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July 10, 2009

Comestibles

breakfast

Above: a typical breakfast of curried vegetables, bread, and rasbari

"How's the food?" is a question I've been asked a couple of times, and the answer, in a word, is "excellent." Business hours at the hospital are 8:30 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 8:30 to noon on Friday, and three meals a day (all seven days a week) are provided for short-term expatriates such as myself and other visitors. Breakfast is brought around to our accommodations between 7:30 and 8:15 a.m., and lunch (noon to 1 p.m.) and dinner (7:30 to 8:30 p.m.) are served in the dining hall on the other side of the hospital campus. Our quarters/cabins/flats also include kitchens furnished with a small refrigerator, a propane stove, a few basic utensils, and some coffee/tea basics, and we could certainly do more of our own cooking should we so desire, but it will come as no surprise to those of you who know my non-Nepal cooking/eating habits to learn that I haven't made much use of my kitchen, and just like home, that includes, to date, not having turned on the gas to the stove. Also found in each kitchen is a huge water filter jug, sort of a Britta pitcher on steroids, with three Katadyn filters in it, providing drinkable-for-Westerners water, which has worked fine for me as long as I don't think too much about what's accumulating in the top filtered-out portion of the jug. Dr. Grahame reports that, out of long habit, his family still boils all their drinking water in addition to filtering it, and if I had to do that to get good drinking water, yes, I'd turn the gas on, but until then, no need for all that knob-turning hassle.

The staple of lunch and dinner is daal bhaat tarkari, literally, "lentil soup," "rice," and "curried vegetables;" the first two are present and invariant at every lunch and dinner, while there's a fair amount of variety in the curried vegetables department. Potatoes, mushrooms, squash, peas, beans, spinach/greens, okra, etc., all of several varieties, and a few vegetables I haven't seen before, including one that, when served as it usually has been, sliced thinly and fried with similarly-thinly-sliced potatoes, reminds me of spirograph wheels (you children of the 70s will remember the gears of the gears and pens toy used to make elaborate drawings of overlapping circles and ellipses). The dining-hall meals are served buffet-style, starting with an immense vat of steamed rice and continuing with a large pot of daal and several pots of different tarkari, sometimes including pickled vegetables and/or a cold potato-salad like dish with potatoes and onions. You're going to ask, "What are the different curried vegetable dishes called?" and my answer is, "I don't know, but they've all been tasty." Perhaps I should do a photographic guide to the dishes for the use of future expatriate visitors. Kat (the other expatriate here at the moment) and I can tell who else is on campus by the amount of food set out - if it's the vats and pots as described above, there's some outside group meeting on the hospital campus and taking their meals at the dining hall. If it's basically two servings of each dish, packaged up in the stainless steel dishes, about twice the size of the the two small bowls pictured above, used for porting lunches, etc. around, then we know we're the only ones eating at the dining hall.

So if it's not already clear, the local diet is primarily vegetarian. Every few days the dining hall staff will walk round during lunch or dinner and offer single servings of either chicken (one day) or fish (the next), and just about every meal they'll do the same with single-serving plates with yogurt and sliced mango. I suspect that the single-serving business is for the same reason ice cream was served in my high school by a cafeteria worker handing out single portions to individuals - a few of the groups that have been here for various training programs have consisted of, basically, high school students, and my guess is that the custom was established a while back after some knucklehead served himself the chicken meant to serve 40 people. Dredging up the last lecture or three of biochemistry a few weeks back, I know that folks are probably getting enough protein from the lentils in the daal, the beans and peas in other dishes, and the yogurt & occasional bit of chicken, and with the rice, potatoes, and vegetable oil are rounding out well-balanced meals, but it is a little different from what westerners are used to in the meat/protein department.

Breakfast is of similar origins, but of the three squares it it certainly the "What's in store for us today?" meal. I had been told before arriving that westerners generally balk at the idea of curried vegetables three times a day, and can request (and receive) white bread and jam instead. As someone raised on whole wheat bread, often bread also overloaded with other grains, nuts, and forest foliage, I heard "white bread" and thought "that inflatable/styrofoam stuff you serve baloney and yellow mustard on," and thus was pleasantly surprised by what showed up instead: a large, fresh loaf of something more like soda bread, very substantial and tasty. Accompanied by a pot of jam, all without me having placed any requests. Now, a few weeks into the trip, I'm not sure if that was meant to be breakfast or not - the routine seems to be to provide us about once a week with a loaf of such bread or a cake, in addition to the breakfasts described below, so I suspect that for the first week or so, I was on the weekly-cake-delivery list but hadn't yet made it onto the daily-breakfast-delivery list.

