Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A la Kathmandu

Rediscover the delights of a budget gourmet destination...

Outlook Traveler - Dec. 1, 2010

It’s lunchtime at Thakali Bhanchha, and the canteen-style restaurant is packed. One table over, a group of tourists wrestle with their menus before opting for the non-veg thali (160 Nepali rupees)which features hill tribe food from the isolated region of Mustang. In the corner, a table of working class Nepalis tucks in, their steel dishes piled high with tremendous mounds of dal-bhat. The smell of coriander and mutton curry is hypnotic and my new friend Anil Giri, a veteran reporter with the Kathmandu Post, has to shout to make himself heard over the din of competing conversations. “Thakalis are known for hospitality, so this is why they are very good at this business,” he says. “They are champions of cooking food and all these kinds of things.”

diners at Thamel House

He doesn’t need to tell me. Thakali Bhanchha, a home-style Nepali restaurant in the heart of Kathmandu’s busy tourist district of Thamel, has been my favorite eating joint in the city for years, ever since I was introduced to the place by my sister-in-law, a foodie who has lived here since 2000. Lighter and less heavily spiced than most Indian food, the food made by Nepal’s Thakali people—ethnic Tibetans from the Tukuche mountain in Mustang—features subtle accents of cumin and coriander that gives it a distinct, fresh flavour.

Most Indians are sadly ignorant of Nepali cuisine, which comes in as many varieties as there are ethnic groups

But there’s more to the story than that. Most Indians are sadly ignorant of Nepali cuisine, which comes in as many varieties as there are ethnic groups in Nepal. I’ve always loved the Newari food made by the Newar people of the Kathmandu valley. Heavy on exotic meats—including buffalo—and fiery traditional liquors, a Newari meal has a rich, ceremonial feel, even at a basic food stall. The coal-black dal, almost without spice, has a lovely, earthy richness that is unlike any you will taste in India. And you can’t afford to miss the fermented dried greens—especially gundruk—of the high-caste Hindu Paharis of the middle hills or the fermented bamboo shoot-flavoured dishes of the Eastern region. (All readily available at Zaika and Thamel House in Thamel.)

The Himalayan Blues Festival at Comfort Zone

Unfortunately, the ubiquitous airfare-hotel-casino packages that have for years dominated the India-Nepal trade have kept most Indians from discovering the best thing about South Asia’s first tourist city: Kathmandu is a budget gourmet’s paradise. From the pungent fermented bamboo and gamey wild boar of Nepali classics to top-class, expat-run Israeli, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants, Kathmandu offers more than the usual backpacker’s burgers and banana pancakes—and the market is increasingly expanding to include more flash eateries, thanks to the proliferation of Western aid agencies and NGOs.

The gateway to Nepal’s mountains, rivers and wildlife preserves, Kathmandu has attracted legions of foreign tourists since the 1960s, when the city’s Jochen Tole, or ‘Freak Street’, was the Mecca at the end of the Hippie Trail from Europe. But unlike other cities along the route, like Delhi and Mumbai, Kathmandu’s in-built, laidback culture and anything goes attitude convinced lots of them to stay. So Thamel’s top Western and Asian restaurants are not just favourite eating spots for foreigners; they’re owned and managed by them. And even though Anil tells me that, traditionally, Nepalis aren’t as keen on eating out as Delhi’s flash-and-spend Punjabis, Kathmandu’s current generation is fast picking up the gauntlet thrown down by backpackers-turned-businessmen. “The recent trend is the younger lot are taking up restos, and they have much more exposure,” said Kunal Tej Bir Lama, the 43-year-old owner of Café Mitra. “Especially over the last three years, the new restaurateurs know what they’re doing.”

Clockwise from above: The Factory, Kathmandu’s hip new bar; grilled mutton at Chez Caroline; and a spread at
Picnic Korean Kitchen

The result is a fascinating mix of old and new. From Thakali Bhanchha, Anil led me on a post-prandial stroll south through Thamel and Chetrapati to Basantapur Durbar Square, also known as Hanuman Dhoka, where the sixteenth-century palaces of the valley’s Malla and Shah kings still stand in majestic glory. Down the lanes branching from the main square, we dipped into dozens of tiny Newari restaurants—hidden behind green curtains in medieval alleys so narrow it is nearly possible to stretch out your arms and touch the walls of the buildings on either side—for a glimpse of locals tucking into fish head, mutton tongue, lungs and brain. Then we headed for the modern Kathmandu equivalent at Bajeko Sekuwa (meal for two: NPR 1,000) in Anam Nagar, a popular seven-branch chain, where the tongue and brains come with napkins and table service, and there’s a multi-cuisine menu with Indian and Chinese favourites if you’re travelling with timid eaters. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve never been partial to tongue—which tastes you back—but I was very pleased with Bajeko’s mutton sekuwa. Tender and succulent, each bite-sized piece tasted of salt and fat and cumin, with just enough red chilli to bring out the beads of sweat on my (white man’s) forehead. And before we’d finished, we were lucky enough to run into Dinanath Bhandari, the 69-year-old owner of the venerable chain. “I started my first business with a kilo and a half of mutton outside Kathmandu airport,” he told me. “Now I sell 200 kilos a day.”

