I recently returned to the States with two suitcases filled with my purchases from Nepal. A handcrafted singing bowl, a beautiful Dhaka print carpet, the warmest pashmina shawls, and all sorts of other items unavailable in the U.S. My biggest treasures, however, weren't any of the aforementioned items. These treasures lay carefully concealed and disguised, wrapped under layers of sweaters, several Ziplock bags, and uncountable rounds of tape and clingwrap. I unpacked as soon as I reached home, wary of how they’d fared through the 20-hour long journey back to the U.S. I nervously peeled the layers with bated breath and heaved a huge sigh of relief. They’d successfully crossed continents and made it to the U.S.! My two precious bottles of home-made, freshly ground, spicy dalle paste!
These two bottles (along with my previously carefully smuggled in bottle of ghee) are not only my secret weapons to delicious meals, they are my ties to my childhood, family, and country. They are the comfort foods I seek as an adult in times of frustration and stress. For those of us living overseas, these simple flavors and smells have a much deeper significance. A warm comforting bowl of kaalo daal, the aroma of freshly cooked sel rotis, the pungent odor of mulako achaar, and the steam rising from a plate of freshly cooked hot momos! These olfactory reminders of our childhood bring with them warm feelings and fond memories. In this vein, my friends and I take a four-hour long drive to make our monthly pilgrimage to Jackson Heights in New York City, the mecca of Nepali food in the States.
Once there, we partake in a carefully planned gastronomic adventure of momos, thalis, sukutis, sel rotis, and various other delicacies, enough to lull us into a carb induced food coma. The restaurants we frequent are always buzzing with crowds of Nepalis, long lines of people waiting for tables, and customers of all ages and demographics. Young girls and boys dressed to the nines in their designer clothes, families big and small, and diverse generations of Nepalis. The vast differences on the surface dissipated by the common thread of flavors and smells that fill these restaurants.
The American food palate is one filled with a variety of cuisines: burgers, pasta, pizzas, fast food, Michelin star level food and the list goes on. The irony is that in a country where we can buy anything we want in the world, the foods that we crave and connect most with are the ones that aren’t easily accessible here at all. I once heard a joke about how the west colonized half of the world for spices and they still don't know how to use them. For those of us who grew up on curries, mouth-burning spices and complex flavor pairings, living in the west, this can sometimes be an unsavory reality. I’m guilty of frequently asking for “hot sauce” (much to the chagrin of my company) at restaurants and have seriously mulled over purchasing a “sriracha sauce” keychain so I can instantly add more “flavor” to my meals. My recent attempt at explaining the delicious fiery burn we crave when eating a packet of titaura elicited very confused looks from my colleague at work. She couldn’t understand why I'd willingly eat something that in her view "caused me so much pain". The confusion further compounded when I told her, "the higher the burn, the better!" The “churpi” conversation is clearly going to have to wait until later. The hardest cheese in the world potentially capable of breaking a tooth is going to be an even harder sell!
It’s interesting that of all the many ways in which we slowly adapt to a different culture after staying overseas for a long period of time, our taste buds and food palette have somehow continued to stay very connected to our Nepali roots. That’s not to say our palettes aren’t slowly adapting to a western palette in some regards. We’ve begun to like (and even crave) the occasional burger (much to the dismay and horror of our families back home) and I’ve participated in many intellectual debates regarding the best degree of “doneness” for a steak (medium rare always seems to win). But despite the plethora of options available, simple daal bhaat tarkari always seems to win the day.
It seems that there are some things that will never change, no matter the time and distance. My friends and I have lived in the U.S. for over a decade and a half now, and even just the mention of the word momos is enough to make us salivate. You’ll never catch us on a road trip or enjoying a good conversation without a few packets of Wai Wai on the side. The little red and green packet isn’t just a packet of noodles to us, it is an instant connect to our childhoods, our teenage years, adulthood, and every moment in between. You can be sure that given the option between a delicious cheese pizza, sushi or Wai Wai, it’s going to always be the Wai Wai that gets the most votes (now bring momos into the equation and that’s a different story).
I guess, you can take the Nepali out of Nepal, but you can never take the Wai Wai out of the Nepali! ????
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