James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Everybody Seems to be Eating Brains These Days

Everybody Seems to be Eating Brains These Days

Chhang in Patan

It was mid-afternoon, and we were gathered in one of the many nooks and crannies in the science laboratory where my boyfriend works, discussing what to do for Trevor’s goodbye. He’d been interning at the lab here in Kathmandu for several months now, and his flight was leaving just after 11 p.m. that night.

We tossed around ideas, some outlandish and others less so, but all tempered by the fact that he did, in fact, have a flight to catch. Interesting places were mentioned, cool bars suggested. Trevor was having none of it. “I want chhang,” he insisted.

So it was that five of us packed into a small car and headed into the back alleys of old Patan, just over the river from Kathmandu and one of the valley’s ancient three kingdoms. Experienced local foodie Raj led us through a maze of alleys in the falling darkness until we reached a door, and a restaurant.

Within minutes a plastic jug—the cleanliness of which certainly wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny—landed on our table, filled with chhang. Metal bowls were placed in front of each of us, to be topped up at our leisure. Chhang is sometimes called Tibetan beer or sherpa beer, but in my opinion, that’s a bit of a misnomer. It’s a cloudy brew, sometimes thick with particles from the grain that birthed it, usually rice, and it can run the gamut from vinegary to sweet, carbonated to watery, and anything in between. It’s always homemade, and therefore not standardized. It’s also not highly alcoholic—usually, but who knows?—which means you can quaff large quantities.

We filled and re-filled each other’s bowls, and were soon enjoying the stream of local drinking snacks Raj had selected: creamy brain chunks, fried fish, spicy buffalo meat sekuwa (a local BBQ), and a plate filled with offal of an indeterminate nature.

Another plastic jug of chhang was ordered and duly dispatched, as the volume of our cheerful group rose to an embarrassing volume. I looked around apologetically at the locals who filled the other tables, cheerful and red-faced, to apologize for being those loud foreigners that I always make such an effort not to be. However, instead of being bothered, they were instead highly amused—clearly we were a great source of entertainment on a usually predictable Monday evening at the local watering hole. We nodded and smiled at them, and they laughed with us as Trevor—who had already expressed his distaste for eggs—tried the brains and proclaimed, unhappily, “They taste just like eggs!”

We turned down the suggestion of a third installment of chhang and finally headed into the night, filled with chhang and not a little tipsy, to make sure Trevor made his flight on time.

If you have to leave Nepal, I can’t think of a better sendoff.

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