Thriving Mindfully

Tag: cooking

What I learnt about brotherhood after having a Nepali Thali

It was my maiden visit to Kathmandu, Nepal.
My country India and Nepal share a common history, ancestry, culture and religion with each other,
ties that can be traced back to many millennia.

So, I wasn’t much surprised when I found as much a sense of familiarity as a deep sense of novelty with Nepal at first glance. The people dressed the same as Indians did, the vehicles on the road were the same as back home and so was the nonchalant acceptance of chaos on the streets.
Even the shops had much of their stock imported from India.
Much to my surprise, I could even use Indian currency to shop in Nepal.
In many senses, Nepal felt like a younger brother to India.

To me, the most lasting cultural experience in a new country is the culinary delights it has to offer. Walking unsuspectingly along a backpackers’ ghetto, I looked around for signs of authentic Nepali cuisine.
I spotted a restaurant where locals were having their afternoon meal. Its warm and inviting energy beckoned me in.

The first dish on the menu was Nepali Khana Set Thali. Without another thought, I placed an order for one.

Within minutes, I had Thali (Plate) on my table.
The Thali was made of a copper alloy, with a couple of small bowls arranged on the side.
The contents looked quite similar to a Thali back in India.
A dollop of steaming hot rice, a bowlful of Dal (Lentil soup), a curry of potatoes and peas, a green spinach stir fry, a dried leafy fermented vegetable preparation, three different pickles and a token salad of one slice each of carrot, radish and cucumber.

By the looks of it, I was expecting a much similar taste as that of a regular Indian meal.
But boy was I wrong !
Each subsequent bite only took me by delightful surprise.

The rice was pearly and mildly sticky, cooked to perfection, tasty even just by itself. The dal was a perfect masquerade, looking every bit like the India dal but having a teasingly peculiar flavor, spiced delicately but by no means spicy.
The potatoes and peas, blended easily with whatever else you chose to eat it with.
The greens were cooked just right, minimally, with the right amount of water retained to keep it succulent. It was the perfect example of how to cook greens, right to the sweet spot.

I was particularly surprised by the fermented mustard leaf preparation called ‘Gundruk’, a flavor reminiscent of Punjabi Sarson da saag but tasting nothing like it.
Then, came the deal breaker trio of pickles. A spiced radish slice fermented just right and nuggets of soybean peppered with chilli and coriander.
As surprisingly flavorful as they were, the icing on the cake was the red achaar on the Thali.
At first I could not even tell what it was made of. Each time I tasted it, it whispered one of the ingredients to my tantalised toungue.
With a base of Nepali tomatoes, it had undertones of local chilli (khursani) , coriander , salt and the soul of Nepal in some way. It had a tangy yet citrus aftertaste, a heavenly blend of ingredients.

Each morsel of the meal had such personality, it felt as if I was having an intimate meeting Nepal with each bite.
Ofcourse, I asked for second portions of each dish and ate as avidly as the first time.

Satiated with this surprise of an experience, with a loosened belt, I sat back wondering..

It is likely that many of the ingredients in this Thaali were imported from India. Yet, each and every dish, can stand on its own,
working together to create an experience even better than the sum of its parts.

In a way, my preconceived notion about Nepal was proven to be wrong within the first few hours.

It was quite akin to the experience of brotherhood.
An elder brother undoubtedly has a deep influence on his younger sibling. And sometimes it is taken for granted by the elder one how his younger brother would imitate much of what he does.
Being a younger brother in real life, I have been through this imitation game.
Hence, I could understand why I expected a Nepal Thali (Say younger brother) would be quite similar to the character of the Indian Thali (Elder sibling).

But it is a moment of great pride to realise how a younger brother has its own individual voice, despite the common background and upbringing.

Through this culinary experience, despite being the younger sibling in my family,
I could feel the elation of an elder sibling when he realises that his younger brother has always had such a distinct and pleasing character.
Much of it has also to do with my lack of exposure and awareness about the Nepali cuisine and culture.

But now,
My respect and admiration for Nepali culture has found firm ground in my heart.

I see the Thali in front of me at the moment. I finished everything on the plate but the salad.
Neatly arranged still,
There are three slices of Carrot, Radish and Cucumber,
Shades of orange, white and green,
Reminding me of the Indian flag, feebly hinting at our common culture despite our distinct geopolitical reality.

I smile.
And deep in my heart,
I know I will have many more Nepali Thalis to relish this unique experience,
Of the perfect blend of
familiarity and novelty.

