It was a face he kept casting sidelong glances at. She had a face that became prettier the more familiar you got with it. It glowed, and it turned red when she saw him stare...
2015 was the year of momos.
He believed he was an expert on South Asian cuisine. She, the 22-year-old Nepalese woman, may have lulled him, the 22-year-old British tourist, into believing that.
He liked determining the ingredients from which a dish had been crafted. He’d never start a meal mixing vegetable with meat, meat with lentil, lentil with rice. First, he wanted to soak in the spices that had gone into the making of individual dishes—the pungency of black pepper in the aloo gobi, the nuttiness of fenugreek in the dal, the earthiness of cumin in the jeera chicken, the piquancy of red pepper in the tomato sauce—and then he would mix the foods up, rice and dal and cauliflower florets and a big, juicy chunk of chicken, skin intact, torn from its tendon, all coming together in an imperfect ball. There would be dalle, just a hint of it, chilli so hot that his nose would water. He would soon abandon fork, spoon and knife to eat with fingers.
He had first seen her making Tibetan dumplings by the candlelight in her Kathmandu home, which doubled as a guest house. He wanted to experience a place that wasn’t a hotel, and this guest house—a home stay, they called it—with its constant power failures was perfect for that authentic experience he craved, different from the palace hotels he had stayed in on his tour of India. She was mincing onions—rap, rap, rap, rap, thump, rap, rap—on a thin chopping board, adding them to the rapidly growing mountain of vegetables by her side as she sniffled, sometimes letting go of the knife so she could brush aside strands of hair that fell on her face.
It was a face he kept casting sidelong glances at. She had a face that became prettier the more familiar you got with it. It glowed, and it turned red when she saw him stare. She avoided his gaze, concentrating instead on getting rid of browned coriander stems, chopping and dicing and slicing. The cabbage, too—fresh from the ground and glistening with dewdrops—demanded her attention. She washed the vegetable, hacked it in two, and shredded each half into thousands of pieces that she mixed with carrots, ginger, onions and coriander.
Her father, whose accent he was still getting used to, made his presence felt with a cough.
“These are what we call momos,” the father spluttered. “They could very well be the national dish of Nepal.”
“Brilliant,” he said. He asked her if he could help her knead the dough. She laughed.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” she said.
And then their eyes met, locked.
She made little balls of dough and rolled them into circular wrappings, inside which she stuffed the vegetable mix, closing them in perfect pleats, like those of a sari.
“Do you eat the dumplings by themselves?” he asked, knowing the answer.
“No, there’s a sauce.”
“The chutney?” he bragged.
“Yes, the chutney.”
“Watching you cook is like watching someone create art.”
“It is an art,” she said.
The momos went into the steamer.
“When do you know they are ready?” he asked.
“When the momos are shiny,” she said, her face shiny.
He had encountered momos in India but was unprepared for their ubiquity in Nepal.
“I’ve eaten them before,” he said, as she transferred eight dumplings, plump, white and glossy, to his plate. The sauce, a concoction of tomatoes and chilli, went on the side.
“I’m sure you have,” she replied, in a manner that could have been dismissive.
He waited for her to join him, but she was busy with another batch of momos—rolling, stuffing, pleating, steaming—that her father helped her with.
“My daughter just returned from medical school for holidays,” the father said, hardly able to disguise his clumsy attempt at closing a momo shut. “Stayed away from home for too long.”
At first he thought the father was warning him to stay away from her, but after he restrung the old man’s words, he decided the sentence had nothing to do with him.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked her.
“No, I have too many of these to steam,” she replied.
He pierced a momo with a fork and brought it to his mouth. She looked at him to gauge his reaction. It was good but nothing extraordinary. He moved the dumpling around his mouth to make a more informed verdict.
“It’s delicious,” he exaggerated.
“You aren’t eating it right,” she reprimanded.
She slathered a spoonful of chutney on a momo. “Now, eat this. This is the way.”
He ate eight, then another eight and then another eight momos. He stopped because he could eat no more.
“These are excellent,” he said, meaning it. “They are so succulent.”
“Everything is garden fresh,” she replied.
The father was pleased. “You like it,” he said. “We can make momos every day for you.”
“It’s too much work to make them every day,” the daughter said.
The father and daughter quarrelled in Nepali. He could make out words like “guest” and “honour” until the argument abruptly stopped when the daughter exiled herself from the kitchen.
“She’s tired,” the father said.
After excusing himself, he went into his room to lie down. He had overeaten. He couldn’t sleep.
The next morning, he asked her to take him out for some meat momos.
“What would you like? Mutton, pork or chicken?” she asked.
“I can’t decide between lamb and pork,” he replied.
Her father was at work, so she took him to her favourite restaurant—a shack, in a cluster of equally decrepit shacks.
“I hope you won’t hold this place to Western standards of hygiene,” she said.
