The Great Chocolate Eating Contest of Kathmandu
Rhododendrons blazed scarlet on the trail to Mt. Everest Base Camp, and the snow-capped Himalayas pierced the sky like Bowie blades.
I was hiking in Nepal with my friend David Edgerton of Erie in the time before Covid. On such adventures, my guides and I often open our souls. On this occasion I found that my guide, Subash Ghimire of Malla Treks, and I share a lifelong passion, one that is literally all-consuming: chocolate.
Subash challenged me to a chocolate-eating contest upon completion of our 73-mile trek. I accepted. The showdown would take place at the Snowman Café, a former hippie hangout off the aptly named Freak Street in Durbar Square in Kathmandu.
Then 23, Subash was what we Midwesterners would call a whippersnapper. He had not amassed all the years of eating sweets that this Medicare recipient has.
As a child, I used to beg my mother to bake peanut butter cookies, apple pies and chocolate cakes. She often told me to learn how to make my own desserts. As a result, I joined 4-H and donned an apron. It was the 1960s when cooking was considered girls’ work. Back then, boys rarely made anything more complicated than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But I didn’t care. Chocolate had taken over my body.
When my brothers and I went on vacation in northern Wisconsin, I told my Aunt Imogene that I could not compete in the township and county fair that year because I would be going fishing. She suggested that I make that year’s entry — banana nut bread — before the trip and she would freeze it and take it to the fair.
I returned from the trip weeks later without a muskie or walleye, but I found that I had won a purple ribbon as township champion and a blue ribbon in the county fair.
Not bad for thawed bread.
That began a lifelong interest in making desserts that has only waned in recent years with age and laziness. For decades, I used a candy thermometer with the precision that other men use electric saws. I made fudge and divinity, pralines and turtles. I cautiously assembled my ingredients. I studied the red line of the thermometer to make sure I did not overheat or underheat my candy.
I taught my children how to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch with my personal touch — an Andes mint on top. I celebrated some of their birthdays by making baked Alaska with chocolate cake and the ice cream of their choosing.
While many men enjoy a glass of fine Scotch whiskey or a mug of cold beer, I would rather slurp a thick and creamy chocolate malt or shake — hot fudge, rather than syrup. Admittedly, on special occasions it’s harder to toast someone with a chocolate malt.
My love of chocolate knows few bounds. Once, on a hike in the Amazon rainforest of Peru, a guide was identifying all the plants on the trail. Here’s a cacao tree, he said.
Cacao, you mean, chocolate, I interrupted. Unashamedly, I hugged the tree and planted a grateful kiss on its bark.
* * *
Subash’s love of chocolate took a different path — decades later and about 7,800 miles away.
He grew up in Ratmate, a village of about 300 located about 165 miles east of Kathmandu. In his early youth no one there owned a television, drove a car or rode a motorcycle, but it didn’t matter. There weren’t any roads.
“The people who had telephones were known as rich people,” Subash recalled.
In the late winter and spring, Subash walked 40 minutes to fetch water from a well in the neighboring village. A one-way trip to the nearest market took 40 minutes and required fording a river.
But for all this deprivation, Subash did not lack for the main essential of life. He ate his first chocolate at age 5, and it was love at first bite.
He used money from relatives to buy chocolate candy. The expensive stuff cost about a nickel, and Subash preferred the sweeter candy. “I used to spend all my money on chocolate,” he recalled.
Subash then made a confession. “When I was a child, our family had a small shop that sold chocolate, and I would steal the chocolate from our shop.”
Hmm, I thought. This guy stole chocolate from his parents. He’s a hard-core chocolate eater. This might be harder than I had thought.
* * *
Recovering from an infection I had caught in Pittsburgh, I wheezed along the trail. But on the ninth day Subash and his uncle, Arjun Ghimire, who was our porter, helped me up the rocky crest of Kala Patthar about 18,500 feet high.
I stood in thin air as rainbow-colored Buddhist prayer flags snapped in the gust. The Khumbu Glacier, a treacherous river of ice, snaked below. Twelve miles away, Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world at 29,032 feet, towered as bleak as death, flanked by at least nine other 20,000-footers. I felt small.