Having made it onto that latter delivery list, my breakfasts now generally consist of a single serving of vegetable curry, almost always accompanied by the round fried bread seen in the photo above (that particular breakfast, for some reason they were puffed up more than they usually are). The third item changes from day to day, and if it's on a schedule I haven't yet figured it out: one day it will be the sweet confection seen above, rasbari, milk balls served in a rose water syrup, another day it will be a small onion omlette, yet another day it will be rice pudding. And if it's not any of those, it's some form of julebi, a deep-fried translucent sweet. The first time we were served that, it came as single confection four inches or so in diameter, formed (so far as I can tell) by carefully pouring the dough/batter to form a pretty spiral shape. The second time it was served as a small bowl (like the one pictured above) filled with pea-sized beads, or, well, peas formed from the same confection but in different colors. The third time it was in similar form, but in beads/peas half or a third the size of those served the previous day (sized somewhere between BBs and caviar). We joked that the next day the size would go down another notch and we'd be served a small bowl of deep-fried sugar, but no such luck. We've had the other varieties several times since, though.

Nepali tea, sweet and with milk, is served midmorning and midafternoon, and also pretty much any time you're a guest in someone's office or home. As someone who's resided south of the sweet-tea line in the U.S. much of his life, I've thoroughly enjoyed the tea (and the hospitality it's a part of), but while I'm OK with the milk in it and even the hot part, I'm not sure what this little-tiny-glass business is - sweet tea is meant to be consumed from 32-ounce jugs. (The full-nearly-to-the-rim and usually-handleless small glasses also make for entertainment for the host, observing the expatriate trying to be a gracious guest and pick up the glass without burning his fingers.)

Where does the food come from? Well, the closest thing to a supermarket I've seen was the small convenience store next door to my hotel in Kathmandu (there may have been larger western-style supermarkets in the city, but I was there only a few hours and didn't see much, period). Such supermarkets certainly don't exist out here in rural Nepal. While I imagine a large portion of the food for preparation at the dining hall is delivered or purchased in institutional quantities, the hospital staff residing in the apartments around me purchase some things at the street market in Bardibas, the nearest town, about 4km from here, or other such street markets visited en route to/from field work. There are some fruits and vegetables grown on the grounds, both in small private gardens and in a larger hospital garden, and I often see staff drying corn, rice, or other grains in the sun in baskets on porches or on sheets in front of the residences around me. Thinking about the milk balls and yogurt, I'm now wondering how much of the milk for those comes from the couple of water buffalo that are permanent residents (and lawnmowers) here on the campus.

(And while I'm thinking of it, many thanks to Badri, Ram Chandra, Bishnu, Ramji, and anyone else even vaguely connected to the dining here at LLSC - it's been excellent.)

Someone's going to ask the inevitable question, and the answer is "very little trouble so far." I've tried to be smart about drinking only bottled or filtered water, and I suspect my one bout with intestinal disturbance resulted from off-campus snacking a week or two into my time here. During the motorcycle trip mentioned earlier, we stopped for a plate of momos, dumplings filled with either meat or vegetables. As I learned later from more experienced visitors, the vegetable ones are generally OK if prepared in decent conditions, but the meat ones are almost always deadly for weak-stomached new arrivals, and that snack was probably 0 for 2 in the safety department. That goes on the list of "things learned the hard way."

Gustation aside, posting here has been kinda light mostly because I imagine few are all that interested in day-to-day details of Microsoft Access database development or LLSC internal politics. Class attendance can be spotty at times, but I've been fortunate in the computer-medic area so far, in that both of the hardware failures I've run into have been of the "reseat all the connections and now everything works" variety. Grounding issues continue to be a challenge: I now carry around a USB pen drive with a plastic outer case, after having been zapped a couple of times by cases/shielding that's got more current running through it than it should. Despite my facebook update of a few days ago, I think gecko mating season must have actually been a while back, as I've noticed an uptick in the number of very small (1") lizards around the house, including one little guy sitting on the showerhead this morning. I go on the weekly ward rounds and sit in on other procedures and the like as they come up. And either it's actually been a little cooler recently, or I'm just getting used to it...

Posted by Brenden at July 10, 2009 7:18 AM


Comments

When I were there there were two kinds of daal (although nobody there would really tell me that there was a difference, my roommates and I definitely noticed it)-- yummy green daal, that was sparingly found, and OK but gets boring yellow daal, that was there two times a day, seven days a week.

I think the spirographs were called "bitter gourd" which makes sense given the taste. If you make it down to Bardibas you can see them selling it. It looks pretty wild, like if a witch put all the world's warts onto a melon or something. (uncooked picture: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2226/2041791431_46b835f8c6.jpg?v=0_ )

Posted by: Rachel at July 11, 2009 12:26 AM

I'm clearly going to have to pay closer attention to the daal, although I did notice that the daal at lunch today was spicier than usual - perhaps that's the green daal you're talking about.

And just returned from a walk to Bardibas, but wasn't shopping for/looking closely at the vegetables (the chicken, uh, being dispatched to the great pecking ground in the sky must have distracted me), so I'll have to look for those next time. I think you're absolutely correct, though. I suspect they're the kind of vegetable the possession of which would keep you from being allowed to board domestic or international flights.

Posted by: brenden at July 11, 2009 8:34 AM
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