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FAQ- The Nepali Diet (All about food)

My lunch in Nepal

Everyone is always asking me what the kids and I eat.  I've noticed this question a lot since I've been back.  "What's the diet like?  What are the local staples?  What do the children eat at meal time?  Where does our food come from and who makes it?"

Nepal is one of the most food deficit countries in the world, yet just about everyone subsistence farms.  Food is never wasted and always shared.  At Kopila Valley, we try to grow as much of our own food as possible.  Every square inch of our yard and our neighbors' is covered with vegetables and fruit trees.  We plant and eat whatever is in season.  For example, we'll grow broccoli, that's all we eat for 2 weeks and then when it's finished, we move onto the next vegetable, like green beans, peas, pumpkin, or mustard greens.  

What we don't grow, we source from local farmers. Early in the morning women come carrying vegetables in big baskets called "dhokas" on their backs before they head to market. We buy from them in bulk and they give us good rates, trying to unload as many fruits and vegetables as possible in one spot.  We've become close to many of these women. Gagan Malla, one of my dear friends and one of the favorite uncles around Kopila, arranges and orders our ration supply (sugar, flour, tea, beans, and rice).

The staples are definitely white rice, lentils, and potatoes potatoes potatoes.  If you ask my Fellows and volunteers about food variety, they would probably roll their eyes and crack some jokes.  We eat a lot of the same exact things around here.  My dad is always joking with everyone and saying "I wonder what's for dinner tonight."  It's almost always the same thing.

Saturdays at our house are meat night... once a week.  Some of my children are vegetarian and some are not. I leave this as a personal choice for them. We follow Hindu and Buddhist practices and do not eat cow, buffalo, or pig meat. Every Saturday night the Aunties make a goat stew or (my favorite) chicken soup. We try to eat animals that we raise. We almost always slaughter and butcher them ourselves. Our entire family eats about 14 chickens for dinner. It's really sad when one of the uncles comes on the motorcycle carrying them all alive. An hour later they are in our soup. It's definitely different than buying meat at the grocery store. On Friday nights we make spaghetti. The kids really didn't like spaghetti at first. Actually, they didn't like anything they couldn't recognize or hadn't seen before and whenever I'd make them try something new, they'd look at me and be like "mom, can't we just have rice?"  But now they look forward to pasta night.  The American in me also insisted that I get them all to love peanut butter. SUCCESS! 

Meat and fruit are probably the most expensive thing in our budget. Fruits are available seasonally. During the summer there is an abundance of mangos, litchi, bananas, papaya and guava on a rotating basis. During the winter, the most delicious clementines come from Dailek and there is a month or so of the best Himalayan apples ever from up in the Jumla mountains. Sometimes a specific thing, like grapes, or kafal berries, water melon or sweet potatoes pop up for a week but then they're gone almost as fast as they appeared. My fruit vendor always saves the good stuff for us. We are lucky. The kids and Nena love fresh coconut that comes from India. That's a favorite treat around here.

When I'm here in the U.S. it makes me sad to see packaged and synthetic food everywhere. I worry about our children here, our food culture and the American diet. I see more and more packaged junk food coming to Nepal. The children celebrate when they get greens or a slice of cucumber or carrot or lemon with their lunch.  A hard boiled egg for breakfast is their favorite thing in the world. It's amazing how different the paradigm is with food in Nepal and other parts of the world. It's always a rough adjustment for me going back and forth. Most of the children at our school don't get fruit or a wide variety of vegetables. Homemade raw yogurt is a rare and special treat. They eat these things like candy. When Anjali was here in the U.S. she didn't really enjoy sweets or ice-cream or pizza or anything fun that I wanted her to.  I'd have to beg her to eat them.  Every day she'd cook up a 6 egg omelette and make herself hash brown potatoes or cooked greens.  Everyone likes the food they are accustomed to.

