Jun 19, 2017

Beautiful Bandipur!

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On a recent road trip to Kathmandu we stopped off at the gorgeous hilltop town of Bandipur, Nepal. Time seems to have stood still in Bandipur's winding lanes of beautifully preserved 18th century Newari houses. Despite its proximity to the epicenter of the 2015 earthquakes, Bandipur escaped with only minor damage and is a glimpse of living history.

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As mentioned in a previous post my husband and I were traveling on the East-West Prithvi Highway to Kathmandu when we heard the road was to be closed for four hours due to landslides. We decided to take a side excursion to Bandipur to have lunch and kill the time. Bandipur is located at the end of a steep and narrow but well paved 8km/5mile access road from the highway stop of Dumre.

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One of the newly restored temples with authentically painted decor. 
Bandipur has an interesting history. Originally part of the Magar kingdom of Tanahun, Bandipur was ruled from nearby Palpa. When Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Kathmandu valley in 1786 Newari traders began rushing to Bandipur. They took advantage of its malaria-free hill top location to develop it into a bustling hub along the lucrative India-Tibet trade route. The Newaris of the Kathmandu valley brought their culture and unique architecture to Bandipur where it has basically remained unchanged to this day. Bandipur is very much a mini-Kathmandu!

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Another beautiful temple.

Trading in Bandipur steeply declined in the 70's when the construction of the East-West Prithvi Highway bypassed the town. For technical reasons the highway was built through the Marsyangdi valley. No longer a vital trading post, ancient Bandipur was left isolated on top of a mountain. As a result of this poor accessibility, Bandipur lost it's importance as the Tanahun district government headquarters too. The tradesmen of Bandipur were forced to move down to the roadside bazaar of Dumre and the lowlands of the Terai. Slowly, Bandipur turned into a ghost town. The population declined considerably. The muddy track of a road to the town was only improved in 1998.

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Back of the library in the town square.
Above you see the sun-filled and cheery town square dotted with temples, traditional Newari homes, and a tiny library. With impetus and substantial help from the owners of the adventure company Himalayan Encounters and the Bandipur Social Development Committee the derelict homes and shops have been reborn as cafes and lodges. Temples and civic buildings have been pulled back from the edge of ruin and lovingly restored. All the original structures bear plaques stating their name, purpose, and date of restoration. It was an amazingly lovely day as you can see by the clear blue sky in the photos. Each building is adorned with pots and bowers of beautifully blooming flowers. Motorized vehicles have been banned from the area and the bazaars are filled with restaurant tables donning bright umbrellas. Except for the traditional Newari architectural motifs you'd think you're in an pristine alpine Swiss village!

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The fantastically restored library in the main square with it's hand-carved doors and windows of the native hardwood saal
Bandipur is absolutely immaculate.  If you look closely you can see rubbish bins discreetly and conveniently placed all over the village. There's a green bin near the left lower corner of the photo above. I mention this because in most of these antique Himalayan towns there is usually an open drain down the center of each road or square. This drain typically serves as an open sewer where everything from human excrement to noodle wrappers flows in plain view. (Just as you would have seen in any 18th century European metropolis.) Here they've strategically placed slate flagstones over the drain so you can no longer see it. No packs of stray dogs and various livestock loitering and pooping about town authentically either. Every's so shiny, neat, and beautifully restored I almost thought I was at some Disneyworld version of Nepal! Then I heard a familiar whack, a bloodcurdling screech, a horrific yowl, a rasping sputtering, and a prolonged hissing noise...

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This ain't Disneyworld! A goat was sacrificed at the nearby temple of a goddess. As I have been told many times by many Nepalis, "The goddess won't listen unless there is blood." And blood there was. A lot odf westerners don't seem to realize that blood sacrifice is a part of Hinduism. The head is taken into the temple shrine while the blood is left to flow in the courtyard. The carcass of the goat is eaten later. The lady in red is readying offerings of fruit and home-made sweets for the goddess. Lamps of ghee are lit inside the shrine. Kids, don't try this at home!

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The lady in the scarlet salwars proceeded calmly with the offerings of devotion as the goat still twitched. The man in tan was whom beheaded the goat with a single slash of a khukri. If you eat meat please be aware that this is where it comes from. Don't get all hasty and judgemental now. I know we hide and sanitize butchering in western countries but this is what really happens in abattoirs too.

