Japanese Home-style Cooking at its Best
By Namoti Nembang
When I arrive at Café U a little after 12 p.m., it’s about to get busy. Shortly, the restaurant begins to fill in with locals, Koreans, and Japanese customers, who come for lunch and desserts. As I walk inside, a lady drives in and passes to a staff what looks like a bento box and leaves in a hurry. There is a lovely sunshade over the front porch complementing the bamboo blinds, and a couple of paintings resembling Newari architecture hung on the wall. A few tables are available here. When I take a seat, a waiter comes right over with a cup of warm barley tea and a menu.
After ordering agedashi tofu set, I take a little tour inside the cafe. The front door opens into a room that has an open-plan kitchen with two tables. The pots and pans are hung over the sink at one corner. Being here suddenly makes you feel like you're visiting your friend’s home, and not a restaurant. There is a beer dispenser on the right corner, and a small rack near the doorway displaying local teas, coasters, jams, miso paste, and different types of Japanese rice. They also sell homemade cookies, dry fruits, and cakes. In the adjoining room, you need to take your shoes off to seat around the low tables. It has lots of books, toys, and a gas heater. There are more tables upstairs, with a balcony.
When I return, my order has just arrived. After taking just a bite, I can tell it’s not a regular tofu that we buy from the local stores. It’s really fresh. Agedashi tofu is slightly crispy on the outside, but when you break it, it’s so tender it just melts in your mouth. It is infused with flavor from light dashi sauce, ginger, spring onion, and other seasonings. It comes with three sides and a bowl of miso soup and rice, along with fish powder, sesame seeds, and soya sauce for extra flavor. Of course, I’ve had tofu before, but this was something that would linger in my memory for a long time.
After my meal, I meet the owner, Ms. Chie Shrestha. She has lived in Nepal for 25 years. When she speaks, it’s hard to tell that Nepali is her second language. It’s flawless. She even jokes how often people mistake her for a Nepali. “I left Tokyo at the age of nineteen. If you ask me about Japan now, I wouldn’t know anything,” she says. When Japanese visitors come by, she greets and makes small conversation with them.
She first came to Nepal as a tourist in 1991. “I was young and desperate to get away from the fast life of Tokyo. Sometimes, I wonder why I felt so urgent to leave Tokyo back then. It must be the age,” she laughs. “I was looking for a place to slow down when I came to Nepal, and I loved the pace of life here. I trekked to Ghandruk with a small group of people and really enjoyed it. I also liked the fact that people knew each other by their name and face here. I felt like I could stay here for a year or two and that would do me good.”
Next year, she returns to stay a little longer, and joins Bishwo Bhasa Campus to learn Nepali language, which helps her extend her visa by one more year. She lives in an apartment owned by a Japanese, who owned a trekking company from where she had booked her Ghandruk trek previously. The owner hosted a few Japanese tourists and some Nepali guides, porters, and cooks in the apartment. “He was my dad’s friends, too, so my parents thought it would be safe if I stayed at his place.”
In the next six months, Chie begins a new life in Nepal when she marries Prithbi Shrestha. “I had met him during my Ghandruk trek. After we decided to get married, I invited my parents to Nepal. My dad had a long talk with Prithbi, who was 26 then. Maybe my dad’s friend also helped convince him about Prithbi. I don’t know all the details, but my parents gave me their consent and told me it was my decision, after all.”
“The wedding took place in Jhapa. I had invited my high school friends to attend my wedding, and we took them to Birtamode by chartering a plane to Bhadrapur airport. We had a typical Nepali wedding with panche baja. Prithibi has always been proud of local culture, and he wanted our guests to see a traditional Nepali wedding. After the ceremony, we took our friends to Pokhara for trekking. We had a lot of fun.”
When I ask her about the special cuisines of Tokyo, she says there are some sweets, but they don’t have anything special like other prefectures. She, however, says her parents had greatly influenced her eating habit. “They always stressed on eating healthy food and never allowed us to eat Coke, sweets, and junk food from the supermarket. Everything in our home, from eggs and milk to meat used to be organic,” she recalls. “Instead of buying veggies from the supermarket, they would go to farmer’s market and buy from small vendors who only sold tofu or meat items. My parents were ready to pay a little more or buy a little less, but never compromised on the quality of food. So, eating healthy food has been a norm for us since childhood.”
