night. Their rainwater harvest system – a rectangular tank, about a metre deep and built on a raised terrace above ground level – began to fill up. Shrijana and her cousins gathered on the following Saturday afternoon, excited to be able to enjoy a swim. She picked out a pair of dried butternut squashes (chinno) connected by a rope dangling by their door. She tied the rope around her waist and the squashes hung from her hips. As she climbed over the rim of the tank, she looked at us and said, “I’m still learning”.
Hom Maya acknowledged her daughter’s endeavour: “She’s wanted to learn to swim for a while. Chinno is so versatile, Shijju uses it as a float.”
“I use it as a seed bank to store seeds after removing its pulp and drying it out in the sun. It makes for a great container, if you keep the top bit too! I’ve even developed a technique of planting saplings in halved, dried and defleshed squash shells, to create an alternative to the polybags we’ve used in our nursery. You can put the entire thing in the ground. It will decompose and be part of the soil! You should take these seeds back to your farm,” she said, giving me a handful of seeds from a squash bottle.
She also brought out a pumpkin that had been lying on their balcony, absorbing the heat for several months. Its golden flesh, carved out for the day’s vegetable dish, resembled a prized cut of meat. It was cooked to a pulpy stew and we enjoyed it as part of our dāl bhāt meal. Shrijana however refused to eat dāl bhāt on a Saturday. Possibly craving something her mother would surely disapprove of. A snack from the bazaar perhaps?
I empathised with both their points of view and came up with an idea. I invited her to make some momos using the leftover pumpkin mash as a filling. She seemed to like the idea and Hom Maya didn’t mind her skipping lunch.
(colostrum, yoghurt, butter and buttermilk)
“Buttermilk is the elixir of life,” Bhuwan ji announced as we chugged glasses of it one blazing hot afternoon.
Hom Maya’s sister, who lived close by, also cared for the buffaloes. They followed an alternating cycle of collecting milk from different buffaloes. Their calves were let free, and were to be fed first. They prioritised the natural cycle over the popular practice of regularly impregnating and milking buffaloes to sell milk in the bazaar. Their kitchen was intermittently filled with the rich aroma of yoghurt and clarified butter or ghee. I was even presented with colostrum – the thick milk the buffalo produces after delivering the calf. It was buttery, off white and gelatinous. It was so rich, almost a meal unto itself!
“People have given up caring for bovines altogether, they now have shifted to broiler (caged) chicken farming. It’s just more profitable,” Bhuwan ji said, “But even to this day, when somebody dies, our neighbours come in search of our buffalo’s milk or dung for the ceremonies that follow.” This growing gap between modern aspirations and the traditional bearings of the village folk presented a worrying image, a loss of identity of sorts in younger generations who invariably migrate either to study or work.
“They have replaced a multi-purpose animal who ploughs, creates compost, is part of the cycle of nutrition and is symbolic of wealth and health in many cultures, with a tractor… which pollutes, is expensive, and has no cultural meaning,” he added.
We shared the last spoonful of the clotted colostrum, deciding to focus on the birth of a new member of their farm. My palate was coated with a rich veneer of fatty, buttery creaminess.
Sugar-free energy balls
In my days familiarising myself with the family’s way of life, I realised they did not use any sugar. Yet I’d have sweet herbal teas and honeyed breads. One meal paired stevia-sweetened tea with barley balls (called tsāmpā in the higher mountains).
Hom Maya had exchanged seeds with some participants and grown this barley on their farm as an experiment, creating or choosing the right conditions for the crop over the span of a couple of years. The barley was toasted and then milled in the local mill before being entrusted to their pantry in jute bags. She had collected the honey from another participant who had a hive in their village. This special butter tree (or, locally, chiuri tree) honey, a seasonal delicacy from the Terai region, is collected when the bees are pollinating its flowers. It was mixed with flour and water to form a dough. It was then formed into little balls and eaten immediately or packed for Shrijana’s noontime snack in a tiffin box.
I felt honoured to be able to taste these handpicked seasonal delicacies and enjoy them in the freshest, simplest preparation. My taste buds were more sensitive to white sugar after I left the farm.
Walnuts from Humla with Pu’erh tea
“I’m always curious about food. Even if I’m in a stranger’s house, I go straight to their kitchen to learn or cook something for them,” Hom Maya said, as we sat washing dishes by the water tank. We used a mix of ash from the wood stove and some sand to make a natural dishwashing solution. The scrub was made from repurposed old sacks cut into neat rectangles.
She invited me to the stove. “Isn’t it a bit too early to cook?” I thought to myself.
“I got this tea cake in one of our Humla trainings,” she said, bringing out a circular disc wrapped in muslin. Humla is a district in far western Nepal bordering Tibet, with a distinct cultural mix of Nepali and Tibetan practices.
It was an aromatic Pu’erh style fermenting wheel of tea leaves – a traditional Chinese style of preserving tea leaves after hand rolling them, by alternating between oxidation and fermentation. She fondly remembered how the participants presented her with this traditional tea cake, which they prepared with butter and rock salt from the Himalayas in a wooden cask. She was humbled by their gesture of honouring her.
“They traded sheep’s wool or woven sheep’s wool blankets for this tea cake from across the China border. It is a wonderful souvenir, a thing to remember the village by,” she said, smiling.
We huddled close to the outdoor stove and drank our tea. It had a slight pungency to it but the sour flavour was not overpowering.
“I am leaving early tomorrow morning,” I told her. She hurried back to her room and brought out a small pouch and said, “We will go to Humla together next time. Something for you to look forward to.”
Small brown nuggets. Shelled walnuts.
I readied myself to head back to the city, careful to pack all the goodies I had been gifted through my stay. We sat on her doorstep and watched a great flock of birds come into their farm at sunset.
“It is one thing to be practising permaculture as a family or a person, it is deeply satisfying. But the results are more meaningful and magnified when a whole community takes it upon itself to live well. The hardest part is to bring a change in the perception of the people more than anything else,” Hom Maya said, addressing the stark reality that she is the one true practitioner in her neighbourhood. An oddity in her own hometown, not the revered permaculture activist that the outside world knows her as.
It was evident that her practice was not a mere revolution in agriculture but also a sharp blow to conventions and tradition in the cultural sense.
I was reminded of a quote from the revolutionary Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, which encapsulates his theory of no-till natural farming.
“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
I couldn’t wait to bring to my own practice everything that I’d absorbed in the time I’d spent with Hom Maya. I promised to revisit her to continue our conversations and enjoy her delectable food.
We shared the walnuts that she held out on her palm before hugging me goodbye, and we parted ways on a bitter-nutty note.
A Twelve-course Meal, by Pranathi, was written as part of the 2018 La.Lit Writer’s Fellowships in Nonfiction: New Ethnographic Writing, which was organized by La.Lit in partnership with the Open Institute. Each year, the fellowship supports aspiring writers to immerse themselves in a field context to capture facets of the societies, cultures, religions and environments we live in.