Finding Home

The sun shone brightly, hovering in the clear sky. It was just 9 am but the heat made it feel as if it was noon. Determined to ride for another half an hour I pedaled on. I was riding from Phuket to a town called Phang Nga.
I had taken this route a few days ago to reach Phuket. That ride was made special by this woman who made the most lovingly prepared meal I had eaten in Thailand.
Today, as I was on the same road, I wished to stop to see her again and eat her food.
However, it is tricky to spot a little shop that you only vaguely remember. My inability to read Thai made it even more difficult to find her shop.
I moved on slowly, battling the sun’s ire.

At one moment, I just had a feeling that she was close by. I looked around and saw a little shop that could be hers.
I took a U-Turn and approached the shop.

And I found her, sitting on a chair with her cheeks resting on her palm.

She smiled with inexplicable delight.
It seemed as if she was already expecting me. Maybe she had seen me pass by across the road and knew I would make a U-turn and come to her.

I gestured to the eggs, rice and mortar and pestle to remind her of what she had made for me a few days ago.

‘Ok Ok’ she said smilingly.

I was brought a cold glass of water by her daughter. The table-fan was turned towards me. I eased myself as if I had reached home. Nonchalantly I plugged in
my phone to charge.

Within minutes, I had her signature fried rice in front of me. I prayed for her well being and ate to my heart’s content. Halfway through I asked her if she can make me another one to take with me.

She gladly agreed and got working.
I don’t recall seeing anyone cook with so much love for an absolute stranger.
Soon, I had the take away pack with me.
I quickly rose to get my Polaroid camera.

I asked her if I could take a picture of her and her daughter.
And that feminine blush that signals an affirmative surfaced on her face!

I clicked a picture and left it with them.
I felt so at home that I no longer felt there was a transaction involved.
As I got up to leave, I remembered that I hadn’t paid for the meal.
I paid them 60 Baht as they curiously stared at the photograph.

Just before I got on my bike, the daughter came running to me with a Thai orange. I accepted it happily and moved on.

I had seen Thai oranges in markets many times. They look a bit shriveled up as compared to Oranges back in India. I was never interested to try them. But today I had one with me.
I tasted it, only to be blown away by the flavour. It leans more to the sweeter side than citrus. It was a phenomenal experience.

I am sitting with the peel of orange in my hand, smiling.
I wonder how I could just sense that the lady’s shop was nearby.
How she knew I would take a U turn and come to eat at her place?
And why I felt so at home in her little shop?

I realized that a home is not just a physical location. It is a place where someone is waiting for you expectantly.
Today, I found a little home in a foreign land.
A home I might never come back to again,
But I’ve leased out a place in my heart for it.

Beautiful Inside.

On my Bicycle ride from Auroville to Chennai I stopped at a coconut shop I used to frequent years ago. The shop looked a bit run down as compared to how it looked like earlier. I approached the unmanned coconut stand and called out the owner’s name.
‘Saviraj?’ I enquired.
Slowly, an elderly man made his way from his house.
‘Saviraj, do you remember me? I used to come to drink coconuts 5 years ago.’
He nodded smilingly.
In an adorable mix of Tamil and pidgin English he started talking to me.
‘Now enge(where)?’
‘I am cycling from Auroville to Chennai Saviraj’
Meanwhile his wife Sarada came out hearing her husband speak in English.
They both offered me a place to sit. I had a big coconut proffered to me instantly.
They saw my Bicycle loaded up with my luggage and gasped in surprise.
I asked them if I could rest for sometime in the temple across te street.
‘Sleeping here’ said Saviraj pointing to his house.
I laid out my Yoga mat and had a nice nap. In half an hour I awoke to the smell of homemade Dosas. Sarada brought me four thick dosas with the most unique coconut chutney I’ve tasted in my life.

I smiled and accepted the food. It was a delicious feast.
I felt humbled by their spirit of caring. As I was leaving I asked if I could click a Polaroid picture with her.
She blushed and said, ‘Shower no, not look good!’
‘But you’re beautiful. Sooper(Tamil-English slang for remarkable) I said.

Reluctantly she posed and we took a picture.
As the polaroid film developed we waited anxiously. The picture came out great.
‘ Sooper no?’ I asked.
‘Aama(yes)’ she blushed.
I left her with the picture and loaded up my Bicycle to head onward. I was bid goodbye lovingly.

On the way I wondered,
‘She took care of fact that I’d been cycling for 4 hours in the sun and did the best she could to support me. To have such compassion and empathy is the most beautiful asset. It shines through in her eyes. And even if she looked a bit disheveled in the picture because of her household chores, the camera captured the beauty in her spirit.
We often fail to cultivate and realize our own inner beauty. While we are born with the fate of a fixed physical appearance, we also have the opportunity to foster a thriving inner world full of love and compassion. And it is the latter that makes for our true identity.

I hope the picture I left Sarada with keeps reminding her what a caring heart she has. And she realizes the beauty in herself beyond the physical.