March is Women’s History month. But someone whispered it is also Food month. Thus was this serendipitous story born! As I set out to speak to owners of a few popular restaurants run by foreigners in Kathmandu, the accidental reality I happened upon is that many of them are women. While we can only possibly touch on a few tales, and there are many more we would love to honor, the stories that emerged were truly inspiring.
Wandering down that famous restaurant row in “Jhamel” now dotted with so many eateries, it is hard to believe that less than a decade ago, this was a culinary desert. Along came a group of enterprising Malaysian and Singaporean families who used to get together for potluck meals and felt they wanted to share their food experience with others. It seems Ekantakuna, where a group of six kitchen staff were trained for six months, was the testing ground for rooftop tastings for local people. Christine, the chatty and animated presence behind Sing-Ma Café, tells me how they set up the original restaurant in a location adjacent to the current spot in Jamshikel when there were only a few small eateries around.
Some nine years later, the restaurant is a hot lunch favourite especially among the INGO crowd who want to eat and go – but are keen to try something a little different. The favourite is probably roast chicken and rice, a mainstay of stall food in Christine’s native Malaysia and in Singapore. But also a welcome addition to Kathmandu are dishes like Rendang, Fried Kway Teow (the big flat noodle dish) and Nasi Goreng.
The restaurant has added dishes as time has gone by – as I tried to persuade Christine to bring duck to the menu, she said she is tempted, but worried about the freshness and affordability. Some of the supplies are brought in from Thailand; and the rest is hand-carried by family and friends from Malaysia. Life is easier compared to the early days – bok choy, lemon grass, coconut powder can be found aplenty in Kathmandu. But dried fish, galangal and some other Malay specialty items cannot – and compromises are inevitable, Christine says with a grimace. “Everyone knows Chicken Kway Teow does not exist”, she said ruefully, “but in this town, you gotta have a chicken version of every dish.”
The inevitability of compromise may be palatable to some but purity of cuisine is a religion to others. Junko Naito, the driving spirit behind Dan Ran, has made a virtue out of serving genuine home-cooked food and is probably one of the only Japanese owners of a Japanese restaurant who is in the kitchen every day, ensuring that standards are maintained and cooking dishes herself. Choosing a name for this culinary enterprise, which approximates “family gathering”, Junko’s husband, Makoto Suga, says they refuse to make food that panders to the crowd. This is real, home-cooked food, low on salt and without too much spice. When they started up, it was second only to Singma, and together they became the pioneers of Restaurant Row.
Back then, their clientele was mainly Japanese from the JICA development projects – today they are patronized mostly by internationals and by a growing number of Nepalis who are drawn by the healthy food. They are limited in the sushi they serve to what is seasonal, such as avocado rolls, and available, such as smoked salmon rolls. But you can always find some interesting fish and pork items – especially broiled sea bass and tonkatsu (fried pork fillet). The difficulty is that some staple ingredients like dashi (or basic Japanese soup stock) are indispensable for authenticity. And it is the expense of bringing this in, along with wasabi and seaweed, that adds to the challenge of serving customers what they might find in a Tokyo neighbourhood. Check out the special menu that Junko concocts around Christmas and New Year’s – and whatever you do, don’t mention the competition across town because you will be told, that’s Japanese food that tries to be popular.
How does a couple from Poland end up in the heart of Thamel serving rotisserie chicken? Ewa tells me that about four years ago she decided to cater to the insatiable demand in this town for poultry products – and thus was Kathmandu Turbo Chicken born. She imported the machinery and set up shop in Lazimpat; then decided to take advantage of tourist traffic and made the move into the area next to Kathmandu Guest House. Deliciously moist and succulent chicken is paired with rotisserie potatoes and the usual side dishes of french fries, rice or salad. This is simple fast food, which can be eaten in situ or taken home. And just in case you’re wondering, Ewa only uses halal chicken delivered fresh every day.
