It was almost ninety degrees, the sun was burning in the sky and our rickety van was climbing up the steep, narrow and unpaved mountain roads of Nepal at about ten miles an hour. We were twelve people in the car, three to five in each row of the van. Right next to me sat Narayan, a family man whom I had met by chance in the streets of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu.
It may sound unusual, but in the streets of Nepal it can happen very easily that a happily smiling Nepalese invites you to their home. When Narayan extended an invitation, I immediately felt drawn to accept. I have traveled and lived abroad many times, always being careful never to do anything frivolous, but sometimes you can really see the sincerity and warm-heartedness in someone’s eyes and you simply know that you can trust them. Luckily, a dear friend of mine, a fifty-year-old Finnish woman who was traveling around Nepal as well, had met Narayan before and assured me that it was safe to accept his invitation. I quickly decided to leave Bhaktapur and the private school where I was teaching earlier than planned to go to Sulikot, the region in the mountains of Nepal where Narayan’s family lives.
Narayan booked the van for us and told me it was the quickest and most comfortable way to reach his hometown. However, sitting in the tiny van with eleven Nepali, loud music blaring out of the radio and the car stopping every few miles because the road was blocked by huge rocks that needed to be rolled out of the way, I had a weird feeling in my gut, doubting whether I had made the right decision. I had informed several people in Nepal as well as others back home in Germany where I was going and when I would be back, but I was traveling with a man I had never met before, and I was on my way to a place in the middle of nowhere, almost ten thousand feet in altitude and hundreds of kilometers away from the next city. I had no clue that what was awaiting me there was going to be one of the most beautiful and life-changing experiences I had ever had.
ARRIVAL IN SULIKOT
After six long hours of shaky roads, breathtaking views, quick stops for lunch and blaring Bollywood music, we eventually arrived. Surrounded by rice terraces, mountains, fields, scattered small villages and goats and chickens strolling around, we stopped at one of the tiny stone houses, which was built right at the steep hillside. It was simple but very beautiful and peaceful. This was Narayan’s home, where he lives with his wife, parents and five children. None of the family members knows their exact age, but Narayan estimates that he is around forty years old, that his wife might be thirty-eight; the children are between six and sixteen years old. I guessed the grandparents’ age to be around sixty, but it was difficult to know for sure because the high altitude and intense sun had tanned their skin quite strongly.
There are no jobs in the area, so Narayan works as a rickshaw driver in Kathmandu and only visits his family about once a month. He feeds all of them with his small salary, but this works out fine because the family has its own chickens and goats, as well as two buffaloes. They also have fields where they grow foods such as rice and maize. They even have a mango tree, which reportedly produces beautiful sweet mangos in the summer. The whole family stays busy maintaining the fields, caring for the animals, cooking and cleaning the house. The kids go to school from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. The rest of the family’s time is used for collective work, games, eating and gatherings. The time that I spent with this beautiful family—working, eating, learning, laughing together and experiencing their interdependence, deep bonds and relationships—was truly magical.
THE TRADITIONAL NEPALESE DIET
To explain the foods that Narayan’s family regularly ate, I would like to outline what the typical Nepalese diet looks like and what I observed in other families and in Nepal’s cities. In general, the Nepali eat rice, legumes, vegetables, meats, eggs and dairy products. The traditional dish is dal bhat, which is based on foods that people grow themselves; usually, dal bhat consists of steamed rice and a very thin lentil soup with spices. The Nepali love this basic dish and eat it almost every day and for every meal—for most people, it is absolutely normal not to have much food variety. Although available throughout Nepal, dal bhat and its elements can vary depending on the region, religion and family. Some eat flattened rice or buckwheat instead of normal rice, but the structure of the meal is always the same.
Tarkari, a spicy vegetable stew with seasonal vegetables, is often an additional component of the diet. This could be a cauliflower-and-potato curry, a tomato stew or tarkari with many different kinds of greens (which often were unfamiliar to me but always tasted great). Also very common is a small amount of very spicy pickles or sauce; though rarely more than a teaspoonful, these condiments do their job. You also often get one or two pieces of raw vegetables with the meal, such as cucumber or carrot.
