A Journey through Time and Space

Category: Travels

10 things I learnt about Nepali Cuisine

After nearly a month in Nepal I’ve taken down a few notes on the Nepali cuisine. With an understandably big influence from their Indian neighbors Nepali food is largely well spiced curries, mountains of rice, sweet and spicy and sticky chicken, with all the bones left in at sharp angles, poised to scratch the roof of your mouth. For the most part it’s great, so here’s ten things I learnt about Nepalese food in the past 28 days.

Breakfast

Should never be overlooked! In my teenage years I dabbled with breakfast. The milk early in the morning before I had to run for the bus was often too much for my stomach to handle. As I grew up the necessity to have a belly full of food before a commute or prior to a day running around a restaurant was overwhelming.

In Nepal you’re offered wonderful, although quite heavy pastries, often sold from”German bakeries” although I’m dubious of the label. The problem being it’s mighty difficult to find a decent coffee to pair it with.

Curiously the one good cup of coffee I did have was in Bagnas, here we stayed with Dinesh and spent a good hour roasting beans, grinding those beans by hand and then sifting the results to make our own pot of coffee. I think things just taste better when you’ve put your own sweat and elbow grease into producing them.

Processed with Moldiv

There are a lot of egg options , or something billed as an English breakfast but oh so far from it, but largely the Nepali people have a Dal Bhat (which were coming to) at around 11 o clock.

Dal Bhat

Dal bhat is the equivalent of the vegetarian thali at your local curry house. You get a big pile of rice, a potato and cauliflower curry, wilted spinach or cabbage, some pickled or fermented veg of some kind and a lentil soup. You can also get chicken and mutton varieties, but for the real deal veg is the way forward.

The Nepali have one mid morning and one late afternoon. From everyone I spoke to it gave them a good balance of protein and carbs, kept them very full and nice and warm until their second one of the day. Some liked chapatis on the side others liked poppadoms and curd.

That was another great thing about the Dal Bhat, wherever you go it varies slightly. Some with curried spinach, others with picked onion, some with a spicy tomato relish, others served with coriander and garlic heavy potatoes. And the lentil soup added to your rice adds loads of protein to a meat starved meat lovers belly.

Regardless of the content of the dish there was always one trusty invariable. It will always be served on a prison tray…

image5 (2)

Samosa guy

They’re everywhere, and they’re great. Find a guy with a little cart mounted to his push bike and fresh samosas and pakoras for about 20 cents a piece. Wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper, or more likely a page from a discarded school exercise book. Again the variation is fantastic, some are blow your head off spicy, while others have the muted flavours of cumin and cloves mingling through soft potato and crunchy garden peas and beans.

Don’t get on a coach journey without a trusty bag of samosas.

Bread

Fan favourite is the chapati, flat breads thrown in a HOT dry pan, Pressed down at the edges when in the pan to give it that little steam pocket in the middle, almost like a pitta bread. It’s a staple, and it’s great.

Processed with Moldiv

If you take a chipatti and calzone it up with some mashed potato, plenty of coriander, cumin, hot curry powder and a bit of garlic you get Aloo Paratha. Fried in a hot buttered pan they’re the Nepali equivalent of a toasty I guess? They’d be fantastic with some halloumi or buffalo mozerella too, and I fully intend on crafting those when I’m home.

Garung bread or Tibetan bread, I’m pretty sure it’s deep friend and comes out like a donut of sorts, light and fluffy inside, a slight crunch on the outside, perfect sprinkled in sugar or dunked in porridge.

We were also lucky enough to stumble upon a little flour mill whilst wandering somewhere between Tolka and Sinuwa. The hydraulics of the river were used to drive the mill to grind the corn into flour. A desolate hut sat above a stream and the pressies do water was being fired out of the side, small plumes of flour billowing from the cracks I the stone. After investigating the Miller, with his face wrapped in a ratty t shirt gave a demonstration. Seeing such primitive techniques and effort involved to create such a basic ingredient for every day cooking is a sure fire way of letting you know how much you take for granted while wandering around Morrisons.