Another eating hole in Thamel where you can find hapless hippies cheek by jowl with noisy young Nepalis is Kathmandu’s shrine for pizza lovers, Fire and Ice. The warm-hearted Annamaria Forgione is nothing less than an icon whose loyal clientele has expanded to the other K city across the border – Kolkata now has an enslaved fan club as well, ever since a branch opened up there. A native of Naples, Annamaria feels it was her destiny to end up in Nepal. She arrived with her husband some 22 years ago and overcame a crippling illness that had her in a wheelchair to become the dynamic force behind Kathmandu’s much-loved casual Italian eatery.
With 21 regions and a huge variety of food, Italian cuisine has such richness of recipes that it is not possible to replicate fully because many recipes are based on using meat and fish, which are unavailable in Nepal, says Annamaria. If she has made a small dent in reversing this and given pleasure to others through food, she feels she has achieved her goal.
She scours the market to find fresh local ingredients and struggles to maintain quality control. She has taught her staff to make the mozzarella cheese that is used, and wants to pass on her passion for food to her employees so they believe that they too can achieve what came to her through hard work. Acknowledging she is not alone in the hurdles she faces, she concedes there is stress caused by power shortages and pollution and the “general malfunction of the system.” But sitting around the table and sharing the pizza margherita is something akin to a divine experience – and she takes great pride in being a favourite with tourists and Nepalis alike. Her secret? “My passion, my love, the caring, my tenacious character, the fact that I do not let go”, she laughs.
Across town, a salon de thé that occupies a niche of its own and is lovingly referred to as Caro’s is something of a Provencal oasis behind white-washed walls in the exquisitely renovated Rana complex known as Baber Mahal. Chez Caroline is the brainchild of Utpal Sengupta, who some 13 years ago wanted to find an outlet for their cook Gopal’s exceptional culinary abilities. He chose a team, called it by his wife’s name, and settled on the venue as it was being completed. The inimitably French Caroline came into the picture after the initial deed was done: “We had no intention of opening a restaurant but when Baber Mahal opened, it became an obvious concept as it was a new and beautiful location, totally different from the other places...”
Enter and you feel like you are in a little corner in the South of France. Café style wrought-iron furniture set in a courtyard with red tiles and white plaster, a covered space with tables set out to give you just enough privacy, pictures on the walls that recall towns like Rousillon and Collioure, and plants everywhere, bringing a welcome touch of green to the terracotta tones. The menu offers a dizzying variety of French favourites, from raclette to marinated asparagus to quiches and sandweeches (if pronounced with that Gallic touch). And then again there’s the profiteroles au chocolat and crème brûlée and tarte au citron to die for.
So what has made and kept Chez Caroline at the head of the pack? She is quick to give her team all the credit, saying they are very motivated and easily accept criticism. “They always take into consideration what clients or I tell them. So when there is a small problem, they work hard to correct it. And we never go for lower quality even if it means earning much less”, remarks Caroline.
She has also diversified her menu, serving new items based on what comes into the market. Just the other day I had the delight of eating a mini-tart with wild mushrooms. “We try to buy local. We taste almost everything that comes into town and try to use as much organic produce as possible. But when it comes to cheeses and other products not available domestically, we import them from France, Norway, wherever.”
Her challenges? Apart from working out of a tiny kitchen, she finds it difficult to create new dishes with the same ingredients and importing has its limits, so being creative is a bit tricky. Often tagged as a hangout for resident expats and the elite, this is not a restaurant that is cheap, nor is it tailored to those who want the standard continental cuisine you can find elsewhere. But comparing apples to apples, the price of lamb chops is on par with eateries around town. Perhaps they should offer a cut-price menu on a slow day so that more folks who might like to savour Caroline’s cuisine can afford to check it out.
Or here’s a thought – next year, let’s celebrate food month by setting a new trend – offer tasting menus for fancy cuisine around town to food aficionados with modest pockets. This time around, let’s pay tribute to the many foreigners who, with their love for Nepal, have brought panache to the restaurant scene in Kathmandu. !