My sari-clad friend, who is incidentally about half my height, indicated that we’d have a casual dinner here at the hotel my first night here. She (and her driver) instead picked me up and whisked me off to a fabulous restaurant that had the elaborate wood carved door and window frames that Nepal is known for. The place was gorgeous. We entered the lobby, took our shoes off, and washed our hands under water poured from a copper pot, directly under photos of Prince Charles, Hillary Clinton, the late Nepali Crown Prince (and King for a few days) Dipendra (more about him soon), and others various dignitaries, some of whom I did not recognize, and some who were big shots in the development world (USAID, the World Bank, etc.) dining at this restaurant.
We were seated on floor cushions at a table covered with all sorts of hand-forged utensils, copper glasses, and ceramic plates. The servers, women in traditional dress, came to put, get this, large white aprons on us (like chef aprons, tied at the waist and behind the neck) and to tuck big red napkins in our laps. (And this point, I am imagining flying food in this very dignified environment, but this is not to be.) A menu came with my name on it, the date 06 Mangshir, 2063, and a description of the six course traditional Newari dinner to come.
Given the circumstances, I followed my friend’s lead with how to move through the meal. The hors d’ oeuvres were foods served during religious ceremonies, and a bit was to be moved to a small leaf dish as an offering to Lord Krishna. (There are a lot of gods to keep happy.) My friend leaned in and said, “It’s OK to give Krishna more of what you don’t want than the things you like, that’s what I do.” (Doesn’t seem like this would be too effective if one were trying to get on a god’s best side, but so be it.)
The server poured rice wine (which tasted like dry sherry and must have been 100 proof) into a very very small bowl from a least two feet up. I was told this skill is learned before a woman is married, since she goes around to more than 100 wedding guests and serves each of them.
Thankfully, many of these courses were what she called “snacks” and were vegetarian. Roti and spinach. Nepali dumplings. Cream of cauliflower (and some other veggie) soup. Lentils and curries and tofu and potatoes. Things served in bowls and on leaves, and brought and taken away. The meal ended with saffron rice pudding, and I had the feeling of not being overly full, but having had eaten just the right amount of food. I was told that these meals can go up to 22 courses!
On the way out, I was given a very small terracotta brick with a flower astamangal on it as a souvenir. Astamangals are the 8 lucky signs of Nepali iconography. They are used throughout brick and wood carved architecture. I was given the flower, a sign of purity and pledge of salvation. There seems to be a very deeply ingrained system of omens, auspicious colors (red and black, best together), pujis (rituals to the gods) and other similar mystical elements that are integral to one’s everyday life. It does strike me that so many cultures have very concrete physical religious elements integrated into daily life (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist). I wonder if we have lost something in relegating this to the corners of our lives or purging it altogether. In the van from the airport, there were some young Mormons from Utah who were talking about marriage and temple blessings, and this, I found, repelled me. (But how different is it really? I’m not sure.)
Back to the restaurant. As we were leaving, I remarked to my friend that I wished I had brought my camera. From her response, I think she would have been moderately horrified if I had. The restaurant had a number of picture-snapping tourists, but she knows the management (to the point where her apron has her name embroidered on it) and as in her mind we were most definitely not tourists, this would have breached the line of decorum.