Processed with Moldiv

Trekking

So things change a bit when you start getting up the mountain. Firstly you’re itinerary for the day revolves around when you eat, largely because when you get hungry it’s difficult to comprehend the massive set of stairs in front of you without imagining the Dal Baht waiting for you at the top.

Also you need to make sure you’re fueling the vessel carrying you and your 17kg bag for the next 12km.

The thing is food starts to get expensive, which you can sort of combat with a cheeky wink and the promise to eat two meals at your guesthouse; they tend to knock the price of your room on the head. A free bed in exchange for paying for two meals isn’t so bad.

All the guest houses along the route to Annapurna Base Camp have largely the same menu, catering to Koreans (and oh boyyyyy is there a lot of Koreans hiking around Nepal in January) European tastes (usually 4 variations of Mac and cheese/ spaghetti and red sauce) and traditional Nepali cuisine.

So try as you might it’s rather difficult to get any variation in your diet. Especially when your stomach thinks your throats been cut, and by the time the food arrives you’ve eaten it so quick you can’t actually recall the taste.

My staple became egg veg fried rice for lunch, and mushroom Mach and cheese for dinner. Although we did find a burrito along the way, but it’s just not the same with no meat…

Veggies

Oh yeah, it’s difficult to eat meat when you’re on the mountain. Like, “don’t even bother lookin’ cos you ain’t gonna find it here, pal” difficult. Simply meat is a ball ache to transport, and even if you were to get it to the more remote villages they haven’t got fridges to store it in. Even if they did have fridges to store it in, there’s only power six out of every 24 hours. IF you’re lucky.

So I, Ben Thornton Harwood, the guy who wouldn’t cook an alternative for a veggie if I was on Come Dine With Me, was (largely) vegetarian for the better part of the past month.

And here’s the shocker- it was alright.

I really started to notice the variation in veg from town to town, village to village. I enjoyed how they played with the flavours, and appreciated a good bit of spinach or cauliflower or broccoli. Granted I didn’t really have a choice, but when meat was on the menu I still opted for veg, even if the true reason was I didn’t want to fire out of both ends at 4170m above sea level.

But I enjoyed it, I had a few meat cravings which we sorted with a can of tuna thrown in with a Mac and cheese here and there. Also no stomach ache, which is a massive bonus.

Farming

Many guest houses we stayed at survived on sustenance farming. The guest house just being a source of extra income to support themselves and make use of their spare rooms. I remember sustenance farming being a buzzword in GCSE geography and I’d never really seen it in action.

The first house we stayed at (Sunlight Lodge, Tolka,) we were shown around the back garden/ allotment/ hillside farm by our Didi for the night. Didi means older sister, but is used as a term of endearment for older ladies in general. Our host for the night is exactly what I wanted from an adoptive Nepali grandmother.

She grew cauliflower, cabbage, spuds, broad beans, and this curious little plant sat mingled within the crops, undisturbed. Although from the amount Didi presented to us at dinner time, it was one of her cash crops…

Processed with Moldivimage7 (2)

 

Tea

Black tea is cheap, milk tea is quite literally a cup of hot milk with a tea bag limply floating with a pale hue of brown surrounding it, mint tea is fairly difficult to cock up, and masala tea is the nectar. Sweet and cinnamony, with a touch of cloves, it can come out with a little bit of spice, and is wonderfully milked in texture. It warms you to your bones, then cuddles the marrow inside.

All of the above require LOTS of sugar, even my walking partner/ mission leader Zak, a tea purist at heart was dumping spoonfuls into it. Partly to make sure you’ve got loads of energy for the walk ahead but also because diabetes tastes hella good in a cup of masala tea.

