Tungba: The Booze of Nepali Sherpas (And the Fine Art of Talking to Strangers)

By Dave Fox
Kathmandu, Nepal

Everybody stared when we entered the room.

From outside, we hadn’t been able see what was happening inside the restaurant, but we could hear lots of people – all speaking Nepali and laughing. It sounded like our kind of place.

So we peered in the front door, which opened not into a restaurant dining room, but a long hallway. It looked like someone’s house. We hesitated, until a cook peered from the kitchen, waved us inside, and gestured for us to enter a small room.

That’s when the stares began.

They weren’t bad stares. They were friendly, quizzical, “What are you doing here?” stares. We were the only foreigners – a couple of blocks removed from the streets where the foreigners hang out.

We took seats at the one free table.

02 tungba mug

Tungba tastes a bit like Korean soju.

We ordered food, and we were about to order beers when we noticed most other people were drinking something we’d never seen before, out of drinking vessels we’d never seen before either – large, aluminum mugs-without-handles, wide at the base, curving to a slightly less wide top. Inside the mugs were densely packed seeds. People were pouring hot water over the seeds, and slurping through plastic straws.

The drink was called tungba, our waiter told us. A mildly alcoholic beverage made with fermented millet, it’s the boozy libation of choice for Nepali sherpas. (I later confirmed this is true. He wasn’t just giving us a clever sales pitch.)

As we took our first sips four people at the table next to ours gave us a lesson in tungba consumption rituals. You can add water eight times to keep extracting alcohol from the seeds, they explained. Each time you add water, you should stir it with your straw for maximum effect. A fresh mug of seeds is recommended after eight water refills.

02 tungba group shot

Kattina chills out with our new pals, Mona, Pawan, Lama, and Tamang.

The six of us moved to a second room with a low-to-the-floor table, and pillows to sit on. We hung out with our new pals for the next couple of hours and talked about life in Nepal, Singapore, the States, and elsewhere. Around midnight, we exchanged e-mail addresses and made plans to meet again.

More Authentic Travels

There are times when meeting other travelers can be a great experience. But foreign travel is more authentic when you escape the areas where tourists hang out, and go someplace where people stare at you.

Just a couple of blocks away from Kathmandu’s tourist clog, at a place called the Family Restaurant, we had discovered the real Kathmandu and made new friends.

For many years, I’ve had two personal rules for traveling:

1) When you travel, things go wrong. Accept this and you’ll have a happier trip.

2) Always leave something to go back to, even if you are certain you’ll never go back. This eliminates the common practice of turning vacations into hurried checklists.

I’ve added a third rule recently:

3) If people are staring at me, wondering what the hell I’m doing there, I have come to the right place.

(The exception to this rule, of course, is if things are feeling unsafe.)

02 tungba pourPeople sometimes ask me how I have so many encounters with local residents when I visit new places. It’s easy to do, but it sometimes requires bravery.

You have to push yourself to go into situations where you might feel confused, you might be stared at, communicating might be tricky. When things feel awkward – as they did when we first entered the Family Restaurant – you have to stick around anyway. We could have walked out when our first awkward feelings hit us, but we didn’t.

The awkward feelings that come from entering places where you don’t “belong” often fade within a couple of minutes. And they’re usually a sign you’re on the brink of something big – about to plunge deep into a new experience and a big story that will last far longer than those first few moments of uncertainty.

Published on Saturday, December 27, 2014

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