Everyone has their minor addictions. Mine is food, and I’m proud of it. I love healthy food, fresh food, fried food, “ethnic” food, junk food… and the list goes on. I often think about it, talk about it, plan entire vacations around it, and even occasionally dream of the many flavors that my tongue has had the pleasure of tasting over the past 24 years.
So naturally, when communist leader Prachanda mentioned the most delicious food he had ever eaten in a speech at the National Dalit Citizens Assembly, I paid extra close attention. He reminicently told the crowd that, during his childhood, a Dalit friend’s mother always used to generously feed him. And, despite his parents’ protests, the young Prachanda (who was then known as Pushpa Kamal Dahal) always came back for more. [See Prachanda’s Speech on 6/20/07 for full details.]
Before listening to Prachanda’s comments, I had never really thought much about Nepali-Dalit cuisine. The obvious reason for this is because Dalit cuisine hardly gets any public exposure or the credit it deserves. This unfortunate circumstance is likely the result of some archaic beliefs, which contend that the mere touch of a Dalit – or person from an ‘untouchable’ caste – is considered to be polluting. And, bearing in mind, the cultural and religious importance of food in South Asia, many in the population wouldn’t even consider ingesting food prepared by Dalits. Therefore, it is difficult for Dalits to promote and enhance their gastronomical abilities.
I also can’t help but mention the the ignorant notion (which that I have personally been subject to) that Dalits, being among the poorest people on earth, could not possibly make contribute to the world of cuisine. Or could they?
Since pondering this question, I have embarked on a project which allows me to explore both Dalit cuisine and the lives of the women who prepare it. I am currently in the process of profiling Dalit women from various castes, educational backgrounds, and career paths, while learning some of their favorite recipes along the way. I hope to integrate the recipes I collect with a historical and cultural analysis of the dishes at hand as well as the life stories and insights of these amazing women into an awareness raising “cook book”.
While I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of this endeavor, there are minor challenges I face along the way. The most obvious of these is the fact that I am a man and, in a society that promotes a certain amount gender segregation, it has been difficult for some of the women who volunteered for this project to fully open up to me. This, however, has been somewhat alleviated by the fact that I break a few cultural norms actually cook side by side with my cultural and gastronomical consultants. (Sometimes I must argue that in order to learn how to prepare Nepali food, I must actually cook with an expert. It’s an argument that has proven to be most effective.) So together, these women and I (usually in the presence of a few friends) chop vegetables, wash dishes, mix ingredients, and eat the finished meal at the end of our session. There is something about the fact that we had worked together for a common goal – in this case, the preparation of a delicious meal – that makes the profiling aspect of this project more natural for both me and the women volunteers.
The food so far, has been amazing. I have prepared and eaten dishes that I have never even heard of before, much less tasted. I am also learning the innovative ways that Dalit’s from all regions of Nepal have maximized the limited ingredients they can afford to produce flavorful recipes which are worthy of any swanky, haute-cuisine restaurant.
What is even better than the food though, is the experience of it all. This cook book project has allowed me to learn from talented, intelligent, and funny individuals who share the most positive spirit, despite the fact that they are routinely discriminated against because of their gender and caste. These women, who so willingly volunteered their time and efforts for this project (and who became my friends in the process) are helping make this cook book one of my most fulfilling achievements in Nepal.
Posted By Ted Samuel
Posted Aug 29th, 2007