 

Snickers

I can’t quite emphasis enough just how integral a role Snickers play in your diet while trudging up a mountain. A tasty and quick way to take on board sugar, fat, carbs and protein, the snack sized are perfect as a one bite boost in the afternoon. Full sized a perfect desert. We got told by a Sherpa to break it up and melt it in our porridge, which is like peanut butter and golden syrup mixed and mashed with oaty goodness.

Then there is the encore, the piece de resistance, the mother of gluttony and lead up to the leg wobbling climax of munchie food. The deep fried Snickers.

image8 (2)

Most have tried a deep fried Mars Bar before now, a battered, greasy, sickly mess of a heart attack. Not these. Firstly rolled in sweet crumbs and wrapped in a momo pastry, not unlike a spring roll, then deep fried- the Snickers Roll comes out hot and sometimes smothered in custard, with a deep crunch of pastry and nuts, and a gooey molten caramel and nougat centre.

Bring a spare pair of shorts, and prepare for your dining company to see your vinegar face.

Pizza

Other than my mums lasagne it’s the food that I’ve missed the most. I’ve become a bit obsessed the past few months with all things pizza, it’s become something i want to cook more and more, and search out wherever possible. I blame a large part of this on my trip to Naples earlier on in 2014.

I was told it’s the global food stuff and I’ve had some duff (see:APPAULING) excuses for pizza in my time throughout Asia, but in Pokhara there is a place called Godfather Pizza and it produces fantastic pizzas in a proper wood burning oven. I actually visited two concurrent nights, after I went for a calzone and then realised that was no test, the basic Margarita with just its six ingredients is the test. And it passed that test with flying colours.

It can’t really compete with some of the cool London pizzerias that I’ve gone out of my way to try the past few months. But that being said it’s all produced by a troupe of Nepalese chefs, who I doubt have crossed the border to India, much less made the pilgrimage to Napoli.

Processed with Moldiv

Taling Chan Market

 

image2

If you happen to be in Bangkok and want some fantastic food, a journey through he city on a boat and a bit of a culture shock head to the Chang Pier in Bangkok. From here you can get a taxi boat for around 200baht (£4) to take you down the river to Taling Chan Pier.

image3

 

En route you’ll see Bangkok from a different stand point, the river. It’s a lot less chaotic down there. I mean it’s still pretty chaotic and the turbo charged long tails move like the clappers, but it’s always fantastic to see a city from another point of view.

Along the river you see old factories, tiny jetties crumbling into the water, local families fishing and swimming in the drink, as well as floating vendors coming over to sell you cans of beer and bananas (for a VERY hefty sum, transportation costs on a rowing boat must be astronomical…)

image4image5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Either way after 30 minutes or so you’ll arrive at Talingchan market.

It’s not Bangkok’s most famous floating market but it is a wonderfully small community of people selling their produce, most of which seemingly comes straight out of the river in front of you.

There are also tiny vendors selling fresh coconuts, cold cans of soft drinks and of course, the Chang. We sat down and ordered three plates between us, a whole salted bass, HUGE fresh shrimp and a few crabs.

image13image11

image12It was terrific to see the produce being cooked up right in front of you, by a tiny Thai lady bobbing around in a boat fitted with a proper charcoal bbq. The bass was beautifully soft, and the salty flesh was kicked off by the green chilli relish on the side. In fact the first bite blew my head off with spice and I learnt to just dip, not dunk and scoop the salsa up after that.

image8

The shrimp were firm and slightly charred which again really mixed well with the green chilli, while the crab was a mess of dark meat, and broken claws. Tucking straight in with your hands to all of this was a wonderfully primitive way to eat lunch and added to the experience- no frills, no nonsense, no ceremony, just honest food on a paper plate packed with flavour, covered in chilli and washed down with the Chang. A perfect lunch.

Rocktopus

IMG_0001-0

When you’re in Koh Tao the scuba diving capital of the world you’d frankly be an idiot not to indulge. I’ve done try and fun dives in the past but never attained my open water certificate. My dad is an old school scuba diver taking great pride in the fact that he’s gone down to stupid depths and swam around gravel pits and even the English Channel for a reason only he knows.

