Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wo Is Me

In Patan's Durbar Square
Patan, Nepal 

Every time I visit Patan - usually to see my Charya dance master Raju Sakya, visit a tantric temple, or to check on some Charya ornaments hand-made by traditional artisans, I try to get in a trip to what I call the "House of Wo."

There's no signboard - in any language - over the tiny Newar food shop, which could serve as a textbook illustration of the phrase "hole in the wall," and if you don't know it you're unlikely to stumble upon the dimly-lit shop by chance.  The best way to find it is to go behind the famous Patan Durbar Square Krishna temple and look for Nepalis disappearing into the wooden-door storefront, between a jewelery shop and a bronze sculpture store.

The low ceilings and walls are blackened from decades of cooking smoke.  Strips of meat hang like party streamers, drying from the rafters. The tiny shop is invariably crowded; the few tables are usually filled, so I always sit on a wooden bench,  balancing my paper plate in my lap. 

The House of Wo is a family affair; on most days a voluminous matron sits on a low stool over the cooking stove, administering the sizzling griddle with grave authority and doling out Wo like a living Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food.  On my most recent visit she was assisted by a younger woman kneading the rice dough. 

"Wo" is a Newar speciality, their version of south Indian Uttappam - a  thick rice-and-lentil pancake. The special Newar addition is pieces of fresh ginger.  Sometimes called "bara," Wo can be made with an egg cracked on top, or with meat, but I love the plain vegetarian version.  Also available are tikka aloo (spicy potatos, a Nepali staple), masala roasted soybeans with cilantro, chickpeas ("channa") and chiura (dry beaten rice, another Newar specialty which tastes like confetti to foreign tongues). 

Bottled soft drinks (like Coca-Cola from India, with the label in Hindi script) are available, but I recommend washing down Wo with Chang, or homemade rice beer. It's mild, smooth, never gives me a headache, and is very cheap.

The locals are invariably amused to see foreigners, and despite the crowded space, you'll be easily roped into a conversation with the characteristic Nepali smiles.  During my sisters' visit from America, we met a gaggle of college students from Koteshwor. They had come all the way from campus to visit the shop so they could pig out  and get a bit tipsy on chang within their student budgets while flirting with classmates. 

You can stuff your face silly at the Wo shoppe for 2 or 3 US dollars.  The crowded environment makes it difficult to enjoy the food with leisure, but the smiles and laughter - not to mention the food - more than make up for it.

I recommend combining a trip to the Patan Museum - which rightfully has a reputation as one of South Asia's finest museums - with a visit to the House of Wo.  Also on the same block of Patan Durbar Square, the Sundhara Hiti (sometimes called the Royal Bath) made famous by a scene in Bertolucci's Little Buddha - has just recently been reopened.

You can enjoy the Museum's luxurious gardens and umbrella'd outdoor cafe, peek at the psychedelic ornamentation of the Sundhara Hiti, then chow down with the locals round the Wo House cookstove.  At dusk the temple bells from Krishna Mandir will serenade you, and bhajans (devotional Hindu hymns)  will begin upstairs in the nearby Bhimsen Stan.  

All this writing about Patan, the City of Artists, reminds me that it's a nice place to spend more than one day. If you're moved to spend the night, try the ultra-cheap, friendly and clean Mahabauddha Peace Guest House in the neighborhood called Mahabauddha, which is walking distance from Patan Durbar Square.

Have an extra glass of chang for me!  After all, in Nepal, "Chang comes from within."