My least favorite thing about the diet in Nepal is the mustard oil.  That's all we ever cook with.  It tastes a little bitter and you have to let it burn off for a while before you cook your veggies.  I'm always telling the cooks to use less.  My favorite thing about the diet is the "dal" lentil soup every day.  Fresh "Roti" tortillas for dinner are also delicious, especially cooked over the fire or fresh off the stove.  I stop in the kitchen every day on my way home from school and grab one and the kids are always lingering outside the kitchen waiting for dinner.  I bring salad seeds back and we eat that a lot too as a treat.  Most Nepali people don't eat any raw vegetables.

Our food is prepared and cooked by a wonderful team of men and women. We call them the "aunties and uncles."  They are always smiling.  They cook with gas bottles that get delivered and refilled every few days. The gas bottles hook up to a stove via a long pipe. We use huge pots for the rice and pressure cookers for the beans. Our food and gas bottles make up for 50% of our entire operating budget. Having healthy and nourished children is a very important objective for us and I try to keep them as connected to food and where it comes from as possible. Hunger is something we see every single day, so we try to waste as little as possible. Everyone helps with serving at lunch, the teachers, the kids/ house leaders, and the volunteers. The children sitting together eating breakfast, lunch and dinner are always my favorite moments of the day. At home, I make the kids count off to 40 to make sure everyone is sitting around the table together at meal time. It's quite the scene. 

Here are some photos I put together of food, food and more food.  I'd be happy to answer any questions about meals, or food or anything!  Ask away.

Shova auntie pealing garlicLachimey Auntie preparing and cleaning the lentilsJune is corn month! There is so much of it.Our school gardenNepal's rice paddies are beautiful and seen everywhere throughout our valleyRice potSchool lunch in the Kopila cafeteriaThe teachers eat with the kidsEveryone knows how much I love this woman! Our dear Bauju, head of the kitchen.Cutie pies eating lunchThe kitchen counter

References (14)

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Reader Comments (15)

Is there ever an over abundance for canning or preserving? This might be a silly question. We're trying to get there w our Farm to School food growing program here in Ithaca. I LOVE this food post. :-)

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie Sanazaro Santi

Leslie, unfortunately we don't have too much abundance to get that into preserving. We do occasionally make pickled chutneys and sauer craut with radishes, mango, cabbage and carrot. Your school in Ithaca looks awesome. Checking it out now. Thanks for reading our blog!

July 16, 2013 | Registered Commentermaggie doyne

Dear Maggie, bright shining star,

What you wrote filled me full like a beautiful meal, and made my heart fill with faith for the human capacity for generosity, kindness and hope and finally your words and pictures also filled my eyes with the best kind of tears -- those of compassion and understanding and of yearning too. Someday not too long from now I will see you again whether in Nepal, or here in the US.

Much love to you and all your family in Nepal (and New Jersey, I think...?) and throughout the world.


July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Mulvaney

Is cheese ever an option? Even if beef isn't eaten would a dairy cow or dairy goats be an option? Fresh cheese is quite easy to make (it looks like you are making your own yogurt already) and nutritious and most kids love it. Just a thought, not that you aren't already stretched! For most people to survive it takes a village. You, Maggie, create villages.

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCathie Leslie

It's funny I was just talking to a friend about cheese and she was also telling me how easy it is to make with acid and some kind of tablets? I'll look into some recipes and try it one day with the kids. There is an abundance of yak cheese but we don't like it all that much. It smells a little funky. This would be a fun activity with the kids. Thanks!!!

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie

You truly are a bright shining star. Thank you so much for this beautiful and very important post. You are such an inspiration. Everything you write makes me bawl! I can't WAIT to meet you someday and bring my children to visit your school. May we all follow in your footsteps!!

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi

I love that you put so much emphasis on good meals and feeding the kids. As a teacher I know that many behavior problems and attitude problems (and stomach aches, headaches, etc.) are caused by hungry kids and I am so glad to see that you are addressing that first, before teaching them. No one can concentrate with a grumbling belly!