On the way back, I was ready for my next accomplishment — victory in the chocolate-eating contest. Throughout the trek, Subash and I talked smack like football players taunting each other before a big game. Subash also attempted to pry information from David about my chocolate-eating ability.
We arrived in Kathmandu and headed to Durbar Square and the café. Many Americans of my generation know the city from the eponymous song by rocker Bob Seger, but he misspelled it.
The nation’s capital swarms with nearly 1.5 million people practically bumping into each other on narrow streets. Kathmandu has some architectural gems such as temples, but dilapidated buildings dominate the skyline. In 2015, an earthquake struck nearby, killing 9,000 people and damaging or destroying 600,000 structures in the area. The air was still thick with dust.
Bear in mind that we were holding the contest just before Durga Bhandari of Malla Treks would treat us to dinner at Utsav Restaurant. In other words, after loading up on more desserts than a sane person should eat, we had to save room for a traditional Nepali dinner of chicken, pork, rice, soup, and mixed vegetables and wash it down with rice whiskey.
David, Subash, Arjun and I entered the hard-to-find cafe and sat upstairs at one of its heavy wooden tables. Ram Prasad Manandhar opened the café in 1965, and his son Raju now manages it. Back then, most of the Snowman’s patrons were tourists looking for scrumptious desserts and a place to smoke marijuana. When Nepal made pot illegal, the clientele shifted to mostly Nepali students and other locals.
Each morning, the café makes 12 to 14 cakes and pies that are lauded in guidebooks, with many displayed in its window. A slice costs a mere $1.
The Snowman features a sort of head shop ambiance that might bother some people. Flies buzz about. The place is dark, with a haze of tobacco so thick that David wondered if the smoking patrons could actually taste the desserts.
Most of the ambiance, however, comes from walls plastered with three generations of graffiti. There were philosophical musings, obscenities and various pictures: A woman in a low-cut dress and reggae artist Toots Hibbert with the lyrics to one of his songs in his hair, but it also might have been Jimi Hendrix. We were waging our battle royale in a time capsule.
Subash ordered three slices of chocolate love and coconut cake. I ordered chocolate love, chocolate apple crumble pie and a chocolate brownie.
Technically, I could have objected to one of Subash’s slices because it was coconut, not cocoanut, and this was a chocolate-eating contest, but I made a tactical decision to remain silent. The coconut cake looked as thick as a brick, and I thought it might spoil his appetite.
“It’s too hard,” Subash protested. I smiled to myself.
Subash ate two slices at the same time. Describing Subash’s style, David said, “He definitely ate fast, and I wasn’t sure if that would help or hurt him.”
I was in no hurry, savoring the flavors. I began with chocolate love, an extraordinary combination of cake and creamy mousse. I will have to instruct my children, upon my death, to have my body embalmed with this mousse.
My second piece was chocolate apple crumble. When I think of fruit combinations with chocolate, I normally do not think of apples, but this worked marvelously.
Subash tried a bite of my crumble and Arjun’s coffee cake. Again, I did not object. That was one less bite for me to eat.
Then I started on the brownie. It was the shape and seemingly the size of Colorado and chock full of walnuts. My life has been devoted to finding the perfect brownie, and this one was close.
But the brownie was heavy. All three desserts and the knowledge of the upcoming feast weighed on me. I finished the brownie and put down my fork.
After eating three slices, Subash forked a morsel of coconut cake and popped it in his mouth. He won by a bite.
A few months after the contest, I sent a package to Subash. It contained his prize, a black T-shirt of a bitten chocolate bar with the inscription: “If eating chocolate is a sport, I’m an athlete.”
I later asked Subash if he knew what he would have given me if I had won.
“No,” he said, laughing. “I knew I was going to win.”
In the three years since our chocolate duel, Subash and I have kept in touch. He now attends a four-year program at the Nepal Mountain Academy that will teach him the mountaineering skills to climb the 20,000-footers.
He stills wears the T-shirt I gave him. One of his cousins asked him to give it to him, but Subash declined.
“It’s not only about the competition,” he said. “It’s a gift from Uncle Bill.” pq