On the stove a dish called dildo bubbles in a wok blackened from what appears to be years of use over an open fire. I saw a menu nailed to a wooden plank in the kitchen yesterday, a hand-written grid neatly printed on a blank sheet of paper, and couldn’t help but laugh when I read that “Dildo with Mixed Curry” was on for lunch today. What in the world could that be? The rest of the dishes on the menu – besides “Macroni with Veg/Cheese Tomato” – are traditional Sherpa, Nepali, or Tibetan dishes, and I haven’t come across anything called dildo yet.
It was Pasang Genzi, assistant to the festival sponsor, who pointed to the corn meal and hot water bubbling in the wok and told me, “See, they’re making dildo. Very good, you should try it.” I watched as first the corn meal was cooked, then tsampa (barley) and millet, all in the same fashion. Then all three were dumped into a huge twenty-gallon pot to become a mixture so thick three cooks had to heave the pot off the fire and onto the floor, where they propped it against a wooden log which they used as leverage to stir the dildo with huge wooden sticks.
Lunch time approaches and I’m chased up to the dining hall to take the meal in a long room with wooden benches and long narrow tables lining either side. The thick brown paste that they call dildo is plopped into a copper dish and served with a bowl of chicken potato curry on the side. No utensils included. That’s pretty typical for Nepal – everyone eats with their right hand only. But usually the other volunteers and I are given utensils automatically, and I’d even say most of the monks use utensils most of the time. But apparently this dish is hands-only, so I have to seek out a spoon for myself. When I return and start sipping some of the curry soup off my spoon, I look up to see everyone staring at me and laughing – not insultingly, just amused. I seem to constantly be a great source of amusement for pretty much everyone here. The monks demonstratively roll their dildo paste into marble-sized balls and then dip them into the curry before popping them in their mouths. Colin jokingly threatens to throw one at me. It goes against every lesson in table etiquette my mother ever taught me. What happened to “No playing with your food?” Sherpa kids don’t learn that lesson.
Even though I know the dildo dish contains barley and therefore gluten, I’m curious enough to taste it that I risk a stomach ache. One bite is enough though; I find it bland and too rich all at the same time, and after three years of carefully avoiding gluten, the taste of grain is foreign in my mouth. I opt to stick to my bowl of curry soup instead, which is truthfully wonderful. I think the festival cooks are a bit less fond of chili and masala (spices), so for once I can actually taste my food.
I wander a bit after lunch, touring the grounds to check progress in our monastery-turned-thorma-making-factory. But eventually I find myself back in the kitchen, eager for a warm place to sit and read and subconsciously hoping for a hot cup of milk tea. I’m pleasantly surprised to find a huge pot of boiled potatoes on the floor and a group of happy Sherpas sitting around it in a sort of peeling party. Laughter bounces off the walls, the fire pops, and the smell of twisted rice-flour kapsi cookies boiling in soybean oil fills my nostrils as I’m welcomed into the room.
“Can I help?” I ask with a smile, pointing to the pot of potatoes.
“Sure, sit down,” Purbu replies. I’d crouched next to him in the yard of the other monastery a few weeks ago during the Nyune festival, slowly pressing a huge pile of barley-butter-water paste into hundreds of teardrop-shaped thorma the size of my fist. He and the others surrounding the tarp – all men between the ages of 16 and 40 and all trekking guides – laughed and joked as I very slowly and painfully produced my first thorma. No matter how long I massaged the paste, gently shaping and smoothing the surface, it would crumble the moment I pulled one hand away.
“No, like this,” said Purbu, as he forcefully smashed a handful of crumbs into a very dense, compact ball. He kneaded the dough for a good two minutes, then handed me a perfect sphere. Having three fourths of the work done for me, I quickly and easily shaped the ball into a beautiful teardrop, pinching the top with thumb and forefinger to emphasize the cone shape. I was really proud of myself, and so was everyone else. Purba and I continued in this manner – he doing the heavy lifting, me taking the credit for a perfectly compacted thorma – for at least two more hours, until the tarp was empty and we were surrounded by hundreds of teardrops on baking sheets. Remembering our teamwork and his kindness, I’m touched that Purba offers me a potato and a seat next to him.
With five people peeling, the twenty gallon pot of potatoes empties quickly. I reach in to pull another out while maintaining eye contact during my conversation Purba and am startled to find, when I finally look down, that I’m holding an egg. “Ewww! Uh oh! It’s an egg!” I cry. Everyone laughs. I look down into the pot. I count four other eggs camouflaged among the potatoes. For some reason I’m startled and confused; I don’t understand why you would ever boil eggs and potatoes together. In fact, I’m slightly concerned that the chicken poop on the eggshell contaminates the potatoes. But I peel the egg anyways and move on to the next potato.