Our Nepalese Feast

by Annalise on November 16, 2009

To date our meals out have been toward the western style or less substantial Asian bites en route from one place to another. We had been looking for the full traditional Nepali or Newari meal experience. In Calgary we had eaten at the Mount Everest Kitchen restaurant so we had an idea of what to expect but it was even more fun to find those savory and subtly spiced dishes in their original setting.

It is the eve of Shirley’s departure from her visit here in Kathmandu which coincided with the finish of David’s first major two day facilitation in Nepal. Both went brilliantly and we were motivated to celebrate. One of the principals of ICA Associates responded to our request for a restaurant recommendation. Ram Bhandari could be described as a particularly ebullient or perhaps even gregarious individual with a warm and generous personality. In perfect Bhandari style, his recommendation started with a long pause to convey he truly understood what we were after and then he fired off with animated description and directions in one quick shot. I picked up all I could from this assistance and knew it was looking for a place whose Nepali name stands for something like ‘kitchen house’ (Bhojan Grinha), was a 3-5 minute walk down this crazy busy street going first straight (sidhah), through the intersection (chowk – ‘choke’ – aptly named) and then off to the left (bahyah). He finsihed suggesting that we ask the shop keepers along the way should we require any further assistance. In my head I was still busy trying to replicate the sound of the restaurant name with some semblance of accuracy as he cheerfully wished us a good evening and headed out the door. Until I speak with Bhandari again, I won’t be certain if what we found and experienced was indeed the place he had in mind but what an evening!

We headed off down the street as suggested and when I thought we’d gone far enough, I began to ask. The suggestions all seemed to be pointing us down a side lane, happily off to the left. There is little for street lighting so any venture heading further away from the main street and into less light down a long narrow pathway leaves us westerners feeling increasingly skeptical about our direction. But we spotted a somewhat better lit building at the end of the lane so we persevered. When we arrived at the large three story structure, the windows were shuttered but we could see what appeared to be a kitchen inside. We saw no signage to assist so we asked a fellow there if this was the restaurant we were looking for. He assured us it was a restaurant and that they’d be able to seat the 4 of us for dinner, pointed us toward the door and then he headed off down the lane. We were led by another gentleman through a series of small doorways, past an inner courtyard and then up to the second floor of the building where to our delight we found a rather formal dining room. The tables were traditional for this area, standing less than 2′ off the floor with leg-less padded chairs for us to sit cross-legged. Several of the tables were set for very large parties with a handful of smaller ones as well. The staff looked a bit bemused that we’d managed to arrive there without a reservation and by appearances we were the first guests of the evening. Nonetheless they seated us and brought a scroll menu which described their standard, organic, ethnic Nepali meal.

As we sat congratulating ourselves that we’d found the place, the first of our feast appeared. They presented this taste of rice wine poured in a long arc from an ornate brass decanter with a narrow spout. The cups looked like the base of small brass candle holders and each held no more than an ounce of the wine. All the same not a drop was spilled from this great height. They of course passed Robin’s mini goblet on this round but brought him a coke. The rice wine was a bit like sake and had a nice warming effect.

By this time, there were others starting to enter the restaurant, some entering the room where we sat, others heading up another flight of stairs. In no time every table was filled. Our server explained that the main courses would be served starting in about 30 minutes time and would then be accompanied by the music and dance performances. Dave wasn’t sure if he’d heard correctly and is always quite nervous at the idea he may be expected to dance; more rice wine was on its way!

The first appetizer arrived and was served to us individually in small brass bowls as was each of the courses to follow. This evening the appetizer was popcorn. Ok, this was a bit unusual…the popcorn was followed by warm curried potatoes which were fantastic. We then received two small bowls, one with a shredded buff jerky with chili peppers. Buff is water buffalo and is a tasty and common alternative to beef; remember the cows are sacred here and therefore not eaten. The other bowl was a small, light pancake like item made of subtly spiced ground lentil. After another happy, digestive pause as we savored those flavors, we each received our buff momos. Momos are the Nepalese versions of dumplings, potstickers or pyrogies whichever your point of reference. They are a favorite and a staple in our freezer for quick food nights.

The next course presented was the lentil soup which was a lovely thin rich broth with 3 or 4 different types of lentils and a fresh but mildly spiced flavour. And now it was time for the main course. We were each brought a hot, flat, brass plate plus two small bowls of different sizes. This same setting was being carried out at several tables at the same time. After all was set, the food arrived in a flurry of activity, each dish being spooned onto our plates from a large brass bowl by a different server, one after the other. First the fragrant rice, then in the shallower of the two bowls, the lentil dal. This was quickly followed by a gorgeously red colored curried lamb in the small deep bowl. Beside the rice we received a wild mushroom masala, terriaki chicken, curried cauliflower veg and spinach with cardamom. In the centre of the table they added a radish pickle. The combination of colors, textures and flavors was gorgeous and just when we were nearing the plate surface again, they came in yet another wave to ensure we had all we needed of each of these dishes. It was like an all you can eat, heavenly buffet! After the servers came by a few times, our stomachs’ full messages finally reached our heads and we began to slow down. We sat and enjoyed the last of our bottle of red wine as the music and dance performances began.

The music included a wide, double ended hand drum, an accordion like organ, a beautiful flute, miniature violin, tambourine and vocals. The head of this band was a smiley character who called out the tunes and dance pieces while playing the violin. They carried out about 4 individual performances over the course of the evening, each time he left the room playfully calling out a goat sound and then something that sounded like bird or dolphin call. The dances were beautifully costumed and performed. They told the stories of traditional scenes including the delivery of tea to the terraced rice fields, a harvest dance and several others. It was a treat to be able to sit there and enjoy these performances. You couldn’t help but smile with them and enjoy their energy.

As we took in the last of the music, our final courses were arriving including sweetened yogurt with maraschino cherry pieces and then, finally, sweet masala tea made with steamed milk. Although unexpected, with these last courses we also received more rice wine. In the flurry of delivery, they even filled Robin’s mini goblet. He asked if he could try some. We told him to go ahead and give it a try. The expression he finished with confirmed his age and assured us he wouldn’t be sneaking it anytime soon. Dave’s description was “like paint remover, only better”. Surprising he appeared to enjoy it so much.

When we were ready to go we asked for their business card to be sure we could find it again, perhaps returning when Sophie comes to join us from Holland. They jumped up to get the cards and then offered us a tour of the rest of the building. As it turned out, the restaurant areas was renovated from the one face of this 150 year old building, the other two faces now housing a college and an NGO office. The inner court yard a quiet space between the three. The third floor of the restaurant was an even more elaborately decorated setting with large windows and the exposed, aged beams of the wooden roof. The restaurant in total seated 250 persons. I couldn’t recommend it enough and regardless if this was the place that Bhandari intended, I owe him our thanks for pointing us in this direction!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sophie November 19, 2009 at 8:18 am

I was reading this story and by the time you arrived at the main course, I though you guys already had about three main courses… It really sounds like a great experience! So I think you can change that last paragraph from “… perhaps returning when Sophie comes to join us from Holland.” into “certainly returning when Sophie comes to join us from Holland” ;)

LeeAnne November 21, 2009 at 12:35 am

Another great story shared – thank you. The whole experience sounds fabulous!

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