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A tray of beautiful fruit for the goddess overlaid with crimson ribbons. I was trying to get a photo of the puja tray with it's 9 compartments that the lady was carrying. You can sort of see it to the left of the photo. 

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Anywho, there were a lot of signs advertising organic home stays. I'm not certain what exactly an organic home stay implies. Hessian-weave hemp bedsheets and a birdseed and yoghurt breakfast? I doubt I'll ever find out since the Sheikh is a 5-star hotel with a flatscreen and room service kind of guy.  

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And so we ate lunch at one of the little sidewalk cafes advertising organic fare. The new owner and head chef of the restaurant seated us on the shady back patio. Above you see the incredible view from our table. I sipped a delicious fresh mint lemonade and the Sheikh had his usual latte. We perused the menu whilst the new owner and head chef noisily and repeatedly informed us that everything on the menu was handmade, all natural, and he was trained at the very prestigious Radisson hotel in Kathmandu. We ordered a veg pizza as neither one of us was very hungry after our mid morning snack of momos in Dumre. We were served possibly the worst pizza I have ever eaten. It was one of those pre-made frozen dough disks topped with a little ketchup, a sprinkle of grated yak cheese, raw onion slices, and tinned jalapeno peppers. The prefab pizza dough disk wasn't even completely thawed out much less cooked through. So we left. And my husband being an Indian had to tell the owner the pizza was terrible, exactly how a pizza should be properly made in the Italian manner with a fresh thin crust (etc. etc. etc.), and that he (the owner) talked too much. I wandered off slightly embarrassed to further peruse the town. 

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The panoramic vistas were stunning in every direction from this hilltop town of about 15,000 people. It was blissfully quiet with no vehicles other than handcarts present. Birds chattering and children playing in the distance were the only sounds. Villagers occasionally snored during their early afternoon siestas enjoyed in outdoor porticos and verandas. Narrow lanes and alleys of hand laid slate formed mazes twisting and turning along the ridges of old Bandipur. We saw a few tourists, hippies and hipsters mostly. The Sheikh looked puzzled at my delight in this little gem of a town:

The Sheikh: Why would anyone come here? There's nothing to do.
Me: Imagine if you lived in a noisy, dirty, crowded, and congested city like Delhi or Los Angeles. Wouldn't you love to come to a peaceful, quiet, and clean place like this for a little rest and relaxation?
The Sheikh: Oh. It is very pretty here.

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Despite what the Sheikh says there's lots to do around Bandipur. Opportunities for day hikes include a visit to a silk farm to the west of town, a downhill trek to Siddha Cave (the second largest cave in South Asia), a walk through the Raniban (queen's forest), or observing rural village life in rustic Ramkot which is just an hour's stroll away. Bibi would be thrilled to live out her natural born days on a sunny half acre of land gardening her heart out here. As long as she had a flush toilet. And internet access. Probably at least 6 hours of electricity too. The Sheikh says that ain't happening. Oh well.

bandipur, nepal, living history, life, love, beautiful,

The flowers in Bandipur were spectacular and everywhere. Above you see a unique strain of hibiscus that nearly every Bandipurean had in their garden. The photo doesn't do it justice. Searing high noon sunlight isn't ideal for photographing richly saturated colors. Each bloom was nearly nine inches across and faded from a brilliant cerise pink at the edge of the petals to a coral red at the center. The throat was a deep maroon highlighted with pure white. Most of the hibiscus shrubs were huge - about the size of small trees.

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Mauve is Bibi's favorite flower and so I had to take a photo of this dahlia. Most of the dahlias on display were not quite dinner plate size and more of the cactus variety. Isn't that color divine! Dahlias always rot in my garden. We don't really get a full day's worth of sun in any spot in our flower garden so I think that may be the problem.

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Did I tell you that the flowers were beautiful? And Bibi's favorite color is mauve? I did? It's for true! Bandipur is not yet a well known tourist destination. I would highly recommend this picturesque town to anyone who wishes to see what old Kathmandu was like before it became a grubby, crowded, noisy 3rd world city. Just don't order pizza. ;)

bandipur, nepal, living history, life, love, beautiful,

That's all kids!

As the month of Ramadan starts, speak respectfully, treat others kindly, walk modestly and pray sincerely. May Allah bless you and your family.


