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THE CHANGING TABLE FORTUNES

When the Catholic priests at my school told us kids not to waste food, I knew exactly where they were coming from: my father General Kiran was a stickler for the family being served a small first helping. "You serve a second helping, if they want more", he would admonish the servants prone to heap the thali at the first go. My grandfather Juddha Shumsher J. B. Rana was not a man of great means before he became the prime minister of Nepal. He was one of the youngest sons of his father Commander-in-chief Dhir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana and he did not inherit any substantial fortune. Too, he had a very large family. With seventeen sons and twelve daughters, innumerable maharanis, ranis and paramours, Juddha was always short of cash. I remember the stories during his earlier years when he was living in his Jawalakhel Durbar. The noble lifestyle was rather frugal behind closed doors; meat was served just once a week when my father and his siblings were growing up.

Cheura, the beaten and dried rice, a staple of the Newar farming communities of Kathmandu valley is one of the favorite foods in our family, perhaps a throwback to the humbler background when frugality was a necessity. But we love a variety of cheura dishes: cheura fried with eggs and onions, cheura mashed with spicy fried potato and jilebi sweets and fashioned into edible balls, cheura balls with minced goat meat and chilies; the more expensive ingredients, no doubt, added to the lowly cheura as fortunes turned for the better.

But turn it did; Juddha became the hereditary prime minister of Nepal in 1934 A.D. when his elder brother Maharajah Bhim Shumsher died. As the dictator of Nepal, his word was law. He moved into the prime ministerial residence of Singha Durbar with his enormously large family. Juddha did not drink or smoke except the hookah pipe, but the Maharajah was noted for his epicurean passion reminiscent of the celestial eighty four delicacies of the Hindu Gods. A meal would easily last over an hour.

I remember the Muslim chef of the Maharajah when he came visiting father. He was thin, short, bearded and had penetrating eyes. His culinary skills transformed the family taste even though he could never personally enter Juddha's kitchen zealously guarded by chaste bare-footed Brahmins wearing dhotis and sacred threads; the Muslim khansama was the executive chef of the kitchen supervising from afar. The rich Mughlai food of North India with a touch of local flavoring so loved by the Maharajah was his specialty.

Snipes
Game birds were plentiful then. Favorite bird of the Maharajah was the bagadi, a sparrow-like bird found in the Terai reputed to have aphrodisiac properties aplenty. When I was small, one of my father's favorite pastimes was shooting snipes in Balaju and then in the evening cooking the birds for loads of guests. In a day's shoot bagging 50 birds was not uncommon then. The birds were cleaned of its entrails and cooked whole - head, long beaks and all! Relatives frequently brought pheasants or partridges, game birds we don't get to taste in a decade these days.

My father loved fish. So much so I remember he made a fish pond to breed them for angling. There were Israeli carps, German carps, silver carps, local rahu fish breeding in the large pond behind our house. Weekends were for fishing and picnicking. I remember a cousin of father Ghana Shumsher Rana bringing all sorts of fishing rods and baits and angling with passion. Records were maintained on the size and weight of the catch. As a boy I learnt how to angle and how to bring the large struggling catch slowly ashore.

Beef has been taboo in our society for ages and the rulers in Nepal zealously guarded this tradition. The rationale behind this tradition is either undocumented or lost with the passage of time but giving it a religious tint was as good a reason as any to abstain from slaughtering the cow. However other animals have been given a clean bill of health for consumption with the passage of time. During the Rana period chicken was considered impure, but with the opening up of Nepal after 1951 A.D. chicken became acceptable. The Blue Bull long considered being a member of the cow family became acceptable for the table after it was re-classified as an antelope. We are now reminded that the thousand strong herds that grazed in the jungles of Bardia are nearly extinct today; acceptability comes at a high price.

The ubiquitous wild boar meat served at wedding parties is considered a delicacy perhaps due to the dietary habits of these wild pigs feeding on berries and roots, whereas their domesticated cousins are untouchable to the chaste Brahmins and Chettrys as they feed on rubbish. There is a genetic difference as well as the wild boars have clusters of three pores from where the bristles grow, whereas pigs have clusters of two, a clever way of distinguishing the meat should one have any doubt. The water buffalo was eaten by the lower castes only and unacceptable in our kitchen; we did not then know the addictive power of the momo that made its way into the valley from Tibet.

Going back to our school at Godavari we were served for tea "dog biscuits", hard, amorphous stuff that tasted like nothing available today. It was a test of sorts for us kids then; I probably passed with flying colours in my father's eyes.

Comments

  1. My, you have definitely posted some very varied and interesting blogs Subodh uncle.

    I may have something to contribute to this one. I don't really remember the dates and where I read this, but here goes:
    Sometime during Junge's time Nepalese merchants in Tibet were being harassed by the locals. In response to their complaints, Jung Bahadur led/ordered a military campaign into Tibet to teach Lhasa a lesson. During this time, he had the Yak categorised as an antelope. This was done so that his soldiers could consume the much-needed meat without fear of comitting mortal sin.
    The campaign was later resolved with some blood-shed and alot of diplomacy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, necessity is the mother of invention! My forefather Dhir Shumsher led that expedition into Tiet.

    ReplyDelete

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