The Spirit of Food and Language

Yomari – By Spartathreehundred at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It was 2pm in the afternoon. I was at my maternal grandparents place. We were about to eat the afternoon snack when my uncle mentioned about a Nepali who was participating in MasterChef UK. That was the first time I heard about Santosh Shah, whose name I didn’t know then. Soon after I googled to find more and followed his progress on the show like thousands of others.

His story reminds me of faith and patience; from a small village to the worldwide stage. The roads of life are strange and you cannot tell what awaits at the next corner, the only thing that you can do is practice your art.

Recently I watched the episode where he made Yomari and Chilly Chicken, the dishes that sent him straight to finals week. I was excited to see his take on the famous sweet dish and also equally excited to see how the judges would react to it.

Chef Shah had made balls of chocolate and covered it with white dough – something different from how I have seen a Yomari being made. How it’s often made at home is by melting a local variant of chocolate known as ‘Chaku’ and the liquid is then poured in the white rice dough that is made into the shape of a cup (with tails and two antenna like structure) and steamed.

As I watched him make a Yomari in a British show that had presented the contestants with a Chinese Kitchen, the words of Indian writer Raja Rao came flooding. Raja Rao had written: One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. These words had nothing to do with food and yet everything in the moment. Chef Shah had tried to manage whatever was available in the kitchen and express the spirit of his homeland.

As someone who has been writing in English, a language that is not my mother tongue or first language, I have many a times stumbled upon the question of how can I ever express a world that is not English in English. Nepali writing in English is a relatively new sphere in the world of literature and language. There are not many in this field who can make you smell the tea farms of Illam, the rainy seasons of Kathmandu, and the heat of Terai in English. As I struggle to write my worldview in English, I worry about how unique or original will it be or if I sound like a copy of a writer I have been studying.

Watching Chef Shah mould the Yomari, I found a new interpretation of the words of Raja Rao – it is the spirit that one must express. There will be differences, but that is not what truly matters. It is the spirit that matters. The judges were wowed with the dish. They had never seen the unique shape of a Yomari.

It truly is the spirit that surfaces at the end, be it in the flavors of food or in the words written across pages.