Because meat is quite expensive, the frequency of meat consumption mostly depends on a family’s income. The meat might be buffalo, goat or chicken and almost always consists of pieces with bones, organs and many varied parts of the animal. The accompanying spices are always quite strong and so well combined that it is easy to eat all the parts, even for westerners who are not used to doing so. Fish is eaten only in villages that are located directly on rivers. If you drive by one of these places, you will see street stalls selling small dried or smoked fish everywhere. Apart from that, the Nepalese do not eat fish on a regular basis. For festivities and special occasions, the Nepali serve meat, fruit and rice pudding or fried baked goods made from rice flour and fried in ghee.
In the bigger cities, you tend to see lots of Western foods. Big jugs of sunflower oil are sold everywhere, soda is very prominent and packaged foods such as noodle soups and candy are common. Therefore, you also see the typical Western health issues and malformations that we all know about. Fortunately, the problems are not as noticeable as in Europe or the United States, but they seem to be becoming more prevalent.
RADIANT HEALTH AND BEAUTY
I am a huge fan of the research carried out by Dr. Weston A. Price with traditional societies and groups. Thus, arriving in Narayan’s home in Sulikot, I was amazed by the radiant health and beauty evident in his family members. On other occasions when I visited the larger cities of Nepal, I did not see people with such perfect teeth and wide jaws, such strong hair, strong bodies, healthy weight and good skin that I was seeing in this family. It was obvious to me that there was a difference in their lifestyle compared to the families I had seen previously. I was beyond excited to see that the people in this area of Nepal still possessed excellent health along with precious wisdom about food and its role in human health and development. I also sensed that in addition to the family’s nutrition and lifestyle, their strong family bonds and deep connection to nature—as well as their geographic isolation—were big contributors to the vibrant health I was observing.
On my first morning, I woke up around four to the sound of Narayan’s wife’s soft voice waking up her fifteen-year-old daughter to help her sweep the floor, clean the kitchen (which was basically a corner of the loam house with a small fireplace) and make tea. Looking out of the glassless window, I was able to see the breathtaking sunrise behind the foggy mountains. The grandparents, who slept with the buffalos and goats in the shed located twenty feet from the house, could be seen preparing food for the animals, accompanied by birds singing and chickens clucking. The scenery was stunning, and I was overwhelmed by the peacefulness of the place.
After feeding and letting out the animals and milking the buffalo, some of the fresh milk was given to the daughter who cooked tea for the family. The rest was simply dumped into a huge jug in the house where it fermented. The most common tea and morning beverage in Nepal is masala. This simple tea, which requires only water, fresh raw buffalo milk, freshly ground ginger, cinnamon and cardamom, was cooked for a few minutes and then served to the whole family. With our tea, we gathered in front of the house, either sitting on the floor or squatting, watching the sun rise and chatting (or trying to communicate) or simply remaining silent and watching the chickens and baby goats around us. The tea was delicious and flavorful, and the high fat and nutrient content nourished us for the first hours of the day.
With no electricity, no kitchen, no supermarket and not even knives (only a single sickle), the women start cooking quite early in the day. Making a fire, preparing the vegetables and occasionally buying meat from other nearby families takes time. Because the family considered it an honor to have me as their guest, I did not get to help very much, other than sharing (with the grandma of the family) the wonderful task of peeling twenty to thirty cloves of garlic for the vegetable stew. For one meal, I observed the fifteen-year-old daughter of the family preparing the meat, squeezing something out of a little pipe. I guessed that it was the intestine or something similar. (During dinner that evening, I saw the daughter indulgently biting into a crunchy piece of meat that turned out to be the “pipe”—probably the intestine—that she had prepared earlier.)