Inside the kerosene-lamp-illuminated hovel, he might have seen a cockroach. They were the only customers.
“I’m adventurous,” he said, perching himself on a rickety stool.
“I saw that last night. Given how many pieces you consumed, I’m guessing a plate won’t be enough for you here.”
“I was afraid you would mind if I didn’t eat three hundred pieces.”
“I’ll warn you the food here takes long to arrive.”
“We could get a few beers then?” he asked, hopeful.
“You can,” she replied. “I’m not drinking.”
“Don’t you drink at all?”
“Oh, like a fish, but in Kathmandu, I behave like a good Nepali girl.”
He laughed. She laughed.
“Why did you choose to go to college in Delhi?” he asked.
“So I could give vent to my wanton ways before I finally succumb to an arranged marriage.”
“Couldn’t the giving vent to—you know—those ways be done in Kathmandu?”
“No, here I’ve to be the dutiful daughter helping her single dad run his failing home stay. What about you?”
“Just finished uni. Training to be a barrister. Taking time off.”
“Backpacking in Nepal? Such a cliché.”
“And your mum?” He wondered if he had gone too far, but he’d been curious since he set foot in the house.
“She left us.”
“Oh, I am terribly sorry. I assumed she was dead.”
“She is to me.”
He reached out to her, but she drew away from his hand.
“I am sorry your father and you had a fight about me last night,” he said. “I understood something about honouring the guests. You and your father are so hospitable.”
“You misheard,” she replied. “You misunderstood.”
“Are you sure? I could’ve sworn.”
“It was the last thing from hospitality. A big, fat bill will confront you at check out. Twenty-four momos don’t come cheap.”
He had been so sure he was staying with nice people.
“We’re a business, not a charity,” she said, perhaps reading his mind.
To mitigate the awkwardness, he changed the subject. Food was a safe topic.
“I think I’ve learnt the right way to eat with my fingers, but I still drop some stuff on my shirt,” he said. “Can you teach me to do it better?”
“It’s easy,” she said, exaggeratedly demonstrating how to eat a momo with her hand. “Like this.”
“No, teach me how to eat rice with my fingers.”
“I can’t make promises.”
“That’s generous,” he said.
“It’s an art,” she replied.
“The art of eating with one’s fingers.”
She would only eat one chicken momo. She said being a cook as good as she was meant facing constant disappointment when eating out.
They developed a routine.
Soon after the father headed for work, they would venture out. Often, they walked. Sometimes, they took the safa tempo, a shared taxi where they were packed in with two dozen people. In the cramped vehicle, aided by bumps and turns, their bodies would touch. He would steal glances at her when flesh inadvertently grazed flesh, but she did a good job of pretending she didn’t feel any contact. They would mix and match the touristy with the obscure—one minute they were surrounded by guides promising him nubile girls and the next they were in some isolated dirt road from where they caught mountain views. And they went to many restaurants, a mix of middle- and low-brow places in Patan. She was convinced no high-end eatery served authentic Nepalese food. He wondered if she liked his company as much as he did hers. He was good looking, charming and funny, yes, but he sometimes suspected that she made these trips so she could escape boredom when Kathmandu underwent daily ten-hour power cuts.
The food education continued. She was never truly happy with restaurant food. She needed north Indian food to taste like north Indian food and Nepalese food to taste like Nepalese food. When one aped the other, she was furious. He had just about begun noticing the distinction between the two cuisines—he still thought they were more alike than different—but would soon know where the similarities ended. “All that grease and oil in north Indian food—nothing of that you find in Nepalese food,” she would say. She disliked it when one spicy flavour overpowered another—like in the aalooko achaar, the potato salad he was trying to develop a taste for, copious spoonfuls of which she ate to determine where exactly the problem lay.
“Oh, yes, just too many spices—your tongue doesn’t know what spice to hold and what spice to release,” she complained.
“Like a man falling for an exasperating woman he knows is wrong for him.”
“Stupid, senseless analogy.”
“No, not so stupid. Hear me out. He doesn’t know what feelings to keep and what emotion to let go of.”
“Quite a philosopher you are.”
“I think I made sense.”
“You speak like a lovelorn, jilted lover—it’s sad. You’re pathetic. We are the same age, but you are so immature. Pathetic.”
No one had called him that before. He was the one who usually thought people were pathetic. He was the most “solid” person he knew. He knew this without conceit, just as he knew he was handsome without being proud of it. He had grown up surrounded by love and wealth, excelled at sports and gone to Harrow and Cambridge. His name was most likely to come up when friends discussed who among them had the perfect life. That’s why he was taken aback when this strange Nepalese woman called him the last thing he thought of himself as. It was insulting, but he might have enjoyed the insult; it compounded his desire to be nurtured by her. Now that was definitely pathetic.
She had moved on to more important topics, unaware of the turmoil in him she had just unleashed.