Jun 12, 2017

Cucumber and Mint Raita

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Try this cool and refreshing Cucumber and Mint Raita recipe paired with any spicy meal. Traditionally, this dish is served in warm weather months in India alongside fiery curries and kebabs for it's cooling properties. Yogurt, mint, and cucumber really beat the heat in this famed Indian condiment! 

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This is about as close as you'll get to a western-style salad in our Kashmiri home. Grated cucumbers and an onion dressed in spiced yogurt. It is amazingly simple and amazingly tasty! It's also great way to use up all those amazingly prolific cucumbers and fresh mint from a summer garden. We enjoy this yummy treat every year when the weather warms and cucumbers abound. The local variety of cucumber you see in the above photo is not quite as firm fleshed as the fancy English cucumbers you'll see in the western countries. They're a bit more pulpy and can grow to an astonishing two feet in length. Plant one vine and you're supplied with fresh cucumbers for the season around here. Choose a thick and tangy yogurt like the Greek-style ones in western markets for the most authenticity in this recipe. I prefer this dish with dried mint and whole cumin seeds but it can be made with fresh mint and ground cumin for a slightly different flavor. Some folks insist on dry roasting the cumin seeds to mellow their peppery warmth but I don't. If you can't handle the heat of green chilis - leave them out. As with most Desi dishes there's enough flavor going on here that you really won't miss them. Be sure to make this dish at least 2 hours in advance of serving to allow the flavors to meld. Always serve a raita chilled too. A fabulous paired with spicy curries, fiery kebabs, or as a cooling dip for peppery pappadums. Enjoy:

1&1/2 C grated cucumber, (be sure to peel and deseed cucumber before grating)
1/3 C grated onion
1 C yogurt, beaten until smooth
2 TBS fresh mint/pudina chopped finely or 1 TBS dried mint
1-2 green chilis/hari mirch, minced finely (omit for less heat)
1 tsp ground cumin/jeera or 1&1/2 tsp cumin/jeera seeds
salt to taste
Optional for garnish: 1/4 tsp Kashmiri mirch or paprika

Here's what to do:
1) Whisk together yogurt, mint, cumin, green chilis, and 1 teaspoon salt.

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2) Add grated cucumber and onion and toss until well mixed. Salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve chilled and garnish with a pinch of Kashmiri mirch or paprika before serving if desired. Can be prepared up to one day in advance.

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May the Spirit of Ramadan stay in our hearts and illuminate our souls. 
Happy Ramadan!


Jun 5, 2017

Small, dark, and handsome...

What have we here?
It looks like a mini sumo wrestler wearing a Nirvana t-shirt is throwing gang signs at me in the side garden! Or are those gestures of peace? Hard to tell these days.

Aha! The mini sumo tells me he climbed over the front fence to get a closer look at the "billa-ro" (cats). Keeping pets is sort of a new thing in Nepal and keeping cats is very rare. His name is Jigme. He's quite hip and stylish isn't he? If you look closely you can see his arms are inked with temporary dragon tattoos.

My new friend seems to have made himself at home after examining and petting the cats. Actually the ancient Ms Chinger (the black cat) allowed herself to be carried about by Jigme. I wish I'd taken photos of that. My new friend was quite chatty and thrilled that I brought him coloring books, crayons, a glass of cold water and raisins. I don't think he's ever eaten raisins as he thought they were jellies.

Whoops! Now I have 3 new friends! These two young ladies are sisters to the young man sitting in the side garden. They wanted to pet the cats too. And so they did. Above you see them proudly holding the bag of raisins I had to bribe them with to leave so I could pack lunch tiffin. These two are the third set of twins I've seen in our neighborhood. 

Speaking of interlopers, the cows are in the corn! Little boy blue come blow your horn! This is the cornfield next door to us. The cows are in the corn because some numbskull knocked a hole in the brick wall that surrounds the cornfield. if you look in the upper right hand corner of the photo you can see the start of the huge hole in the wall. 

Oh my. Now the entire herd is happily munching corn. The Sheikh told me not to venture onto the neighbors' property so I yelled "TSAO!" at the cows to try and shoo them away. As you can see by their expression the cows were not one bit frightened by me. Apparently the neighbor is going to start building a house here soon so that's why a hole was knocked through the brick wall enclosing the cornfield.

More corn thievery. Sometimes even a wall isn't a deterrent to all the free range livestock around here.

