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Food and memory

It’s one minute before 11pm, and I just finished making soan papdi. I can’t believe I did it. I was very ready to give up and make a different street food for this week, but something pushed me to keep going. “Third time’s the charm?” I thought. The internet had failed me miserably. The recipes were all in Hindi, or Nepali, or Urdu, or Bengali, so I tried watching [a lot] of videos to see if I could gather what the measurements and process were. I knew the gist of what to do, but the few methods I tried didn’t work. There appeared to be a singular recipe in English on the whole of the internet (and it is repeated on at least 7 different websites) that flat out does not work. One website even had that English recipe, paired with a video showing an entirely different process than was described in the recipe.

The second that I started working the sugar though (it’s a pulled sugar recipe, kind of like hand-pulled cotton candy), I knew it was going to turn out. The moment when I realized it was not another fail, I remembered all the beauty of the first time I had soan papdi.

It was 2008, and my very dear friend Rebecca and I had traveled to Nepal to volunteer at an orphan home and trek in some really tall mountains. While getting to know the area around the home, which was in the south of Nepal, we would occasionally take a 1 hour walk to the nearest town center to use the internet, see some shops, eventually get tired of people staring and screaming “hello!” at us and come home. Note: Nepal has changed dramatically in the last 13 years, so much so that we could easily walk to town without this attention today; #theinternet.

On one of our trips to town, we stopped at a local bakery and chose some snacks. I remember we tried a few, but one stood out from the rest. It was distinctly different from most other sweets I had had in Nepal, which had all been milky or syrupy and usually ball-shaped. Wrapped in a bit of newspaper, we each got two small bars of soan papdi- though we had no idea what the name was at the time. Even though it was bar-shaped and dense, it was somehow light and feathery, with a hint of cardamom spice and topped with chopped nuts. It melted in your mouth, but was also flaky and required you to chew. What was this texture?? It was almost as if the inside of a butterfinger married a cloud, and their baby was cardamom-spiced.

We both marveled for a while as we walked back to the orphan home in the sweltering sun of midday. Even thinking about it now I can feel the joy of discovering a delicious something I had never had before. I can also feel other things from those moments: the irritation of sweat streaming down my back, the fear that a group of people would start to follow us home, and the relief of the sun going down over the rice paddies as we approached the orphanage, kids screaming and running excitedly to us from their perch by the water buffalo.

I don’t know if we ever got soan papdi on that trip again, but last week when I told Rebecca I was going to try to make the treat from the Naryanghat bakery she knew immediately what I was talking about. That is the power of food. Scent, emotion, and memory are intricately tied in the brain, and because nearly 100% of what we taste is actually smell...well… that’s why I have so many food memories I guess. Maybe you do too.

The overwhelming remembering that I’ve had creating some of these foods for the “international street foods” series brings me some hope, as I had begun to fear we won’t ever be able to travel again. I know we will, but it’s going to take a long, long time for the world to be “open” again. Making soan papdi over the past couple of nights has given me a little comfort though. I can now make this treat, that I thought was only available at that one bakery in Nepal! Silly me. I learned a lot more about soan papdi in the process too; not only can you buy it online (lol) but it is actually a popular treat during the Hindu festival of Diwali. Usually in early November, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance. Perhaps serendipitous, this treat was.


*After writing this last night, I dug out the old external hard drive and found photos of that exact bakery visit! Not only did I snap a photo of the soan papdi, I took a photo of the outside of the bakery as well. Perhaps I knew they would come in handy some day ;)

The Harka Fund: The little nonprofit Rebecca and I and our good friend Anthony started to support the kids of the Harka Orphan Home in Bharatpur, Nepal in furthering their education

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