Regardless he, with great delight agreed to pay for my open water. There are two options PADI and SSI. Comparibly I was told it’s a lot like Pepsi and Coca cola, not much difference but everyone has their own preference.

With that in mind I opted to go for an SSI course with a company called Rocktopus. It was a near instantaneous decision after the owner of the company, Jay, explained the ins and outs of the course with such enthusiasm, passion and comprehensive knowledge it almost seemed like a waste of time shopping around.

After a classroom and a pool tutorial session I had taken my exam wand was ready for the Thai Gulf. My instructor Eli was a great combination of hard ass and personal tutor for our group of four. It made it easier to learn when you could compare technique with three others in the group- and by the time we hit the open water we were brimming with both excitement and confidence to try out our newly learned skill.

The piece de resistance and the service that really singles Jay and Rocktopus out from a very saturated crowd in Koh Tao is the video that is produced the afternoon following your final dive. The whole Rocktopus team shows up and has beers with the groups who graduated that day to watch a video of what they got up to that afternoon. It was brilliant, funny, and fantastic to relive some of my favourite moments of my trip thus far.

I spoke to Jay afterwards at the bar and said how so many companies in Thailand just don’t get how a little extra bit of service goes such a long way. I could easily have not written a whole post about my experience with Rocktopus but I want to because that is how bloody awesome the service they provide is. A lot of companies in Thailand could learn from that. Shit, a lot of companies in the UK could learn a little bit of customer service and satisfaction from the Rocktopus gang.

I’ll be going out of my way to make sure I drop in again if I’m ever in the neighborhood..

Koh Tao

IMG_0002-0

This was by far and away my favourite island in Thailand. Perhaps because of the (quite literal) shitty end to Koh Phanang. But also the vibe of the island strikes you immediately as far more mellow, far more laid back. There is a much higher proportion of resorts on Koh Tao, primarily because of the prevalence of scuba diving on the island. It’s the scuba diving capital of the world and it makes sense. I’ll tell you all about it here.

But more than that we sound an amazing hostel to stay in, Spicy Tao is easily the best hostel I stayed in in Thailand. The sense of community there is something I haven’t found since I was in Israel. You’d have no worries leaving your iPad or phone out charging all day or all night in the common area. If you’ve run out of cigarettes there’s someone who can spare a few. You can watch movies on the common deck, or sit and play cards. It’s also the only place we stayed at that gave you free breakfast and coffee before midday, whilst a few times a week the owners put on a massive BBQ with corn and mashed potato and all you can eat wings and ribs. The following morning there was left over chicken so Clyde, one of the workers there, gave me some for a sandwich to take to my diving class.

The rooms are basic but the only time you spend in there is when you’re sleeping. Even when going out of my way to get an early night before a dive I’d end up finding someone really interesting to speak to and the next thing I’m kicking myself because it’s 1 in the morning again.

Anyway if you’re slightly more disciplined than I get up early, hire a moped (I got my pal Zak to hire one and chauffeur me) and get down to Shark Bay with your snorkel. If you swim out about 100/120 metres you’ll be somewhere between 6-8 metres deep. A prime spot for seeing sharks.

After around 20 minutes of swimming in the relatively shallow waters Zak shot off into the distance, his excitement could mean only one thing. I followed as fast as I could muster and sure enough, there he was, a 5 foot long black tip shark.

Seeing a shark in the wild has been an ambition of mine since I became obsessed with pirates at the age of 6, and to see such a majestic, beautiful creature, so fast and streamlined was the most amazing and surreal experience.

Koh Phanang

image5

To be perfectly honest if I was to go through Thailand again I would avoid Koh Phanang like an Ebola ridden racoon. Generally speaking it’s full of Australian and British holiday goers, who have spent a very long time in the gym and not very long at all choosing their tribal sleeve. When you have to walk down a beach wearing shoes on account of all the broken glass that’s not really what I’m after whilst travelling. But I think, and perhaps very snobbishly of me, that Phanang isn’t a traveller stop off, more the Full Moon party is a box to be ticked when passing through SE.Asia.

