Boiled meal. Whether corn or buckwheat or some other ground nut or grain, there can’t be a more primal, more rustic culinary preparation than boiled meal. (Meal is simply a coarse grained flour.) But somehow in the west we have come to think of polenta (the Italian name for boiled cornmeal) as a gourmet dish. But this only because of the garnishes we lavish on “gourmet polenta” — fine cheeses, meats, and sauces. At its heart polenta is boiled meal — one of humanity’s oldest and simplest culinary staples. Peasant food.
Here in Nepal boiled meal goes by the name “dhido” (something like dhee-dough). It is traditionally made with native buckwheat, but today is made with cornmeal as well. It is usually eaten with a spicy soup and with one or more achars (savory and spicy salsas). It may also simply replace rice in the otherwise typical Nepali meal of dal (lentil soup) and tarkari (curried vegetables). Keep in mind that rice, while ubiquitous in the Himalaya, is a lowland import. Dhido, and higher up tsampa (toasted barley flour) are the more traditional (and less costly) starches of mountain folk. I was first introduced to Dhido by my good friend Indra Rai, a Nepali mountain guide, while trekking in the Annapurna Region. Indra is a tiny man from the Solu-Khumbu region with a huge heart and an even bigger appetite. And Indra loves dhido. I noticed on that trek back in 2001 that Indra rarely ate with us in the tiny restaurants, called tea houses, along the route. He would make sure we were all settled with our typical rice, soup, and vegetables and then he would disappear into the smoky kitchen of the local family. One day, in a town called Kagbeni in the Trans-Himalayan landscape of Mustang, I asked him what he was up to everyday in the kitchen. “Dhido.” “I am up to dhido.” And of course I was invited to join him and that was the beginning of my interest in Himalayan mush.
There is nothing too special about the taste of boiled meal. It has a taste — anyone that has had polenta or good grits knows this is true. But dhido, like polenta, is really a neutral carbohydrate canvas on which one can layer an infinite variety of more assertive flavors. And in the Nepali context, where everyone eats with their hands, it is much easier to manage than rice. You tear off little balls of the dhido, dip them into the sauces, and pop them into your mouth. If the dhido is hot and properly prepared it is really quite a nice, light, soft thing to eat. So on subsequent visits to Nepal I have always looked for opportunities to eat dhido – where ever it could be found.
Which brings me to my present trip and my most recent dhido-eating experience. I was teaching a workshop in a small, Inner Terai town called Hetauda and I asked my hosts if we could eat dhido for dinner one night. A couple of them lit up at the idea and a plan was quickly devised for the following night. The next day was extremely hot and humid, and after several hours roasting in a concrete meeting hall I was thrilled to load into the jeep and hit the road for the dinner “restaurant.” As we drove along the mighty Rapti River the rushing air and sunset drama refreshed us all. I fell into wondering about the rhinos and other animals that I knew lay just across the water in Chitwan National Park. But after 15 minutes of driving I realized that we were long past the outskirts of town and still headed west. Where were we going? Where was this restaurant? My friends Abadhesh and Balram assured me that good dhido was simply not to be found in town. We were headed to a family run joint along the river that was well known locally for their corn dhido and accompaniments.
After another 10 minutes or so we pulled off at a small collection of roadside shacks and parked. Perhaps three families were living in tiny, makeshift houses, each with a thatched veranda, and there were trucks and cars parked here and there in the lot. “Here we are!” Here? I asked for clarification. This was indeed a truck stop of sorts – a roadhouse – a place where drivers and other hungry travelers stopped for generous, cheap and tasty servings of Nepali comfort food. The proprietors were likely immigrants from the nearby hills, displaced perhaps by the violence of the Maoist insurgency that ended only a year or two ago.
We sat down around a picnic table under one of the thatched roofs and placed our orders. To accommodate our group of 8 a large wok was produced and the fire was stoked inside the earthen oven. The woman of the house – a plump, happy gal of about 45 – brought some water to a boil then poured in long streams cornmeal. There were no measurements, no fussing over the process. She had been doing this for a lifetime. No other tools were needed. After a few stirs with a big spoon Pop took over with a wooden paddle. It was still very hot and humid, and the fire was blazing in the stove. This combined with the physical exertion of stirring and turning the thickening mass of dhido must have been REALLY hot! His casual, chatty manner belied the fact that he was a master at this process – every turn and fold with the paddle brought the still soupy cornmeal right to the edge of the wok – but none was ever spilled. While he stirred his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and a few neighbors passed around a couple of new babies. I could never tell who belonged to whom, such was the affection showed by all.
It began pouring rain, and eventually the cooking was finished. Large thali-style silver plates were served – a big mound of dhido in the middle surrounded by small dollops of curried vegetables and very piquant achars. There was also a small dish of spicy chicken soup for dunking the dhido. No formalities here. Without a word the family and neighbors went back to doting on the babies and we tucked in. At some point one of them offered seconds around the table and more eating ensued. After the meal some of our group retired to the roadside and mixed with the family. What an unexpected oasis was this roadhouse/truckstop/squatter’s camp in the middle of the jungle!
I asked for the tab and settled up. The damage? A couple of bucks a person. This is peasant food after all…