I’ve been aimlessly wandering through the narrow crowded streets of Kathmandu all morning, and it’s lunchtime. I look for a suitable place for lunch and a rest, but suddenly all I can see are dental clinics (I use the term loosely, but that’s what the signs say) and painting schools, along with the hundreds of stalls selling religious trinkets, pashminas and artwork. Then in the corner of square with a temple in the middle (just like the dozens of similar squares I’ve passed), I spot a little sign “Delicious Cafe”, which also promises me a “cushion bar”. How can I not investigate this? Looking up, I see a couple of people eating on a tiny balcony on the first floor. I sigh, thinking that there can’t possibly be room for me too, but when I peer inside the gloom of the entrance, I realise there are more tables and few locals eating and drinking. Unlike many of the non-tourist cafes, it doesn’t look too grim, so I allow the smiling owner to proffer me his menu.
10 minutes later, a steaming plate of “Nepali buffalo pasta” is placed in front of me, along with a pot of lemon tea. I take one sip of the tea and wince as I realise that, unlike in most of the places I’ve dined until now, the tea is actually made with large amounts of real lemon juice, rather than having just winked at a lemon in the mirror, and hastily add a large spoonful of sugar. The pasta is excellent — hot, spicy and filling — and although it consists of nothing more than fresh home-made pasta, buffalo meat and red and green chillies, it’s delicious. I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a better pasta dish, even in Italy. I glance again at the price list and realised that my entire meal will cost me less than £1, including the tea. About a fifth of the price that we paid for similar meals in the trekking teahouses. Who said eating in Kathmandu was expensive? Well, my guidebook did, for a start. But obviously, it depends where you eat. And I’d proved that particular book wrong on a number of occasions.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, I realise that the two young Nepalese lads in blue sweatshirts, who were eating lunch at one of the tables when I arrived, are actually the cooks, and that I am sitting not only in the dining room but simultaneously the kitchen. They have nothing but two trestle tables with gas burners on. Sacks of raw ingredients lie on the floor below, along with huge 5 gallon bottles of water. There isn’t a sink in sight, so the washing up must be upstairs. Or round the back. I doubt the cooks wash their hands much, but the food tastes good. And I haven’t washed my hands either. It occurs to me that many of my fellow trekkers would be horrified by this place. They’d be frantically scrubbing at their hands with sanitiser and wiping their cutlery. Do I care? I’m fully convinced that while in some situations you can’t be too careful about sanitisation, sometimes you have to go with the flow. And the body definitely has to get used to a bit of dirt or it becomes over-sensitive. Luckily, I hadn’t seen the state of the toilet at that point (it wasn’t the worst toilet I’ve seen, but it was very much a hole in the groun in the courtyard, and didn’t have any water to wash in either).
I’m pretty sure that the reason I never got ill on the trek was because I stuck to the local food and because I generally don’t over-obsess – things like dhal bhat are cheap, made in large quantities every day fresh, and they know how to cook it properly. I also think that the cooks are less likely to spit in my food, unlike that of some of the demanding Westerners who complain about dirty cutlery or rats in the roof. I’d spit in their food too if I was their Nepalese chef. Obviously, a cheap Nepalese teahouse in the middle of nowhere is never going to have the same standards as a posh London restaurant, and it would probably fail all the UK health and safety checks. But if you want posh London food, you don’t go trekking in Nepal. Demanding foreigners are tolerated only because they bring in the money, but that doesn’t mean that they’re particularly welcomed. I loved the way the locals took such delight in my ordering dhal bhat rather than pizza every night. Of course, you could accuse me of double standards here, because I did succumb to the odd chocolate bar from the teahouses while trekking. But that was purely out of necessity – you need some snakcs on the tough days (especially when you’re diabetic and suffering low blood sugar!). But if they’d had local Nepalese chocolate or snacks, I’d definitely have had that instead. It seems even the Sherpas eat Snickers though (as I discovered when one of our guides magically produced one from his rucksack when I had low blood sugar one day), so I don’t feel too bad about that. Chocolate is the international trekking food. And they don’t make their own chocolate in Nepal anyway. I’d be worried if they did, because it would probably be lentil or carrot-flavoured. Hmm, I wonder if there’s a market for carrot-flavoured chocolate?