She also prepared her own lunch box since she was in junior high school. ”As we had to take lunch box from home, I would prepare school lunch for myself and my siblings. I used to follow cookbooks to learn new recipes.”
She says Café and Restaurant U was founded when her sister and her brother-in-law came to Nepal. “My sister was invited by a Japanese restaurant to work as a cook, but when it didn’t materialize, we decided to open something of our own. “As I could bake, my sister had an experience at an organic café in Japan, and my brother-in-law was good at designs. We thought we could team up and open a cafe. That’s how it all started. My sister and her husband initially ran the café. I would only bake cakes from home, since my kids were very small. I took over the responsibilities only after they went back to Japan.”
Shrestha says they started the restaurant with the idea of creating a place where people came to relax, talk, and laugh with friends for as long they wanted. “We wanted people to loosen up and feel at home while dining here.”
The restaurant is close to the Norwegian Embassy in Bakhundole, Lalitpur. The menu here is a lot different from other Japanese restaurants. They don’t have sushi and sashimi, but they serve Japanese home-style food. “People usually think sushi, sashimi, and tempuras are the only food Japanese eat. But, we don’t eat such oily food daily. Just like dhal-bhaat, we eat rice, vegetables, pickle, and soup with one main dish in Japan.”
Shrestha says the cafe mainly served vegetarian dishes like agedashi tofu and potato croquette in the beginning. They gradually added meat after much demand from customers, and now they have a variety of meat dishes on the menu.
“About half of the café’s customers are locals, and a lot of vegetarians come to the restaurant for tofu items. They mostly love agedashi tofu and udon noodles. The non-vegetarians go for chicken tatsuta. And, people love our barbeque sauce a lot.”
I learn that they make their own tofu at the restaurant. They make it five days a week, and more when they have orders. They prepare tofu in the morning from the overnight-soaked soybeans. The whole process takes around three-four hours. “We use very clean water, so you can have the tofu straight afterwards. We use liquid nigari that makes the tofu extra soft and tasty.”
Asked what else they make at the restaurant, she says, “We make udon and natto, as well. We mostly bring fish items like flakes and katsuo fish for dashi sauce from Japan. We use flakes in fried udon and tofu, whereas, for dashi, we dry the katsuwo and make its soup stock.” They use Japanese rice grown in Sundarijal and Sakura miso paste from Bhainsepati. The company has been making miso paste for the last 25 years. “We get frozen mackerel and souri fish from a Japanese food shop in Jhamsikhel. It has become really easier to buy ingredients since last year.”
Chie bakes two-three cakes on average every day for the café. She bakes more when people make orders for different occasions. “I usually bake in the morning or evening.”
When I ask her about her recent award, she humbly says she hasn’t done anything extraordinary. “All I have done is prepare food that I enjoy the most, and luckily, people have enjoyed them, too. I know a lot of Japanese friends who are doing much greater contribution to Nepal.”
Two months back, Japanese Ambassador to Nepal Masashi Ogawa had conferred ambassadorial certificate of appreciation to nine Nepali and Japanese individuals and organizations, including Ms. Chie Shrestha, for working a considerable period of time to strengthen the relationship between Japan and Nepal.
Chie adds, “A lot of Japanese who are deployed to Nepal for a tenure of three-four years struggle a lot during their stay. Moving to a new country is hard, and when they don’t have friends or a support group they can feel very lonely. I haven’t done much, but I give them company and provide them information about where to stay and where they can go to have fun. If they need any kind of help, I give them advice so they can leave Nepal with happy memories.”
When I ask her about the bento box, she says it’s not a bento box, even though it looks like one. “It is just a takeaway box. If you want to take away your meal, we put it in a lacquered box, so it’s easier to carry. You can return the box within a day or two. Mostly, people send someone to pick the box from offices, while we deliver the boxes to school students.”
Where: Bakhundole, Lalitpur for homemade fresh dishes cooked in traditional Japanese way.
Contact Number: 01-5555750