And I’m guilty of doing the exact same thing, thinking it would be hilarious to party for 6 days, stay on Haad Rin beach, pay through the nose for a terrible hostel, it’ll be a laugh. It was but it wears thin. And quickly. Our hostel the Jaya Guest House was frankly a slum, at 800 baht a night (around £18), it was far and away the most expensive place I stayed and with a 7 night minimum stay, because it’s a tourist trap and the owners know we have no other option but to tie ourselves in over the new year period.

Now don’t get me wrong, I had one of the best New Years eves I’ve ever had, but it’s more to do with the people I spent it with rather than the location or the music or even the portions of booze being sold. Regardless on the 2nd of January we jumped ship two days early when someone constructed a shit lasagne in the toilet making it actually impossible to have a shower in the room. That was the kind of place we were staying in, and shows the kind of company staying there.

Ko Lanta

image1

In light of tourism ruining Maya Bay I’m only going to write two things about Ko Lanta because it was wonderful and if I ever go back I want it to still be gorgeous. Firstly Red Snapper towards the North of the island about 5 minutes from Long Beach, is easily the best food I ate in Thailand, and some of the best food I’ve had since visiting Quebec and Naples earlier in 2014.

Run by a Dutch couple, Red Snapper serves up European Thai fusion, nestled in the woods so bring your mozzie spray. I had the biggest mussels I’ve ever seen with a cream and chorizo sauce. Another member of our party had pork with chorizo mash and a jalapeño cream cheese which was absolutely stunning.

Secondly stay at Hostel Don La Mer. It has a fantastic common room, an excellent wifi connection, hot communal showers, and quite a few solo travellers which always makes making new pals easier. Also it’s clean. Like really, really clean! It’s the little things that you really enjoy when living out of a bag.

Koh Phi Phi

image8

After Phuket to get off the ferry at one of the most stunning placess I’ve ever seen allowed me to breathe a massive sigh of relief. We were staying at flower bungalows, a five minute walk from the pier. Saying that- phi phi is tiny so the maximum it takes to walk anywhere is 15 minutes.

Flower bungalows is one of the most basic dorms I’ve ever stayed in. So basic in fact we’re pretty sure the beds were just a few layers of ply board, whilst the bum gun was far superior to the actual shower.

I’m not too sure what I was expecting from Phi Phi. I had ideas of Leo in The Beach, beautiful white sands and cheap Chang, maybe some chilled out music on the beach, and a bit of bush weed with the sunset.

It sort of lived up to that, there was cheap Chang and it was chilled, but there was also a huge party vibe as soon as it got dark. Buckets a plenty, and every breakfast you’d see at least four more people with various bandages, slings and crutches hobbling past you.

The problem being with the main party beach was that it was so small each club had to turn their music up to 11 to try and get people in, which makes it incredibly difficult to just sit, enjoy a beer and talk to people. It was completely futile, and also kind of irritating when you wanted to actually have conversation with someone.

There is also a little rooftop spot called Bananna bar, who screen movies during the day and most evenings, which is great when the afternoon storm comes in. And oh boy do those storms come in quick. They also sell individual joints, which is fantastic- if that’s your kinda bag…

One evening whilst it was chucking it down with rain we watched the aforementioned Beach, and thought we’d go and visit Maya Bay the next day, where it was filmed. And to our dismay and kinda proving the point of the story, if you expose somewhere to the masses you’ll completely ruin it. Maya Bay had at least 40 long tail boats and around 400 people swarming the beach, using their selfie sticks and generally creating a mess, in a completely unsustainable form of tourism, and let’s be honest I’m just as guilty as the rest of them. It’s a damned shame.

image2

One more thing I will say about Phi Phi is it is home to the best Pad Thai I ate in Thailand. A little place called Thai Thai Pad, has 16 covers and will give you a can of Chang and a shrimp pad Thai for 120 baht. You can’t argue with that, especially when the pad Thai has the perfect amount of peanut and that tiny bit of spice to get you a bit sweaty under the eyes. Perfect.

image7

Phuket

image6

Our trip to Phuket started off badly, being woken up by hostel staff telling you that you’re supposed to have checked out already and then realising your flight is in less than two hours is less than ideal. Especially when you were up shooting pool with a Scot and a Squaddie until the early hours sharing frozen strawberry daquaries.