Had this been a movie, he would have leaned in and kissed her. But Nepal was no movie. To kiss her this early in their acquaintance would be wrong here. They hadn’t even held hands.
“You look beautiful when you talk about food,” he said.
She must have heard him, but she continued yammering. “I can’t tell you how mad I get when momos get Indianized. When I visited London, every Nepalese restaurant served Indian food. The owners should all be sued. I called a few restaurateurs cheats to their faces. It was strangely satisfying.”
“I said you look beautiful today.”
“Yes, I called them thieves and cheats to their faces. What business does chicken tikka masala have in a Nepalese restaurant?”
“Am I not allowed to say you look beautiful?”
“Indian restaurants masquerading as Nepalese restaurants—terrible, terrible thing. You should do something about it.”
He gave up.
He had to ask her out. He did it in the most matter-of-fact way.
“Would you like to go out with me?” he said.
“No,” she said.
“Well, for one, you white people think you can waltz in here like you own us.”
“Two, I am already seeing someone. The thought never occurred to you, did it?”
“I thought we were having a good time.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“I want to get to know you better.”
“You’re a patron at my father’s guest house.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. When I saw you chop onions, I...”
“Are you serious?”
“No. Are you serious about the onion bit? You were attracted to the sight of a woman in the kitchen? The subservience was appealing to you, wasn’t it?”
He wanted to explain himself to her, to let her know how much the moment had meant to him.
“I mean, you were looking so beautiful by the candlelight.”
“What now? The poverty was romantic? Yes, we have power failures here.”
“You don’t get it, I am afraid.”
“Ugh. What you need is a servant.”
“Please … I am trying to explain my feelings.”
“You’re only making things worse. Go blabber about how beautiful I look when I sweat over your momos to someone else.”
“I thought we bonded.”
“Are you accusing me of leading you on?”
“No, I didn’t mean that.”
“Talking to you about spices for two minutes doesn’t mean we bonded.”
“Did I do anything wrong?”
“Yes, you don’t ask out a woman who’s already seeing some other man.”
“Had you told me…”
“Oh, now I need to spell everything out?”
He didn’t know what to say.
“I think you should stay elsewhere. I don’t feel comfortable sleeping under the same roof as you.”
The father wondered what went wrong. He wouldn’t charge money for his meals.
“But I ate twenty-four momos,” he said.
“That was my treat,” the father insisted. “You’re my guest.”
He heard father and daughter arguing when he descended the stairs.
In London, they were all the same. Nepalese restaurants with very Nepalese names—Everest Kitchen, Gurkha Grill, Sherpa Café, Kathmandu Restaurant, Himalayan Foods—that served very Indian dishes. They all sported Tibetan prayer flags, colourful and bearing mantras; statues of the laughing Buddha, fat, fed and incensed; and the Nepalese flag, triangular and tattered. The Gregorian chant would play in a loop, like it did in the Buddha Café right now.
He scanned the menu and proceeded to harass an unsuspecting waitress.
“I thought this was a Nepalese restaurant,” he said.
“It is,” she replied.
“I don’t see anything Nepalese here.” It felt oddly satisfying when the person at the other end was a woman his age.
“I came to eat Nepalese food,” he said. “I don’t see anything Nepalese here.”
“But sir, you have chicken mango,” she said. “It’s very good.”
“And how’s chicken mango a Nepalese dish?” he asked. “I’d have gone to an Indian restaurant if I wanted Indian food.”
“But sir, Indian food and Nepalese food are the same.”
“Say that to some other person.”
“And we have momos.”
“Momos, you know, Tibetan dumplings.”
“I know what momos are. Where?”
“At the bottom.”
Yes, there they were, like footnotes, almost embarrassed to be there, two font sizes smaller than the rest of the items on the menu, interlopers in a menu they should have dominated.
“I’d like the lamb momos,” he said.
She returned with an apologetic look.
“Cook says no momos today,” she said.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yes, demand for momos not high. Why don’t you try samosas?”
“I wanted momos. I came here for momos.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“They have nothing,” he said to the other diners. “No momos, nothing. It’s not a Nepalese restaurant.”
No one uttered a word.
“You’re all cheats,” he said and stormed out. He was loud enough to cause others to stop eating. “Why say it’s a Nepalese restaurant when it’s not?” He banged the door shut.
It was the sixth London Nepalese restaurant he had walked out of in the month he’d been back from Kathmandu. He had a trip to Edinburgh planned for New Year’s Eve. He wondered if he’d find a Nepalese restaurant there. 2015 needed to end with momos. 2016 would have to start with momos.
Prajwal Parajuly is a Nepalese-Indian writer from Gangtok, Sikkim. ‘Land Where I Flee’, his first novel, was an ‘Independent’ (London) and a ‘Kansas City Star’ best book of 2015. ‘The Gurkha’s Daughter: Stories’, his first book, was a Dylan Thomas Prize finalist (2013).