Lunch—one of the two daily meals—was between ten and eleven in the morning. The basis of lunch was, of course, dal bhat, consisting of massive amounts of rice and a bowl of lentil soup. I guessed that every single person, even the kids, ate at least two hundred and fifty to three hundred grams (nine to ten ounces) of rice per meal. Having grown up with a more varied diet in Europe, it was hard for me to imagine that these people ate more or less the same meal every single day, every single time. I finally wrapped my head around it when I taught a little English to some of the kids and asked them for their favorite color, favorite animal and favorite food. At first, they did not know what to reply to the last question; then, they simply said “rice and meat.” Of course! Rice and meat are the foods they eat every day to nourish their bodies.
The typical way to eat dal bhat is to dump the lentil soup on top of the rice, mash it, form little clumps with your hand and slide them into your mouth. These people had never used silverware in their whole life and had incredible skills eating this way. I tried not to spill rice and embarrass myself.
The dal bhat was accompanied by a delicious tomato stew, cauliflower, potato, a small dollop of homemade buffalo butter and a big cup of fermented buffalo milk. The milk was rich, dense and delicious—and much stronger than any fermented milk drink that I had ever tasted. Because the family dumps their fresh milk in the jug every day, the concoction keeps fermenting on a continual basis and develops a strong taste and highly beneficial bacteria. I was lucky not to experience any stomach issues from that big mug of fermented milk, probably because I had already been experimenting with fermented foods for a long while!
As the honored guest, my meals always looked a little different from what the others ate. I received more of the precious ingredients such as vegetable stew, meats, condiments and even the very precious buffalo butter, which Narayan treated as a family treasure. The kids often just got a huge plate of rice, lentil soup and soured milk for lunch, before going off to school fueled for hours.
WORK AND PLAY
Family members spent their afternoons working in the fields, washing clothes, cleaning the house and caring for the animals—but also allowed time for resting, talking, joking and enjoying each other’s company. Several times a day, neighbors (who were mostly distant relatives whose mountain houses were located fifteen to twenty minutes away by foot) came by to spend some time, drink tea, chat or help out.
I loved observing the social structures. It was mind-blowing for me to see that basic Western habits and customs that had always seemed so universal to me simply did not exist in that context. People did not hug, shake hands or say “hello,” “how are you?” or “goodbye.” I quickly realized these social rituals were simply unnecessary in this kind of environment. People see each other every day, have known each other from birth, are deeply dependent on one another and know about every life event and change, including their history, ancestors and family. They are never apart. Family members even sleep close together, warming each other on thin, tough straw mats. Despite the absence of hugs, they highly enjoy physical contact. It is common to see people, even teenage boys, hanging out or walking hand in hand or even arm in arm. The deep social connections make most of the Western world’s social rituals redundant.
YOUNG AND OLD
One of the most beautiful things I saw in Sulikot was how the grandparents were integrated into the family. I guessed that Narayan’s parents were around sixty years old (none of the older generation actually knows how old they are), and they sparkled with vitality. They were full members of the family, working as much as the others, sleeping as much as the others and not seeming to grow old at all. Seeing the beautiful smiling grandma with her perfectly aligned teeth and strong body resting in a squat position or carrying huge buckets of water was amazing to me but entirely normal there.
When the kids came home from school, the activities initiated in the early morning continued. This included cooking food, carrying water from the spring, caring for the animals and doing field work, alternating with hanging around, laughing, playing ball games and chasing the ball down the steep hills and rice terraces every time it accidentally left the rocky road. In the midst of all the work, it was stunning to see what kind of peace this family had. When the work was done, we simply enjoyed each other’s company for hours. We sat in front of the house or on the tiny balcony and enjoyed the vastness and beauty of the landscape—being present and enjoying the moment—without any need to talk, find other activities or go somewhere either physically or mentally.
THE EVENING MEAL
The time span from lunch to dinner was quite long, but we rarely snacked because the meals were big and nourishing. Sometimes we had another tea in the afternoon or received a mug of warm buffalo milk with a piece of raw onion. Every meal and every snack was nutritious and well-combined.
