Kathmandu’s Maari Pasals
Kathmandu Valley is an explorer’s delight, that’s what they all say. Well, when you are here, besides discovering ancient monuments and enjoying colourful festivals, do be on the lookout for a traditional food item called maari. Maari can be of various kinds: for example, selroti, khajur, rodh, aanti, aainhthi, fini, Punjabi, puri, khasta, gajur, etc. etc. But, no matter what name they go by, you can be sure that each is as delicious as the next. Indeed, the making of maari, as well as their variety, vindicates the cuisine artistry of the Newars, the original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley, a people known as much for their love of festivals and their artisanship skills as for their many delicious dishes. The maari pasals, shops selling maari, are no ordinary pasals (shops). Recipes handed down through generations and many skillful hands play a key role in the making of a wide variety of maaris. Having said all this, you might well be wondering what exactly is a maari?
Well, to cut a long story short, maari literally means bread. so Kathmandu Maari pasals are your place to find morning breads. However, One must remember that the modern bread loaves were only introduced in the valley around the 1970s. Before then, maari was the bread of choice for breakfasts, more accurately, snacks, since breakfast is something that people here were not much familiar with before, an early lunch sufficing instead. Anyway, maari was what Newars liked and maasri is still what is most preferred by a large number of the valley’s original inhabitants. And so, not so long ago, Kathmandu Valley had a large number of so-called “maari pasals” (bread shops) spread throughout the different localities.
There are still many such maari pasals in and around the valley, most of them making and selling traditional Newari sweetmeats, confectionary and various types of maari. Some of these shops are as ancient as the recipes they use. You will find a dozen or so of them in Maru Tole around the famous Kasthmandap Temple near Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, which by the way, is the centerpiece of Kathmandu and a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site Monument Zone. While mentioning this, it would also be appropriate to describe the ancient maari pasals as heritage shops themselves.
One of the oldest (some say it’s the oldest) maari pasals here was established way back in 1880 by a man named Purna Das Rajkarnikar. It is still running today, the management being taken over by the fourth generation; still selling many varieties of maari besides a diverse range of traditional and not so traditional sweetmeats. Here, it must be said that the valley’s maari pasals have, since time immemorial, been run by the Rajkarnikar clan (a part of the larger Newar clan), Many continue to be so run, The Rakarnikars actually have not only been operating such maari pasals in the valley, but many have gone to the country’s different cities to open similar shops. One such example is Himanchal Cabin in Birgunj (a major commercial center in Nepal’s Terai, the flatlands) which has been the leading sweetmeat shop and restaurant there as far back as anyone can remember. It’s still going great guns.
Not going so great are two shops in Thapathali of Kathmandu, which together, was once known as Ram Bhandar, the reputation of which was such that come feast or festival time, Ram Bhandar was it to buy your sweetmeats. Of course, till maybe a decade and a half ago, there weren’t that many sweetmeats in the valley except for the maari pasals among which Ram Bhandar took the leap towards modernity by introducing a whole assortment of more modern sweetmeats. Anyway, it is now history, having been segregated into two and as it is, the valley has a lot of attractive sweetmeat shops now.
Coming back again to the heritage maari pasals, one is likely to find something called wasaa: at these shops. They cost around a thousand Nepali bucks (around 12 dollars) a kilo and are meant to be a part of the post partum diet of nursing mothers. Waasa: literally means medicine, and in the Nepali language, is known as sutkeri masala. A highly nutritious food, wasaa: is a mix of gund (edible gum), dry fruits, battisa (mixture of 32 herbs), jwano (thyme), methi (fenugreek) and sounf (dill). Sure, it’s a potent concoction, one that is guaranteed to impart most nutrients essential for nursing ladies in concentrated amounts. Taken dissolved in milk or water, wasaa: is tasty as well and much in demand even today. All in all, the maari pasals have to be complimented for keeping ancient cuisine alive and for being of great service to the locals through the ages. Indeed, Kathmandu’s history would not be complete without a mention of its heritage shops which include such maari pasals.