Let’s spit out the cliché: you are what you eat. What, then, are we? A garden of flowers nodding in the wind, obediently drawing up the nutrients we have been allotted by caste and creed? A nation of voracious mlechha lost to the addictions of all-out consumption, for whom nothing and no one is taboo? Our culinary reality, so integral to our sense of who we are as individuals, communities and Nepalis, is a patchwork, and if the tendency has been towards a loosening of the strictures that governed our eating habits, traditions are retained, enhanced and lost in a bewildering variety of ways.
As I write this, I’m in a village in Syangja, an hour south of Pokhara. And the throwback to rurality that I experienced in the first week here was an eye-opener. The westernization of my food habits never diverted me very far from the comforts of dalbhat, but 10.30 lunches and 6.30 dinners, supplemented with hearty khājā and twice-daily steel mugs of hot buffalo milk and a constant supply of oranges are a reminder of the old days. This may seem unremarkable to some of our urban, Nepali readers, but that too underlines my point. We are changing, we are unchanging.
La.Lit’s Food Issue reflects this variegated landscape, shifting between hidebound tradition and radical invention, and the tussles that result when food goes far beyond meeting daily calorific requirements to identifications of culture, community and the nation. Several contributors contest the very notion of tradition. Often this is in the eye of the beholder or, indeed, the holder of power. Amish Raj Mulmi, Kaustav Bannerjee and Garga Chatterjee strip away the pretensions that allow the dominant classes in Nepal and India to posit their culture as that of the nation; in Nepal, portrayed as an asal Hindustan by successive Arya-Khas rulers since the late 18th century, cow-slaughter is held to be a crime; in India, where beef and pork are reviled by a minority acting like a majority the University has emerged as a battleground; and in Bengal, East and West, minority foods struggle to find a space beyond the domestic as entire cuisines are appropriated and repackaged by the Delhi imperium.
There’s no doubt that food is more than just food. In the memories it holds of home, it often takes centre-stage in the lives of those who have settled elsewhere. Premila van Ommen charts the evolution of Nepali cuisine beyond north Indian simulacrums in Greater London, and makes a few surprising discoveries herself. Food is about social relations, and in the fantastical prose of Stevan Pésic we are transported to a 1970s Kathmandu that is both real and not, just as Evie Rucker’s “The World’s End Cafe” is a hallucination of lost souls, and Kumar Nagarkoti’s brief survey of Patan’s teashops is a mini-Grand Tour of Nepal’s social strata.
We are delighted to be featuring a brace of poetry translations by Suso Moinhos from Galicia, in northwestern Spain, that hold food as a signifier of religion, hunger, oppression, sex, love and asserting one’s difference. Other poems in English show how relationships – with a mother-in-law, a mother-in law, a city – can be defined, then transmuted by food. In the case of Muna Gurung, it is a mother’s love fermented over a lifetime.
Everyone has their own idea of how food should be prepared, but in the age of the internet and chain restaurants and economic exigency, traditions are jazzed up, stripped down, and buffed up again. On a Croatian island, Lora Tomas is told the proper way to prepare an octopus, while Indra Bahadur Rai’s eavesdropper scornfully listens to a roomful of men discussing the cooking of rice pudding, and Ross Adkins traces the fading traditions of cider-making in the western counties of England. Peter Gill, meanwhile, plunges wholeheartedly into Janakpur’s deep-fried delights, a cornucopia that was not available to his Peace Corps father half a century ago. An interview with Maheshwor Shrestha, ex-proprietor of the excellent, ex-Newa de Cafe in Thamel and now a sushi chef in Malta, tells us about what food, and its business, means to him. But what does its making mean to us? What does the future hold for Nepal’s farms, which have resisted agglomeration in the face of large-scale development programmes and larger out-migration? Anil Bhattarai offers us a sobering glimpse into the future, while Sanjeev Maharjan’s images of heritage seeds anchor us to the past.
For too many, food is ultimately about the surfeit or dearth of it: feast or famine. In America, Prawin Adhikari confronts his belly’s pressing need for food, while Nancy Stohlman imagines a dystopian future where pilgrims pay homage to Kentucky Fried Chicken: there’s never quite enough of it, whether you diet, indulge or eat. So in the spirit of Dickens’ eternally hungry waif, we at La.Lit are happy to respond: Yes, you can have some more.