When darkness began to fall, family members chased all of the chickens and goats into the house, where they spent the night in the same room with the fireplace where Narayan, his wife and two of the five children slept. When I asked Narayan why the animals had to go into the house at night, he told me, “Because of the tigers.” I thought this was a joke until I took a walk with two of the boys one day; after ten minutes of walking, they pointed to the forest saying, “There tiger home.” Because their English skills were quite limited, I asked Narayan about it later that day, and he confirmed that a few tigers lived in the area and that this was the reason why there were no dogs in the village. “Tigers like dogs,” he said, “but they don’t like people, so don’t worry.” I was glad that he waited to tell me this until one of the last days of my visit, after I had slept every night next to a glassless window. Narayan was both surprised and amused that I feared tigers at all.
After all of the animals had been brought into the house, the whole family gathered around the fireplace and sat crossed-legged in a semicircle, waiting for dinner. With only one light bulb and power that worked only at night and only sometimes, we mostly enjoyed the cozy and relaxing atmosphere created by the fire, the bright stars and the moon. The cook (the mother or the daughter) always sat in the middle of the semicircle next to the fireplace and served the food. Whereas lunch was usually vegetarian, for dinner it was more usual to eat meat. Narayan told me that the family ate meat about three times a week. However, “eating meat” did not refer to eating muscle meat. The family would buy a bag of chicken or goat meat that included every imaginable part of the animal, including organs and bones. It was incredible to experience how well-nourished this family was, despite their limited resources and options.
As the honored guest, I was always the first one to be served. Most of the time, I even received a plate of meat shortly before dinner, with the most exquisite pieces (such as the liver), “to try if it was good.” For dinner itself, I received more meat and more vegetables than all other family members. During dinner, the person serving would continue to provide more rice and lentil soup until I insistently stated that I was full. At the same time, it was evident that everyone received the nourishment they needed.
IN DR. PRICE’S FOOTSTEPS
While in Nepal, I stayed with a total of four families in four different cities. In each case, I enjoyed my stay and learned a lot from it but never felt the need to stay. However, after three days in Sulikot with Narayan and his wonderful wife, kids and parents—living their traditional life and feeling their indescribable freedom, joy and connection—I immediately felt as though I were following in Dr. Price’s footsteps when he traveled to Switzerland. It was impressive to see how this traditional Nepali community and its dietary wisdom displayed more skill and success in terms of nutrition than any modern-day professional nutritionists. I also observed how the appreciation for the foods one eats is enhanced when obtaining and preparing the foods oneself. I was captivated not only by family members’ health and physical perfection but also by their traditions, relationships and rootedness. I surely will go back soon.
NO DENTISTS NEEDED
During my stay at Narayan’s house in Sulikot, I didn’t observe any dental hygiene either in the morning or in the evening. Narayan brushed his teeth once in a while because he learned about it in the capital city where he worked, but I did not see anyone else do so.
The abundant health of everyone in the Sulikot area was impressive. I asked my host Narayan about the most important foods for pregnant women. It didn’t surprise me that he mentioned ghee, cheese, goat’s meat and green vegetables. Although I did not actually see any cheese during my stay, it seemed logical to me that the villagers would use some of their fermented buffalo milk to make cheese. The Nepali Times has described Nepal’s “beautiful mountains, fantastic growing conditions, diverse countryside, [and] aptitude for animal husbandry” as offering the perfect setting for cheese production (archive.nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=15426).
I’m wondering if their rice was soaked & rinsed in the paddies (as wheat once was in its sheaves in the fields, before modern machine methods, or if they did it their own self, or not. This would be an important issue I have seen mentioned nowhere.
Anna Bremer says
Dear @DrJim, thank you for your comment. I have to admit that I am not exactly sure if they soaked their rice. I don’t think they did but I am not sure about it. What I can say is that they actually bought it and didn’t grow it themselves as many others did.
Very interesting dweller. As an Indian city dweller, our diet is essentially the same except we eat more wheat than rice. Of course, the city people can not match the freshness of the produce of isolated hill villages. Also, the city people have to be very careful not to consume vegetable oils. All food outside of one’s home can be presumed to be made from cheap vegetable oils.
The rice we cook is soaked for about a half hour.