Every time Saket Agrawal, a pilot who works for a Middle Eastern airline, leaves Nepal, he packs a carton of Wai Wai — a brand of Nepali instant noodles.
And when he runs out, he video calls his mother who lives in Biratnagar, Nepal, asking her to send him some more. For Agrawal, who lives in Qatar, the packets of Wai Wai make him feel closer to home.
“Wai Wai is a celebration. The smell, its flavour, they take me back to those childhood times when I was growing up in Sonapur [a village in east Nepal]. I was just a kid, and I’d share the packet with my brother,” Agrawal says.
A feeling of homesickness is shared by the many Nepalis who arrive in Gulf countries every year in pursuit of better opportunities. Their cure for the emotion comes sealed in a packet of Wai Wai, a sticking plaster for homesickness. Its flavour is a solace that instantly bridges memories, taking them back to moments spent with loved ones in Nepal.
“Wai Wai is my favourite snack. It is a piece of Nepal with you,” says Nilisha Pradhan, a flight attendant with a UAE-based airline.
“Now that I am travelling across the world, I always carry Wai Wai in my suitcase and my flight bag,” Agrawal says. “It’s a staple food,” he adds, and one that he relies upon to satisfy his hunger.
“If there’s nothing available to eat, Wai Wai is an all-time. I love the varieties of it, mixing it with the condiments that come with it, or adding dollops of home-made pickles.”
Pradhan, who agrees with Agrawal’s views, says that she too always has a packet with her, “just in case I wake up at odd hours of the night or I don’t like anything on the menu. Wai Wai makes me happy and satiates my hunger”.
Wai Wai teleports Pradhan back to the good old days of the long overnight bus journeys with her father. “He would come to pick me up for my vacations. During those long rides from India to Nepal’s Kathmandu, the bus would stop at a place that served jhol Wai Wai [soupy noodles] made in the furnace with a boiled egg,” she says, adding that she tries to recreate this dish “when it rains here in Dubai”.
But Wai Wai goes beyond alleviating nostalgia. Agrawal also uses the noodles to connect with his co-workers from around the world.
“My international colleagues like to try something from Nepal, so Wai Wai represents the country, in a sense,” he says.
Sophiya Paudel, a student at NYU Abu Dhabi tells The National that she has at least one packet of Wai Wai stored in her university locker at all times. “It’s a resolve for my hunger when my friends or I am too lazy to walk up to the dining hall.”
Her relationship with Wai Wai stems from her childhood she says as she reminisces about her years growing up with friends at a residential school in Kathmandu.
“We would sneak in packets of the noodles and cook them in our mugs, using hot water from the dispenser, and covering them with books. I still prepare my noodles this way at university,” Paudel says.
For her, Wai Wai holds greater meaning. It represents “friendship, sharing and caring and, feeling special”, she says. “I remember when I was in grade five, a boy offered me five packets of Wai Wai, packed in a newspaper, as a gift. He even shared with me his half-eaten packet, invoking a feeling of exclusivity.
“So for me, it means that if I share the noodles with you, you are special, I care for you, and you matter.”
When Sanjay Shah finishes a long day at work, he heads to his kitchen and prepares Wai Wai sadeko — a snack with onions, tomatoes, green chilies, coriander leaves and lemon, which he makes three or four times a week.
Shah, who is from Birgunj in Nepal ― about 135km south of Kathmandu ― is an engineer employed at a bottled drinking water facility in Oman. He tells The National that when it is difficult to find Wai Wai in Oman, “I ask my co-workers to bring it from Nepal when they are returning from vacation.”
“Wai Wai noodles have become Nepal’s cultural and traditional food. So, whenever I'm eating Wai Wai, it narrows the gap of being far away from home.” It keeps his moods in check and “evokes happiness, a sense of identity and belonging to Nepal. It keeps me focused with no mood swings of missing home.”
But Shah says that while Wai Wai does remind him of all the memories with family and friends, it's just a temporary solution for homesickness.
“Even though it brings a sense of satisfaction and gives me the feeling of being closer to my home, it is still not a permanent way to avoid homesickness.”