I am curious about how you adjusted to the food there when you first moved there. Is it hard to adjust to the different foods/tastes when you come back to the states to visit, and when you go back home? I also want to know what food(s) from the US you miss the most =)

THANK YOU for taking care of these kids, and all that you do for them, and for blogging about it so I can live vicariously through you =)

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

i was going to ask about food preservation, particularly drying and pickling, but i see that's already been asked and answered.

however, i was curious how long of a non-growing season they have, and what they eat in that season? You've mentioned it being very cold, so I'd guess that during the winter time there are not many fruits and veggies in season, altho perhaps there's root veggies that appear late in the fall and can be easily stored in a root cellar. Also, the monsoon season would perhaps not have any harvests occurring?

also, i'm curious about what spices are available and commonly used, if any.

re: peanut butter

have to say i'm currently a bit more enamoured of almond butter these days, but i love peanut butter too. as a child, i remember reading a book about george washington carver, an african american scientist, who "invented" peanut butter as an inexpensive source of protein, along with lots of other uses for peanuts. (i just googled, and apparently peanut butter existed in a variety of societies before him, so he didn't "invent" it as i remembered from my grade-school reading, but he helped popularize it again.) but he also overcame a lot of oppression and discrimination and did some great things, so aside from being a good story about peanut butter, it might have some other story-time value for all your munchkins.

re: cheese-making

i haven't made cheese, but i've made tofu and yogurt. (do they eat tofu there? do they grow soybeans?) one of the better sources i found for those also has some good cheese-making pages of info. he does a good job of explaining some of the science behind it all too. (not a surprise, look what his day job is!)

David B. Fankhauser, Ph.D., Professor of Biology and Chemistry, University of Cincinnati Clermont College, Batavia OH





(and, as with everyone else, i love your posts, which give me a glimpse of a different world, and find inspiration in your work.)

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersgl

Melissa, thanks so much for taking the time to write me. I have a lot of respect for teachers! The foods I miss while I'm away in Nepal are definitely avocado, grapefruit, ANYTHING raw, like a good salad, definitely fish, salmon, sword fish, tuna. There is nothing like a good bagel with cream cheese, coffee, and bread, although I'm currently on this whole gluten free kick. Adjusting to the food in Nepal was fine for me although there were times in the beginning that I was sick because of the different bacteria and stuff that my stomach wasn't used too. A lot of the volunteers and visitors who come get a little sick in the first few weeks.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie

sgl, thanks for all the links!!! awesome!!! the spices we use are garlic, ginger, tumeric, chili (green and red), coriander seed, and a lot of things I don't know the names of. The spices are yummy. Nepal is close to the equator and has good long growing season. The problem is lack of rain when it's not monsoon but monsoon is really good for the rice paddies.

thanks for writing!!!

July 18, 2013 | Registered Commentermaggie doyne

Hi Maggie,
You said that "gas bottles make up for 50% of our entire operating budget.". How about considering a bio-gas option. With all the kids, farms and cattles you might be able to get most of the gas supply produced in the backyard of Kopila valley itself. I'm not an expert on this but you might be able to get good information about it in the internet.

If it will be cheaper energy in the long run it will definitely be a good idea esp. because Kopila valley will be using "green energy" then!!

July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBishesh

Bishesh, we are totally looking into it for our new property!! We even got a 1000 grant from the Awesome Foundation to help us! Thanks for the link.

July 19, 2013 | Registered Commentermaggie doyne

Hello Maggie!

Do any of the children have food allergies or other medical dietary restrictions? If so, how do you handle that?

July 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCameron

Cameron, thanks for your question. None of my students have food allergies. This isn't anything I've ever had to think about. Perks of living in Nepal!

July 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie

hi loved this article of your about food in nepal i am actually from surkhet and currently living in kathmandu i am coming home real soon in dashain and want to visit your school and will be glad to do offer any help you need. can you tell me where is your school located in surkhet??

August 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterramesh bhattarai

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