Food - Mind, Body and Spirit
In our group of fifteen English people the majority of us were significantly overweight, including myself. Not my husband who is as thin as a rake and has trouble staying at a healthy weight. We had plenty to eat in Nepal. Towards the end even I was struggling to finish all the food we were given. But when I got back I had not put on any weight. This surprised me as I thought I was eating far more than normal.
There was little obesity in Nepal. The people who were carrying a bit of surplus weight were not obese and seemed to be the more affluent city dwellers in sedentary occupations and maybe eating a more westernised diet. We did not see any malnutrition. People didn’t seem to be going short of food.
And yet a lot of the street food was deep fried in batter or pastry.
What we didn’t see was shops selling the sort of convenience food and snacks that we take for granted. No supermarkets with shelves stacked with cakes, biscuits, puddings, ready meals etc. No newsagents with shelves of chocolate and other sweets. These may exist, and maybe we didn’t go to those parts of towns, but I don’t think these sorts of shops and products are the norm for most ordinary Nepali people. There were shops selling packaged snacks and sweets, but not on anything like the scale you see here.
The normal diet for the average Nepali seems to consist largely of fresh food that is locally grown and cooked daily. The staple meal for breakfast, lunch and supper is rice and dhal. We were served a salad with every meal.
And of course the average Nepali leads a far more physically active life than we do. Just growing, harvesting, preparing and cooking the food, never mind anything else.
Cooking is mostly done outside, or in an open roofed area outside. Even in the towns a lot of cooking is done outside the house or on the street. It is done on an open fire or brick/clay oven construction, with holes in the top to stand pots on. Maybe bottled gas, although this is more common in the towns. Here is a photo of a very poor woman with her cooking fire on the street in Bhaktapur, a mediaeval town not far from Khatmandu.
It was like that when I was a child. My mother cooked 3 meals a day from scratch, no fridge, freezer or microwave. The only takeaway was the fish and chip shop, and it only sold fish and chips and meat pies. We knew when mealtimes were and we made sure we were there. Restaurant eating was for the well off and posh, or very special occasions. Ice creams were holiday treats and strictly rationed.
This is a very balanced healthy approach. Very Benedictine in its principles. Our use and abuse of food is a spiritual issue. This idea is found in most religions. (I would say all, but then someone will come along and tell me there is a religion somewhere where eating to excess of luxury foods is the gateway to heaven).
I can remember how all this changed as we grew up, and our parents and the country became more prosperous in the decades after the war, and we all loosened our belts in every sense of the expression.
It’s important not to be overly sentimental about the joys of a lack of modern appliances, and also to appreciate the wonderful abundance of readily available cheap food - we never have to worry about a lack of food - but maybe we have become desensitised to their drawbacks and how we can misuse them. How they encourage our tendency to greed.
The whole experience made me give a lot of thought to my eating habits at home, and just how healthy or unhealthy they are. We eat very little convenience food or sugar, I cook nearly everything from scratch and we even grow some of our own vegetables, I thought we ate a healthy diet. Maybe I am more culturally conditioned than I realised.
It made me realise just how culturally conditioned a lot of our ideas about food are. What we eat, when we eat it, (why not rice and dhal for breakfast?), portion sizes and proportions. For instance, at breakfast what they called ‘meusli’ was just a sprinkle of nuts, seeds and grains, no sugar, on a small bowl of porridge or yoghourt. Nothing was restricted, but they served us what they considered normal portions and proportions. We had apple crumble one day for dessert, it was half the size or less of the apple crumble we had at a well known pub chain recently. But we didn't feel hungry or deprived by the smaller portion.
Since we got back I have tried to adopt a more Nepali style to our food. I love the flavours. I am very taken with the rice and dhal idea. Making a big pot of rice and another of dhal and just eating it every day with different salads and veg. I have tried to become more organised with the cooking and mealtimes.
The human stomach is about the size of a fist. We can train our stomachs to expand to only feel full on large quantities of food, but we don’t actually need anything like the amount we think we do to feel full. Especially if we lead a sedentary lifestyle.
This is what my husband tells me. He can eat the occasional large meal, but he will be so full afterwards he probably won’t eat again for maybe 12 or 18 hours. Hence he can eat whatever he likes and remains thin. He listens to his body.