(WORDS BY Anutara Shakya)
Food is a universal language and this is especially true for our society that uses the term, “Have you had breakfast/lunch/tea/dinner?” as a greeting on a daily basis. The term is not just for asking if someone has had eaten, and if they haven’t, they’re invited to share a meal together.
In Nepal, food is not just seen as a source of nutrition. It carries cultural and religious significance as well. From abstaining eating certain kinds of food during pujas to festivals being incomplete without cooking a certain dish, food represents more than a meal. It represents a community.
But the traditional practices of cooking and eating locally sourced food is being cast aside to make way for easy recipes, pre-cooked meals and non-native ingredients. The dying culinary culture is something that is widespread in Nepal but is not talked about enough.
Traditionally, food in Nepal was cooked using locally sourced ingredients. This includes local livestock, plants, herbs and even fungus let us say mushrooms. These ingredients have been used to create a unique array of dishes spanning from the Himalayas to the Terai. Each region, culture, landscape and religion has shaped how food looks and tastes in different parts of Nepal.
However, due to the busy, fast-paced lifestyle nowadays, the food culture has shifted to make its way for effortless and less time-consuming recipes. Convenience has taken over and this puts a wide array of traditional recipes at risk. Especially of minor communities whose dishes are lesser known. After all, traditional food is an integral part of a community’s identity.
Take, for example the Newari bhowe, a lavish feast consisting of beaten rice and over 10 side dishes. Each dish has a gastronomic significance and is served in a particular order, one after the other. A bhowe is not just about eating, a clan of people need to come together to prepare it.
Here, each member of the clan knows their position and their role in preparing the feast. They are all led by a head chef, usually a middle-aged man who has weathered many a feast in his life. He knows exactly how much spice needs to go into each dish, how much meat needs to be bought at the butcher’s and the amount of liquor that needs to be distributed to keep his subordinates happy!
This tradition of the bhowe is quickly eroding as people are opting for ready-made dinner packages at party venues for events such as marriages. Indeed, paying someone to cook for your 500+ guests is more convenient than bringing a community together to prepare a feast.
Traditional bhowe can also cost a lot more than booking a party venue. Rapid globalization, urbanization and changing dietary preferences has also influenced such changes. But it is not just the food that is dying, it is taking along with it, the social dependency and communal interactions.
The internet has introduced a wide range of food culture to the younger generation. Now, they can easily explore food outside of their community. Examples include Korean, American or Japanese cuisine. There is nothing wrong with exploring another culture’s cuisine. In fact, it makes us more accepting and open-minded. However, this doesn’t mean that we lose our identity and palate. If we like exploring other culture’s cuisine, perhaps other cultures would also like to sample ours as well.
Globalization has also led to widespread dissemination of food franchises and processed foods. This can overshadow local culinary traditions. The rise of social media has led to numerous aesthetic restaurants opening which cater to culinary trends.
These trends do not align with traditional ingredients or preparation methods of food. The café culture is another issue that has taken over traditional recipes, causing them to fade into obscurity.
However, it is not just the internet or the fast-paced lifestyle that has changed a common Nepali’s relation to traditional food.
It is also the fact that local food sources are dwindling and making way for new, exotic ingredients or cash crops. Growing new types of crops and vegetables isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it shouldn’t be taking over the staple food that people commonly eat.
Why does culinary tradition even matter?
Now why should we care what people eat, as long as they get food in their belly? We all have heard of the saying; you are what you eat. Traditional food is an expression of each community’s unique culture. It reflects a community’s history, their values and beliefs. The eroding culinary culture can lead to diminishing sense of cultural identity and loss of cultural roots.
Cooking in a group or sharing meals plays a big role in social or familial bonding. Just think back to the last time you cooked together with your friends or family and recall the bonding that you made. The act of preparing and consuming traditional dishes fosters a sense of belonging and facilitates intergenerational communication.
There’s a reason so many grandma’s recipes are valued all over the world. Afterall, food is not just food, it is an excuse to bond with a parent, or to have recipes handed down, connecting one generation with another.
The changing culinary culture can also impact our health. This is because traditional recipes were developed over centuries from what was locally available. Traditional food is often rooted deeply in local ecosystems, and is designed to cater to specific nutritional needs. Traditional food has been tried and tested over time.
It is not just about filling the belly but, filling it with the right nutrition required for a certain climate or geography.
One way to preserve traditional food is by documenting it. Prashant Khanal’s book, ‘Timmur’ is an example of how traditional recipes can be preserved while also learning about its religious or cultural significance. Likewise, many video channels are emerging that prepare traditional food or grandma’s recipes for the future generations. Traditional recipes might also stand a chance for survival if they can be evolved for modern preferences. Fusion of old recipes with new techniques can preserve the taste while adjusting it for contemporary living.
A dying culinary culture not only risks loss of recipes but also risks loss of cultural identity and ethnic diversity. As the society continues to change rapidly, it is important to acknowledge the hidden aspects of culture such as food to help preserve traditions practiced. By embracing and finding solutions to preserving our food culture, we can ensure the preservation of our traditions for future generations. Let us all do our little bit in conserving our cultural food and handing the knowledge of preparing such indigenous food down to newer generations. Let us take pride in our culture and our indigenous foods.