Upon landing and getting to our hostel, around a five minute taxi from Patong Beach we thought we’d see what the town has to offer. It turns out all it offers is ping pong shows, seedy western men looking for young Thai women and horrendous EDM music.

After the initial culture shock of Bangkok I thought I was settling into the Thailand way of life quite quickly. But Patong and specifically the Bangalore Road was frankly revolting. It’s terrible to be so uneasy sat at a bar with your hands in your pockets unable to even enjoy your beer for fear of having your phone or wallet pick pocketed.

Whilst the unrelenting sex workers propositioning you is both irritating and deeply saddening. You can only hope that they’re there of their own choosing and haven’t been sold or trafficked into their situation. And that hope isn’t particularly high either.

One of the only highlights of my two nights there was watching a Muay Thai fight at Bangla Boxing Stadium and I’m sure Phuket has some more wonderful sights to be seen, they’re just nowhere near the Bangalore road.

Bangkok

image4

Nap park hostel, very clean dorms, very central to Koh San road, good community vibe and terrific wifi. Within a 10 minute tuk tuk you can be at the ferry Port and a 150 baht water taxi will take you to Talingchan pier. Alternatively get a taxi- and always ask for the metre to be turned on and head to the Sky Bar This is where they filmed the finale for the Hangover 2, and has amazing views all across Bangkok. Now drinks here start at 600 baht- pretty much the same as you’d pay in London. But it’s one hell of an experience, and gives you a very different view of a very different city.

You should also visit the Koh San Road. Yeah yeah yeahhhh it’s a tourist trap and its full of people on holiday and isn’t the true Bangkok BUT it’s a whole lot of fun and completely different experience to party culture than I’ve seen anywhere else. For instance we found these guys, and couldn’t help but sit and stay for their entire set, the energy was amazing and they were actually fantastic performers.

Food in Bangkok I found to be hit and miss the majority of the time ordering spring rolls to accompany a Chang in a restaurant that had a decent wifi signal, the best food I had was from the street food stalls. Deliciously sweet and sticky pork skewers, tempura shrimp, miniature chicken satay, and each for between 20-50 baht. That’s less than a quid! You’d be hard pushed to find a snickers for that cheap back home.

Part one, Thailand.

IMG_0002-0

Part one Thailand.

After four weeks in Thailand I’m feeling pretty broken. It’s been a pretty whistle stop tour of the South islands with highs and lows, islands I loved and ones I hated, the seedy and the stoned. It’s flown by and yet it feels like a lifetime ago that I was stood at Heathrow with a full head of hair.
I’m currently sat in a hammock in Koh Tao, using a sticky overcast day to finally get some sort of post together. So here it is, 11 things I’ve learnt after 28 days in Thailand.

Ko Lanta is wonderful;
Eat nothing but street food and spring rolls in Bangkok;
Visit the tiny floating market at Talingchan pier;
Phuket is pretty grim;
Visit Thai Thai Pad in Koh Phi Phi;
Don’t stay at the Jaya Guesthouse, its a slum;
If you can then just avoid Koh Phanang all together;
Thai blokes are mentally good at playing with fire. And all of them are mentally ripped;
If you’re going to stay in Koh Tao, and you definitely should, stay at Spicy Tao;
If you’re gonna go diving in Koh Tao, and you absolutely should must, find Rocktopus, you won’t regret it;
Sharks are fucking awesome.