Here’s the piece I wrote for the second issue of Saffron Magazine (it came out in August) in full, in case you haven’t gone out and bought the app!
Chips and chocolate cake – you can’t climb Everest on an empty stomach
When it comes to travelling, I would put good local food right at the top of my list of priorities. So much so that I’m renowned in my family for planning every meal of a holiday with the precision of a military campaign to ensure I don’t miss out on sampling the very best, whether in a market, restaurant or local shop. But last April I arrived back from a three-week trip to the Himalayas, having subsisted for most of the time on Mars bars and egg and chips, and thinner than when I had set out! So what had caused this change of tack?
Back in April 2012, an innocuous e-mail pinged into my inbox from Twins UK. (I’m an identical twin and my sister and I take part in twins research on a regular basis). Hidden amongst the news pieces was a request for volunteers to sign up for a trek to Everest Base Camp. But this was no ordinary trip to Everest Base Camp (if such a thing exists!) This was Extreme Everest 2, a team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists conducting experiments on themselves and other volunteers at high altitude, to develop new therapies to improve the survival rate of their patients. So, of course, we said yes!
Obviously, given my ardour for all things related to satisfying my stomach, one of the aspects I was most concerned with before setting out, was exactly what we would be eating as we trekked from our arrival at the tiny (and terrifying!) airport in Lukla at 2,800m to 5,400m at Base Camp, staying at local tea lodges on our way up through the Khumbu region. And I can’t say that the food we encountered ranks highly in my lexicon of fine dining or interesting cuisine. But, as is the case with any destination, I am always fascinated by what the food, and its sourcing and preparation, has to say about the people, history and culture of a region. Whether it’s a city deli, local market or just the little shop on the corner, I can spend hours watching and talking to people about food. And there are so many stories to be unveiled wherever I go.
Nepal served to remind me of this at every turn. Trekking into the mountains with no roads, combustion engines, or many of the tools we take for granted, with utilities at a premium (intermittent water, power and light), where everything for human habitation from lavatory bowls to gas bottles has to be carried up long steep paths by animals or men, you have to re-evaluate everyday expectations. And that was true for food as much as anything else.
Food preparation becomes a completely different challenge when every ingredient is either teased out of the few fertile metres of land in the small window of warm weather, or carried up steep rocky trails on the backs of men or animals. The sherpa cooks we encountered from our arrival at Lukla through to Base Camp, were operating under extremes – of ingredients, power, water, altitude. The fact that they produced edible food at all was astonishing; that, on the whole, it was reasonably tasty was a pleasant surprise.
The ingenuity of the local people was in evidence wherever we stopped, and the ability to produce food out of any small metre of suitable ground was present even at high altitude (though obviously not in the hostile environment we met as we walked across the boulder and ice strewn terrain into Base Camp!). Even the smallest patches of land were terraced where possible, and utilised to grow onions, lentils, garlic, cabbages, carrots and those greens that withstand the cold such as pak choi. And lots of potatoes – the ground is worked by the women and enriched with yak dung – nothing is wasted. Rice is grown in the more temperate lower levels of Nepal, and ingredients more familiar to Western palates such as pasta are imported. The food we found was mainly vegetarian – there is no fish apart from canned tuna and little meat. Yak steak is an occasional luxury, and we encountered some very good fried chicken at base camp but eggs appeared at every meal in some form – hard-boiled, omelettes, in fried rice. By the end we were all practically clucking ourselves! In fact if I never see another plate of fried eggs and chips again it won’t be a moment too soon.
The route up to Base Camp is one of the busiest in the region; the mass of people, yak trains and porters moving up and down the trails, was surprising for such a remote area. The popularity of the route meant that we experienced what might be regarded as the crème de la crème of local accommodation and cooking. The old Nepal hands amongst our group all commented on the improvement in both the facilities and the quality of the food and, although the menu choice was limited to a few dishes that appeared without fail wherever we stopped – and did become monotonous by the end – the food was usually well prepared and tasty. The local people recognise the importance of trekkers to their economies and are trying their hardest to provide the service that will keep guests coming and spending vital money.
The primary need for trekkers is to consume enough calories to support the body as it is pushed to the limit. But in amongst the endless plates of egg and chips, egg fried rice, the rice and veg curry combination know as dhal baat, and the inevitable omelettes, there were a few unexpected oases of foodie pleasure. Hidden in the vertiginous streets of Namche Bazaar, the market town of the Khumbu that clings precariously to the mountainside at 3,400m, we discovered not only excellent Italian coffee, lattes and cappuccinos, but also a really rich dense chocolate cake, carrot cake and superb brownies.
On quizzing Nyima, the smiling owner of Namche’s Café 8848, for his tips for baking at altitude, I found he’d sourced his recipes online from Australian food guru, Donna Hay. Bire, the chef at the lodge in Namche where we spent three nights being tested by our team of docs, was also an accomplished baker. His soda-raised breads were works of art – whether shaped into temple-like structures and steamed, fried into pancakes of the lightest texture, or simply rolled out into flat bread and cooked on the griddle as we watched.
The main challenge affecting cooks operating at altitude is the low pressure and humidity, which leads to lower boiling points, faster evaporation and rapid rising. So the trick is to reduce the amount of baking powder and sugar used, and add more liquid to counter the drying out. Cake tins must not be over filled as any mixture will rise further and faster than at lower levels. Further up the mountain we came across several German-style bakeries which daily baked a wide range of pastries and breads to serve hungry trekkers. The challenge of stopping the products from being too dry wasn’t always successful but we were more than happy to test the results at the places we stopped off at for very welcome rests. Regular snacks with plenty of fluids were recommended en route by Ian, our guide, to maintain energy levels and avoid altitude sickness. So Snickers bars and Danish pastries just had to be consumed whenever we found them!
Chocolate cake made another impromptu appearance further up the mountain – at Base Camp itself when we were presented with an elaborately iced confection as a farewell gesture on our last night in camp. But it was just one of the selection of great if rather unorthodox dishes the team of resourceful cooks cooked up for us there. Curries were excellent and we had some rather odd local takes on pizza and pasta, sometimes all served together on the same plate! But a really good fruit crumble displayed a sure touch with the topping, and the morning porridge, fried eggs (more eggs!) with home-baked toast and Marmite, all washed down with copious mugs of weak black tea, were very welcome after a night spent in a tent set precariously on the glacier at -18C. How the sherpa cooks managed to rustle up three meals a day, including 3 courses for the evening meal, must be some kind of miracle. They were cooking for 50 plus people in the Xtreme Everest camp every day in the most basic conditions – a long low tent set on boulders with calor gas stoves, unreliable power and an electric bread maker.
I came away with great respect for the cooks who fed us at that demanding altitude and under such challenging conditions. And secretly rather pleased that I’d eaten all that chocolate and lost weight – not my usual holiday practice but one I’ll never forget!