Yup, they're building a house next door to us where the cornfield is. There's the first truck full of rubble to fill the foundation. Drat. That means at least two years of construction noise dawn 'til dusk. Since land prices have soared they'll probably build right up to the property line and we'll have a wall or someone's window to look into on that side of the house. Gentrification...

My summer garden is starting to bloom. Above you see a dwarf canna I grew from seed. Being a California girl I'm determined to have flowers in my garden all year long. My Nepali gardener says flowers are not possible in the Monsoon. Every year I've tried different plants with varying success to see what will put up with the fetid heat and humidity of the Monsoon. This year's line up includes cannas, hibiscus, celosia, Mexican sunflowers, gaillardia, dwarf crape myrtle, black eyed susan vine, caladiums, and flaming glorybower. 

These dwarf cannas make beautiful container plants. I have them in the salmon shade you see above as well as scarlet red, white, and yellow. They come in a rosy pink too. All the colors are one to two feet in height. In addition to the beautiful blooms you get the lovely tropical foliage too. By the end of Summer that pot will brimming with blooms and gorgeous leaves. I like the contrast with my blue Chinese pot collection too. 

This is a caladium in bloom. Oft prized for their colorful speckled foliage and shade-loving habit I'd never seen a caladium flower. I didn't plant these caladiums but rather found them volunteering on the burn pile. I'm not sure if it is native or not. I've planted them in the shady spots in our garden for some brightness and they seem to be doing well. 

An unwitting sign of the times or harbinger of a sort. The famed International Mountain Museum to which this sign correctly directs is about a half mile from our home. Unfortunately Google Maps shows the International Mountain Museum incorrectly to be on our street. On a daily basis foreign tourists come down our street staring at their phones searching for the museum. On occasion one of these foreign tourists will see me in the garden and inquire as to whether the famed museum is on our street. To which I will reply, "No, Google Maps incorrectly shows the International Mountain Museum on our street. If you go back to the main road and continue to the right for about a 1/4 mile you will see the sign that points to the street the museum is on." At this point I usually get a puzzled look. Here's the kicker- INVARIABLY the over 40's will go back to the main road and look for the sign, but the under 40's will continue on in vain down our street believing Google Maps to be infallible. I guess that defines the true Generation Gap of the 21st century. Probably one of the few things that the Baby Boomers and Gen Xer's have in common too. We don't believe technology is infallible. I suppose it's because we've lived in an age when we've witnessed massive technology fails. Remember those dial-up modems, crappy to non existent mobile service, and all the Y2K baloney? Well, Millennials missed all those epic fails that were the prelude to the information age. Despite all the technology fails like the recent hack that crippled NHS computers and caused British Airways to screech to a halt these youngsters still place their faith in technology. Amazing.

Lastly, a very happy Ramadan to all my readers celebrating it. In this broiling pre-monsoon heat I'm getting up before dawn not only for suhoor but to fix food for iftar also. It's just too hot here during the day to cook anything.

May this festivity push peace to transcend the earth, let light brighten up the world and bring hope to everyone’s heart. 

Happy Ramadan!


Jun 1, 2017

Mexican Chocolate Snowballs

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These Mexican chocolate snowballs are a spicy twist on an old favorite with almonds, chocolate, cinnamon, and a pinch of chili powder. Buttery, delicately spiced, and rich with chocolate flavor this egg free recipe can easily be made vegan too. A simple to make treat to serve on Cinco de Mayo or any holiday! 

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I love the way the Mexicans spice their chocolate with a little cinnamon and a hint of chili. So when I saw this recipe on Allrecipes a few weeks ago I had to make it. It was absolutely delicious! I did make a few changes though. The original recipe called for ancho chili powder, a little less sugar, and dark chocolate chips. I didn't have ancho chili powder so I used degi mirch or cayenne powder. Ancho chili powder has a bit less heat than cayenne and a slight fruity flavor, but the chili flavor in these cookies is so subtle I didn't find it made a difference. If you can't handle any sort of chili heat I'd substitute paprika for the chili powder or simply leave it out. I bumped the sugar up to the amount I use in all my snowball cookies. Dark chocolate chips were recommended for use in this recipe. Unfortunately, I did not have dark chocolate chips so I used milk chocolate chips. Although these cookies were delicious with the milk chocolate and regular cocoa powder I used, I think using dark chocolate chips and dark cocoa powder would make them even more delicious! I think the next time I make these I'll grind up a dark chocolate bar and use it in place of the chocolate chips and cocoa powder. To make this recipe vegan-friendly just substitute a good quality vegetable margarine or shortening for he butter. Off to the recipe:

1 C butter, softened (use margarine or vegetable shortening to make these vegan)
3⁄4 C powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1/4 C unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1⁄4 tsp cayenne powder/degi mirch or Kashmiri mirch (for less heat use paprika)
1⁄4 tsp salt
2 C all-purpose flour
2⁄3 C toasted almonds, finely chopped (optional)
1⁄3 cup dark chocolate chips
To roll cookies in after baking: 
1/2C powdered sugar
1 TBS cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon

Here's what to do:
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1) In a large mixing bowl beat together butter,  powdered sugar, vanilla,  cocoa powder,  cinnamon, chili powder, and salt until creamy and well combined.

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2) Add flour, almonds and chocolate chips to butter mixture. Continue to mix. Dough will be crumbly at first but after about 2 minutes it should pull together and stick to itself. When dough forms a large ball and sticks to itself it's ready. Chill dough covered with cling film in refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

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3) When ready to bake preheat oven to 325F/165C. Form tablespoonfuls of dough into balls. Place balls of dough on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silicone mats. Bake cookies for about 18-25 minutes or until lightly browned on the bottom being careful not to over bake. Cookies will harden as they cool.
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4) In a large shallow bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup of powdered sugar, 2 tablespoons cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon cinnamon until combined.

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5) Cool cookies about 5-7 minutes then roll in sugar mixture while still warm. Cool completely on wire rack then roll cookies in sugar mixture again if desired. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

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Helpful Hints: 
Chilling the dough is important as it allows the flavors of the chocolate and spices to develop as well as making the cookies easier to shape.

Keeping the dough wrapped in in a plastic bag or cling film while chilling prevents it from drying out and absorbing other flavors from the fridge.

Substitute a good quality margarine or vegetable shortening for the butter to make these cookies vegan.

May 29, 2017

Over the river and through the woods...

Well, we didn't go to grandmother's house but we did go over some rivers and through some woods! Yes, we went to Kathmandu again. Above you see a mural of the Pokhara valley painted across the back of a truck we waited behind for about an hour. The mural is replete with para-gliders, Lake Fewa, and Mt Machaapuchre looming in the distance. The large bird is Nepal's national bird which is called a danphe, Himalayan monal, or Impeyan pheasant.

Look at that early morning traffic! Absolute gridlock! Sheesh!

Finally a tiny goatherdess cleared the road and bade us farewell.

Bibi's LOTD was a travel smart abaya, palazzos, and hijab in dreamily comfortable modal and viscose. A pair of golden bejeweled sandals with matching handbag added a touch of bling to this Arabesque ensemble. 

Here's the first horrific crash of the day. The 174 kilometer/108 mile long Prithvi Highway we drove to Kathmandu on is one of the most dangerous roadways in the world. 

And there were landslides. With the start of the rainy season this is always a hazard. It gets worse when the Monsoon starts.

We decided to stop for a snack in Mugling and check on road conditions ahead. The veg momos were yummy and we learned the highway was going to be closed until 2 pm due to another landslide. 

So we did a little shopping and met some beautiful people. The black dot on the baby's forehead is to ward off the evil eye in case you're wondering.

Smoked fish are a local specialty in the villages along the river. We passed on the fish but picked up some fresh locallly grown ginger and dal. 

Here's horrific crash number two on our trip. Yes, it is a large (18 meter long) truck flipped over on it's side. No, there weren't any tow trucks there. In fact this truck's cargo was being unloaded by hand onto another truck. 

And finally the road was reopened and we were on our way! There was the usual traffic jam over the grade into Kathmandu. While the Sheikh did business in Kathmandu Bibi was lazy and luxuriated at the spa and lounged by the pool in her burkini sipping virgin mojitos.

Then we came home. The kitties jumped in our dusty and dirty duffel bag and refused to leave. I think they missed us. So anywho, I took lots of photos for future posts on our little trip. We did a side trip to a little village that was so pretty. Ramadan has begun and so I'll be busy cooking up all sorts of goodies for iftar and suhoor.

Calmly currying on,

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