Manju Chaudhary sinks her hand into a little pond and brings up a tiny, conch-shaped shell. Inside it is an even tinier water snail. When she has collected a handful she goes to the kitchen, where she boils them and cuts away the inedible tails. The rest she fries with her favourite spices and eats it with rice, sucking the flesh out of the shell.
Many in Nepal would look askance at this dish, but among the Tharus ghonghi snails are a delicacy. The indigenous Tharu people live along the southern plains, and despite different customs and costumes among sub-groups, they share a love for snails. In fact, the Tharu are fond of eating all aquatic life -- from fish and fresh-water shrimp to exotic tiny crabs and clams.
Exploring Nepal’s culinary diversity', Kedar Sharma and Kiran Sharma
“We harvest them ourselves from rivers and ponds,” says Chaudhary, who is from Sunsari. “We had a pond near our home, and brought handfuls of snails from the river and put them in. They multiply fast, and there is enough ghonghi to last a year.”
Snails are eaten as a hors d’oeuvre or with the main rice meal, and has a slightly slippery texture, tasting like creamy mushrooms. In general, Tharu cuisine is known to be very healthy as it includes fresh leafy greens which are boiled and not fried, very little oil is used.
Full of proteins, snails are said to heal wounds and broken bones faster. However, ghonghi is not well known outside the Tharu community and many Nepalis are not even aware that snails are edible.
The superfoods of the Andes and the Himalaya, Sonia Awale
Much more than dal bhat, Anil Chitrakar
Now living in Kathmandu, Manju Chaudhary (pictured above) misses her childhood delicacy, and relies on travelling relatives to deliver snails. A few eateries in Kathmandu are now trying to cater to people like Chaudhary by serving Tharu dishes, like Barghar restaurant in Kirtipur.
“The only time you get to enjoy Tharu food in Kathmandu is during the Maghi festival, when stalls provide this food in Tundikhel. But we want to offer it year-round,” says Sitaram Chaudhary, one of the founders. Though the restaurant serves shrimps, crabs, and even clams, Sitaram notes that snails are the most popular item on the menu.