Local Food Favourites from the Newars of the Valley of Kathmandu, Nepal

  • Navin M. Shrestha
  • 13 October 2010

Takha and Sanya Khuna are two of the wintertime favourite foods of the Newars of Nepal, especially in Kathmandu.

Takha (originally Ta Khwa, meaning ‘frozen stuff’) is a frozen dish made from buffalo meat (only male buffalo meat is acceptable in a typical Newari kitchen). Sanya Khuna (sanya is ‘dried fish’; khuna means ‘boiled or cooked’) is a frozen fish soup. Both Takha and Sanya Khuna are often prepared and served together, due to the similar preparation methods.

Takha and Sanya Khuna in a full Newari lunch dish in Nepal

Takha and Sanya Khuna in a full Newari lunch dish in Nepal. Photo (c) 2010 www.KathmanduHotel-link.com

At a typical Newari feast or special winter occasions like Dashain, Tihar, Indra Jatra (in Kathmandu), Gai Jatra, Bisket Jatra (in Bhaktapur) and Seto Machhindra Nath Rath Yatra (in Patan), Takha and Sanya Khuna are served along with almost a dozen other items and rice or rice flakes (baji in Newari and chiura in Nepali). After all, Newars are well known for serving very nutritious and balanced food. Furthermore, they tend to utilise each and every edible bit of their ingredients in a sensible manner.

Who Are the Newars?

Historians, anthropologists and sociologists from Nepal and other parts of the world have contradicting theories about the origin and evolution of the Newar (or Newari) culture.

The Newar can be thought of as a mixed race of Mongolian, Aryan and even Dravidian blood, a very rich culture that evolved over centuries in the valley of Kathmandu – itself once known as Nepal and its population as Newar – and was spread gradually to other parts of Nepal as well. It would therefore be an oversimplification to use the term ‘Newar’ to indicate any homogeneous group or group of castes (a system imposed in the 14th century). Strictly speaking, Newars cannot even be classified as either pro-Hindus or pro-Buddhists, for they follow (or have adopted) both faiths to some extent in an inseparable manner.

And yet, any confusion, controversy and even subjugation by several dynasties, like the Licchavi, Malla and Gorkha, that came from the outside, the most distinctive attributes of the Newar aboriginals of the valley of Kathmandu – their mother tongue, Newari (Nepal Bhasa), their script (Ranjana), and much of their unique culture – have notably survived.

Newars are well known for their generosity, courteousness and communal sense. While they follow most of the festivals and rituals of non-Newar Nepalis, they do have several all their own, as well their own calendar (Nepal Sambat), traditional costumes and music, excellent culinary skills, rituals and a lot of other unique etiquettes. For example, Newar women do not pierce their noses, and they get ‘married’ twice (once before puberty and the second time at puberty) before getting married to real men.

A full Newari lunch set in Nepal, including Takha and Sanya Khuna

A full Newari lunch set in Nepal, including Takha and Sanya Khuna. Photo (c) 2010 www.KathmanduHotel-link.com

Food Preparation

To prepare Takha, buffalo meat (mainly skin, flesh and cartilage from the head, neck or, rarely, other parts) is cut into medium-sized pieces. The meat is then fried in mustard oil and mixed with finely ground spices. The mixture is then hard boiled for an hour or longer in plenty of water. Usually, while preparing Takha, some extra amount of soup is made and extracted for making Sanya Khuna. When frozen, Takha itself should have almost equal parts of meat and soup jelly.

For Sanya Khuna, any kind of dried fish can be used. However, Newars prefer small, dried, freshwater fishes (the size of one’s fingers) found in the local market. The fish is fried (either whole or in small pieces) in mustard oil before being boiled together with the soup extracted from boiling Takha. Spices are added while the mix is boiling. Taste enhancers like lime and coriander may also be added.

The boiled contents of both Takha and Sanya Khuna are poured into separate earthenware bowls and allowed to freeze naturally, in a cool place. When needed or available, a fridge can also be used. Overnight, each dish gets frozen and jellified, acquiring its own peculiar colour and texture. Takha is light yellowish, brownish or even golden on the surface, while Sanya Khuna often has a reddish-brown colour. These attributes (taste, colour, texture, etc.) vary from place to place, but the basics remain the same.

Once prepared, both dishes can be used for about a week (or longer, when artificial refrigeration is available) without using any synthetic preservatives.

Unique Flavours

Takha is mild in taste and delivers a distinctive flavour of well-cooked meat. As the jelly melts in your mouth, a combined taste and aroma of spices like cumin, turmeric, garlic, ginger, salt and more is gently released. The meat itself is a bit spongy – slightly softer than chewing gum – and tastes great with beaten rice, boiled rice or any main course.

Sanya Khuna has a much stronger flavour and odour that first-timers may even find a bit offensive. Just like Takha, the jelly of Sanya Khuna melts instantly in your mouth, but is more stimulating and leaves behind a more lasting taste of the fish and spices used. It is therefore used as a spicy pickle accompaniment.

In Newari cuisine in Nepal, Takha and Sanya Khuna set in earthenware dishes

In Newari cuisine in Nepal, Takha and Sanya Khuna set in earthenware dishes. Photo (c) 2010 www.KathmanduHotel-link.com

Newari Meal Etiquette

+ People typically eat on a long straw mattress on the floor (indoors or outdoors).
+ There is a careful structure to a meal, including a hierarchical seating plan, the order in which people are served and the order in which the meal is concluded. At every formal event, there’s at least one leader or a leading couple or a small group of leaders (the leaders are the most senior). A male leader is called “Naaya” and a female leader “Nakeen.” It is customary to wait for the most senior diners to begin or conclude the meal, violation of which is considered impolite/inappropriate/disrespectful. At a Guthi feast, doing so is a punishable offense, after which the felon must submit something (money or rice or other goods) to the Guthi.
+ Meals are served on leaves (bhoj patra). Typically, individual leaves are stitched together like small pieces of bamboo. These days, machine-pressed dishes are available in the market. During Dashain and a few other festivals, banana leaves are still used.
+ Newars eat using only their right hands.
+ Eating from others’ plates is considered inappropriate, and so is offering to others what you have ‘made impure’ by touching it with your hands/mouth.
+ Food is not meant to be served unless a person is seated.
+ While adding anything to your plate, it is done twice (to avoid single servings).
+ Before eating, a small portion of the food is offered to gods and/or one’s dead parents/ancestors.

The next time you visit Nepal, make sure you try at least a couple of authentic Newari cuisines, offered at several restaurants in Kathmandu, but recommended places include Nepalica De’ Roof Top Café (Bhaktapur), Bhumi The Resto-Lounge (Lazimpat), and Thamel House Restaurant Nepali Chulo (Kathmandu). It will be a great experience, not only because of the food, but also due to the customs associated with the rich and diverse Newari culture.

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Asia, festivals & events, food & drink, human interests, local knowledge, Nepal, personal experience, South-Central Asia, whl.travel,

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