Tea with milk and sugar? How about salt and butter?
Dining with monks in Nepal
With friends from Rochester visiting me in Nepal, I was trying to come up with the perfect exotic eats. Nepal does not disappoint in this regard. Hot millet wine drunk through bamboo straw? Check. Goat blood soup? Got that. Water buffalo dumplings? The country’s number one snack.
When they told me blood was definitely off the menu, we still had plenty of things to try. Following an afternoon of sightseeing, we nestled into a low-ceilinged room adjacent to a courtyard graced with Hindu temples to dine on lentil pancakes topped with buffalo meat and then got chat-pat—a mix of puffed rice, beans, potato, chopped onion, mustard oil, and chili pepper—from a cart on the street.
But just eating unusual foods is really not an adventure. An adventure requires a lot more. I felt like I hadn’t really given them an adventurous eating experience, and that I was lax in my hosting duties.
Our last stop on a four-day tour of villages outside the capital of Kathmandu is the Namobuddha monastery. We toured its massive complex, stopping to contemplate the many statues of the Buddha and reveling in a hilltop overlook littered with thousands of prayer flags. The monastery houses monks young and old and allows visitors to stay in the guest hostel.
“Eight dollars per person, twelve if you eat with us. But you have to eat whatever we eat. All vegetarian,” the monk running the reception area told me. Living in Nepal full time, I thought four dollars was an awful lot to pay for a standard Nepali meal. But then I saw my friend Anne’s eyes light up. “We can eat with the monks?” she asked. “Dinner’s in half an hour. You’ll hear the gong and see the small boys running. Follow them,” the monk in charge explained.
We walked to the dining hall where we shed our shoes and entered a large room with individual low benches and tables. The monks sit at the tables for study and prayer. The walls are lined with small golden Buddha statues, and the front of the room features shrines to important Buddhist practitioners. One by one, young monks padded barefoot across the marble-tiled floor to their benches.
Families in rural areas of Nepal often send one of their sons to live at a monastery. Like many religious institutions, the monasteries traditionally have provided education. They still do and take over the boys’ care from as young as four or five years of age. This can be a lifesaver for poor families struggling with mouths to feed. Well fed and educated, the monks also bring respect and religious prestige to the families.
The boys at Namobuddha chattered and giggled as they settled cross-legged into their seats; soon other boys came to dish out soup from massive pots. Before eating, the boys chanted a Buddhist prayer in unison, shouting out of harmony the way boys do. The whole thing was very reminiscent of summer camp, if the campers had shaved heads and crimson robes trailing behind them.
We were served the same soup—thukpa, a quintessential Tibetan stew made from a thick peppery base mixed with vegetables and noodles. It’s the perfect meal for chilly Himalayan nights near the Nepal-Tibet border. A hand-drawn sign of a hungry-looking man on the wall reminded foreign visitors to finish their food out of respect for those who don’t have enough. Our thukpa bowls had been filled to the brim, making this a difficult task. The young monks seemed to have no problem, slurping down their bowls and then pattering off again into the star-studded evening.
We settled into bed around nine o’clock. Just one day in the monastery and we were ready to keep monks’ hours. Breakfast was served at seven the next morning. The monks had already been awake for several hours, studying, by that point.
Breakfast was a plate of curried chickpeas and a steamed bun—plenty of protein and a soft pillow of wheat to wipe up the juices. With it came a steaming bowl of butter tea. A far cry from the sweet tea that finds its place in most Nepali homes, Tibetan butter tea is salty, with little drops of butter fat that bubble to the surface. In the high mountains, people need to take in calories wherever they can get them. Traditional butter tea is made with butter from the yaks that roam at the high elevation.
Tibetans drink butter tea every day; it’s a little hard to swallow for a group of Rochesterians. But adventure is not for the faint of heart. Watching our young monk friends drain their bowls, we knew what we had to do.
So it was bottoms up.
Danielle Preiss is a writer sometimes living in Rochester and sometimes in Nepal. You can find her on Twitter: @daniellepreiss.