Jan 21, 2012

Food in transit

We Nepalis seem to have peculiar food habits that create interesting food situations. A recent trip that I took to the Grand Canyon exposed me to these situations that would have gone unnoticed in everyday life. For example, in the first train that we took, our little group happily munched on homemade roti and tarkari. We enjoyed a veritable picnic, while the rest of the passengers eyed our food suspiciously. They themselves were munching on readymade snacks like chips, cheese balls and the like. One girl with a jar of cheese balls was particularly noticeable. “Look, that girl even has cheese balls on her suitcase” my friend pointed out excitedly. I looked, and true enough; the girl’s brown suitcase had a pattern of large orange bobbles. That worried me. Was there a rule about having luggage that matched with your food? In that case, we would have to have humongous grey circles on our suitcases. But I looked around and saw a guy eating a sandwich. He didn’t have large white squares on his suitcase. I heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe the previous girl just loved orange bobbles in any form.

Like any self respecting Nepali on a journey, we had packed some Wai Wai with us.  Too bad the hotels didn’t provide microwaves to cook it. Not to be outdone, we surreptitiously filled a little hotel bucket with hot tap water and soaked Wai Wai in it. The little buckets are ordinarily used to get ice for drinks much stronger than Wai Wai soup, and I bet the housekeepers were surprised at the remnants of Wai Wai in those buckets the next day. 

Soon after, we grew tired of eating Wai Wai for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and decided to try something new. We went to our hotel’s ultra expensive buffet and were really impressed with the variety of dishes; though we didn’t know what most of them were. We ladled sour cream on our plates thinking it was curd. 

After we had stuffed a cone full of some white substance that looked like ice cream, we found that that it was not cold. We later found out that it was whipped cream, but by then, it was too late to go back and have an ice cream. 

The next day we were going to the Grand Canyon, and our guide assured us that we were having a buffet again. We were happy, as this time we were prepared to recognise the foods. But alas, we never got the chance to display our newfound skills. The “buffet” turned out to be a tray with an orange and three items unceremoniously handed out to each person. One of the dishes was plain rice and the next was boiled vegetables. The last dish was a meat stew, the only item with a choice: chicken or beef. It reminded me more of a prison canteen than buffet. I asked the Chinese lady at the counter for the vegetarian option.  “Oh, Bejtabools” she said in a thick accent, and then proceeded to ladle some more steamed vegetables, aka dish number two, on my plate. With nothing but plain rice and unsalted vegetables on my plate, I turned to dear Wai Wai instead and had rice with it. The only reason we didn’t sue this misleading “buffet” was because we were busy looking at the Grand Canyon view, and I guess this is the only reason the rest of the customers don’t sue either. 

As the area grew more remote, the food became more expensive. Everywhere we went, we judged the expensiveness of the place by the price of its croissants. At one place we longingly eyed a huge and inviting croissant. “It’s just three dollars” I gulped. “At three dollars, we get an entire box of croissants in our village,” my friend snapped. But it was a good thing we bought the croissant anyway, because at the next place the single croissant cost us 4 dollars.

But the weirdest culinary experience of all was yet to come. With no other eatery open, we followed our Chinese tour guide into a Chinese eatery and sat in the only vacant table in a remote corner. There were no menus in sight, and when we asked a waiter for a menu, he became very agitated and went away gesticulating wildly. I guess nobody had ever asked him for something as preposterous as a menu—it was a restaurant after all. I walked up to ask another waiter for the menu, who began explaining about the lack of a menu in broken English and Chinese. Soon his boss came and yelled him away, not paying me the slightest bit of attention. Whoever said customer is queen?

Later, a Chinese girl came and sat beside us, and finally we were able to ask how to order food in this weird place. She told us that the waitress would come by with different types of food and if we liked anything, we could take a plate and pay later. Soon, we saw a lady coming out with a tray, but before she reached our table several people had walked up to her and grabbed the food. After a long time, she finally delivered some food to us. The pastry with yellow filling looked cute, but the yellow filling turned out to be sweet egg yolk which was slightly slimy and smelled like raw eggs. We immediately regretted our choice and got up to leave.  Later, after much research we found that this was a Dimsum restaurant, which serves tea and various steamed and fried snacks. The dishes we had were traditional Cantonese, and the way of serving them was traditional too. But I could not find out if it was traditional to grab food from trays before it reached the tables. Anyway, it was a new cultural experience that we would not forget for long.

Published in the Kathmandu Post http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/2012/01/21/free-the-words/food-in-transit/230680.html


Anonymous said...

Lol!, I was going to cite waiwai in the list before reading the article.
When I read the article, there was waiwai :D haha

Its so common in everyone's mind lol.. Whereever we go, we have the same mentality :P

I've got a cartoon of WaiWai(30 pcs) when I went to Delhi.

No doubt I'd buy cheese balls if I get them here :)

sewa said...

yes, dear waiwai, how can we live without it :)

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