05 December, 2009


DEC 05 - About a year ago, I started an anti-white rice andolan in our house. The strategy was this: each time my mother put rice in front of me, I would say, “White rice!” in exaggerated horror, then ask for some other grain. Maize maybe, or wheat. My mother was heavily offended. She thought I was insulting her, not the rice.

“White rice is full of calories! There aren’t any trace minerals! The entire husk has been beaten out of it!” I used to tell her.

After a few months of this tension, my mother, who had been modestly eating some cornmeal or some wheat-meal on her own—the food reserved for poor women in the Brahmin hierarchy—started to realise the men may benefit from this low-status grains as well. Maybe—horror of horrors—the men who had been relegated to the ‘good’ white Basmati rice were actually eating the unhealthy grain. It took at least a year before oatmeal, cornmeal, and other grains began to make a regular appearance in our kitchen, and a few months more before the dogs started to eat white rice as the humans diversified their diet and started eating the grains otherwise reserved for dogs.

I’m still not sure if I’ve won the fight over processed food yet. But my insistence on ‘buy the Nepali biscuits which were baked yesterday, not the supermarket biscuits that have been sitting on the shelf for months and were made in Malaysia months and months ago’ may also have made a tiny dent on the women who make the decisions and select the food.

If food habits can be changed (and I know this from my own experience), then other things can change as well. After returning from Indonesia, I taught my mother how to make hibiscus tea. This rich red flower, which I now see everywhere in Kathmandu loading-down bushes with its red blooms, is rich in anti-oxidants. In places like Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia, hibiscus contributes to the diet in the form of juicy-rich in anti-oxidants and other medicinal properties. And it is easy to make. Pick flower, remove stamens and pistils, put hibiscus bloom in hot water, remove flower after water turns muddy red, add lemon juice, and voila—you have sparkling crimson juice that in Japan or Korea you would have to pay a few hundred rupees for.

Then there’s chrysanthemum (godavari). In places like China, chrysanthemum tea is celebrated for its healthy properties, but we in our fabled Valley waste it on garlands for statues.

I’ve been accused by my friends of being overly prescriptive with my ‘grandma remedies’. So let me promote yet another of my remedies to a national audience—people, the best medicine you can find is actually in your kitchen. Turmeric, or besaar, has always been known for its profoundly-antiseptic and healing properties for ages in the Indian subcontinent. But the Balinese seem to have perfected the art of using it in its most raw and natural form. I had to do some research on how to get the raw roots—finally, one farmer selling his wares in Asan happily ran into his house and brought me out a kilo of raw turmeric roots while I guarded his little patch of garlic. Take one root, scrape out the skin, pound out the fresh juice, and add lime juice and water—what you have is a potent juice known as Jamu in Indonesia, and which people drink everyday for its healthy properties.

“People in Nepal have so little luxuries,” A Spanish man told me once. He was on his way back from a tour in Nepal, and the poverty, as he described it, stuck in my mind. “All they have is one plate of rice and beans with a little vegetable and no other luxuries.”

The irony of this poverty, of course, is that we are not a country poor in natural wealth. We could very easily use the flowers and plants and grains and other natural ingredients we have around us to construct simple yet local luxuries. We are not like Sudan where half the land is baking desert, or Yemen where the water is running out. We are actually one of the countries that are rich in biodiversity and water wealth. Of course, left unconserved (and over-pumped by India), that may one day just be a uilay ko bajay ko kaatha—a tale once told by grandfathers. And hariyo ban, Nepal ko dhan, which brought a sense of pride in our forest wealth and which was quite effective in spreading environmental messages during the bad old days, have now been chucked out by the good old democrats for its feudal connotations.

The latest addition of fast food chains to Nepal’s diet is only going to deepen this sense of poverty. Only chicken flown in from Brazil is the best chicken is the message fast food outlets want to give us. But chicken from Brazil has many problems—not the least of which is a very large carbon footprint this bird leaves behind as it leaves its heavily over-processed plant in Brazil to fly in refrigerators to land in Nepal. Anybody with a bit of sense will realise it’s better to eat local chicken—it’s healthier! But will the rich kids listen as they rush in to get their share?

In places like the U.S. and Europe, a ‘Slow Food Movement’ has started. Slow food rejects everything fast food stands for. It uses local ingredients. As much as possible, the food should be freshly and organically-grown, without pesticides or chemicals, and

distributed without plastic packaging. People try to ensure that the food is trucked in within a few km, not from Brazil. And this slow food movement is also the beginning of a new life movement, a life that embraces less consumption, and which leaves less of a footprint on this planet that is already groaning from the rapacious demands people make upon it. A slow foodie eats a local momo made from the local rango, rather than chicken wings from Brazil.

What we choose to eat daily will ensure how the planet copes with the increasing demands people are making upon its water, earth, and air. If you are truly concerned, the steps are simple to follow. Each time you eat something, you can make a choice to choose local food over global brands; unpackaged food over plastic; unprocessed food that is closest to its source over processed varieties encased in cardboard. How our grandparents ate is actually a good indicator of how to leave a low footprint in the earth.

And for those little luxuries, you can always look around you for natural things. Use those flowers, make some tea. And for what it’s worth, I still think a cup of Himalayan coffee from Palpa beats any Starbucks coffee anyday.

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