When we arrived at our homestay in Patan, our host-mom greeted us with a smile and a gentle handshake as we said “Namaste.” We protested against her helping us with our bags, but she just smiled and said, “Nepali women are strong!” I laughed as she led us through her doorway, all the way upstairs to our room. After putting our bags down, she asked us which tea we would like to drink.
Sitting on cushions on the floor, she brought us two cups of milk tea. We asked her how to say thank you in Newari, the local language, and she told us “subhaay”. She was the second person in Nepal who told us how important it is to know how to say thank you, and I couldn’t agree with her more. We sipped away as she explained to us that later that evening we would go food shopping at the local market to gather items for our cooking class. We agreed on a time, and went exploring on our own for the afternoon.
Taking her advice, we spent the afternoon exploring the incredible architecture of the Patan Durbar Square, just a two-minute walk away. We enjoyed the art galleries and little souvenir shops, all while admiring the unique history of the area. As the sun started to go down, we made our way back to the homestay through the narrow alleyways, eager to begin the evening festivities as our stomachs began to rumble.
When we got back, two other guests had arrived to join the class. We went up to the terrace together as our host-mom brought some more tea and biscuits. She offered us some local rum to taste, too. Pouring it out of a gold-painted kettle that resembled the Genie’s lamp from Aladdin, she gave each of us a little cup. To me, the taste was rather strong but quite sweet. I needed to eat a biscuit to cleanse my palate, but I was happy to have tried it. At that moment, the sun was really starting to set, providing an amazing view of the neighborhood below.
It was time to go shopping. We walked a few minutes to the local market, each of us carried away in conversation. Her 19-year-old son was there, and we talked to him about his studies and his goals for the future, as he was currently attending college. We approached several carts with women behind them, selling everything from peppers to eggplant to vegetables I’d never seen before. Our host-mom asked us what we’d like to eat, and we told her we’d be happy with anything she made us, which was true. I wondered what would be on the menu.
After buying the vegetables, we walked a few steps to the butcher’s, where our host-mom ordered enough buffalo meat to feed us all. Now, my hunger was overtaken by my piqued interest. I had never tried buffalo before and I was really curious. At this point I discovered that Nepali people eat very differently to their Indian counterparts, which was a bit of a shock (we had just arrived from three weeks in India). I got the sense that Nepalis love their meat almost as much as Americans do!
We brought the ingredients back to the house. We sat on rugs on the perimeter of the dining room floor while the host-mom brought out the stove and pans. She handed us each a cutting board, some knives and bowls to chop up the vegetables, including cauliflower and pumpkin. As we cut up each vegetable, I asked how to say it in Newari. Unfortunately, I can’t recall any of them.
Cutting up vegetables and mixing them with an assortment of spices — turmeric, cumin, ginger, garlic, etc. — was fun. Even though we were cooking, the host-mom directed each and every step to make sure it was perfect. But, when it was time to mix the buffalo meat with the spices, I did something she couldn’t have anticipated: I mixed the meat using both hands! Most people visiting Nepal or other countries in Asia probably know it’s considered “dirty” to eat or do things with your left hand. The host-mom turned to me with some anxiety in her voice.
“No left hand!”
Embarrassed, but thankful she was nice about it, I quickly moved my left hand aside and continued mixing the meat with my right. Soon enough, the buffalo was sizzling on the stove (I was grateful they didn’t decide to toss it out) and the rice was cooking in the pressure cooker. As pressure cookers aren’t really used in the U.S., this was my first time using one and it made me a little nervous. Everyone giggled at me, and I laughed too. Finally, dinner was ready.
The host-mom pulled out round, metal plates, and spooned a little bit of each dish one by one, almost like dealing out a deck of cards. I couldn’t wait to try the buffalo. When I got my plate and sat on the floor, the host-mom asked me again if I was comfortable. I smiled and said yes as I tried not to make it so obvious that I was still getting used to eating with my hands. I think she knew.
As we enjoyed the meal and some second helpings, I asked the host-mom’s 14-year old daughter if she would like to travel one day. She replied, “I would like to, but I don’t need to because now with the homestay, the world can come to me.”
Article by Hana LaRock, photos by Max Cordova