I step out of the hotel, and the central square of Patan is teeming. People are out, the air’s cool, the sun high, and the day well in full swing. It’s only six in the morning, and a man pushes his ice cream cart by me – I’m already in love with Nepal.
I’m in Kathmandu with a friend for a cooking class… a traditional kitchen experience at Dhakwha House to be precise. We’ve been advised to set up camp in Patan, an ancient city, which today acts more as a suburb of the capital. It’s best decision #1 — the buildings in Patan are traditional, stunning and devotedly preserved by a group of heritage enthusiasts I met through a nifty site called cosynepal.com.
They’ve connected me with our culinary hosts, the delightful couple Prakash and Pramila — best decision #2. We meet for the first time in the middle of the street. From afar, they are beaming widely in what seems to be a genuine Nepalese trait. Not much by way of introduction, they urge us to hurry, for there’s only an hour or so to shop.
The makeshift marketplace is splayed over a network of streets. Vendors set up their wares along sidewalks and leave when the stores open up. The place is a cacophony of colour. Tomatoes spill out of baskets onto rucksack mats. People are haggling over mountains of mushrooms. Buyers want to know exactly when some tubers left the soil.
Prakash and Pramila say we’re buying only local and fresh. We seek out stalls where the options are fewer. The reason: such produce come from small-scale farmers or even home growers and is less likely to contain pesticides. It doesn’t take long for us to notice the absence of scales. Most of the items are grouped into small piles and sold such. The method seems arbitrary but allows for an efficient transaction.
We stock up on greens and gourds of every imaginable size, as our guides explain how each ingredient is used in Newari cuisine, the food of the Newar people in Kathmandu. My companion and I see poppy for the first time. What a thrilling moment!
Around every corner, we bump into another relative or friend of our hosts. This is, after all, happy hour. At some point, my companion spots the find of the day: Himalayan rock salt. I’m an ardent fan and even have special salt shaver in my kitchen. I gasp when I discover that three small chunks for which I paid $8.90 at a gourmet store in Washington cost nine-and-a-half cents here. That’s a 10,000% mark-up, mind you. I buy home a modest sack of the glorious stuff (best decision #3).
I ask what we’re making for dessert and am told it’s not really part of the cuisine. My heart sinks a little. But as we leave, there’s a young girl selling puffed rice. The barrel of ready-to-eat cereal looks strangely irresistible, especially the small packets of confection that resemble rice krispie treats. Prakash says they’re called Bombay Laddoo. Although they’re traditionally held together by a simple solution of melted jaggery, I make a mental note that brown sugar would be an easy substitute.
With Bombay Laddoo in hand (and tummy), I’m raring to begin cooking. It’s 7a.m., and the Nepal kitchen experience is off to a spectacular start.