After saying goodbye to Anil, plunging from one extreme to the other, I met my wife and sister-in-law for dinner at Chez Caroline (meal for two NPR 5,000), an elegant French and Italian restaurant that came highly recommended by expat residents and restaurateurs. Housed in the Babar Mahal Revisited Complex—a restored Rana’s palace that also boasts some of Kathmandu’s best boutiques—Chez Caroline hints at the direction that the city’s Western fare is headed outside of Thamel. Somewhat reminiscent of Delhi’s Olive restaurant at One Style Mile, it’s a quiet, romantic locale in a shaded brick courtyard, with dramatic white archways leading deeper into the palace. Known for its salmon, trout and imported lamb chops, it does a somewhat better steak than the backpacker joints in Thamel—though its beef also comes from Calcutta—and on past visits I’ve had some excellent pasta here. But after a day of meat, I was content with a goat cheese appetiser and Niçoise salad, punctuated by a few bites of my sister-in-law’s steak and my wife’s pesto. Stuffed and contented, that night I slept like a dead man.

on the streets of Kathmandu

But that first marathon of eating was just the beginning. The next three days—like all the visits to Kathmandu I’ve made over the eight years that I’ve lived in Delhi—were an orgy of food and drink. Croissants, cheesecakes, steaks, Korean barbecue, Tibetan momos, Thai curry, bacon and eggs, beef burgers and aloo tama—I was eating to stock up on the stuff I either can’t find or can’t afford in Delhi, eating out of pure gluttony and calling it research. And because Nepal doesn’t bother with a killing import tax and Nepalis have none of India’s reticence about booze—with more than a few bars hosting their own Hindu shrines—I was washing it all down with the good stuff. Jack Daniel’s at 250 Nepali rupees a pop, or local stuff for as little as NPR 65.

Even at the bar at the Kaiser Café in the posh Garden of Dreams—a colonial style garden that’s popular with young Nepali couples, and rivals Delhi’s Imperial Hotel for atmosphere—I was drinking Kirs for just about 300 Nepali rupees. An hour and a half from Delhi, and better than Bangkok, I thought for the zillionth time. So why don’t I see any Indians?

a food corner on mandala street

A bustling thicket of bars, restaurants, Internet cafés and shops selling trekking gear and souvenirs, Thamel has a rough-and-tumble look to it—the only explanation I can come up with to explain the complete absence of Indian travellers. But the low prices mean that the stakes are low if you get a bad meal—and, frankly, you can’t go wrong with anyplace that’s thronging with customers. Most of the simple restaurant-bars, like the Northfield Café, do a pretty convincing imitation of Brit-American pub grub, and the stalwart tourist icons like Kilroy’s grill a passable steak (NPR 800) for a country forced to import its beef from Calcutta.

Thamel’s top Western and Asian restaurants are not just favourite eating spots for foreigners; they’re owned and managed by them

More surprising, perhaps, is the quality of Asian food on offer. Along with the Western tourists, Kathmandu has also been attracting more and more Japanese and Korean tourists over the past decade or so, and there’s a vibrant Asian expat community thanks to the development sector and missionary work—and that’s good for the travelling stomach. Along with more upscale restaurants like Kotetsu, opposite the Japanese embassy in Lazimpat, and Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan Restaurant, near the Yak & Yeti Hotel, that means there’s a host of tiny, fantastically cheap Japanese and Korean joints secreted around town. Momotarou, for instance, does brilliant gyoza and other non-sushi Japanese, while Picnic Korean Kitchen is a must visit. With fantastic kimchee pancakes (NPR 100) and beebimbap (NPR 280), this is the place to go if you’re keen on beef (NPR 350)—but, like me, turn up your nose at hanger steak from Calcutta.

a street food vendor

If you do a little exploring—and take a tip or two from residents—you quickly discover that the trick to eating in Thamel (and Kathmandu) is learning that almost every restaurant does something better than the rest. The Northfield Café, for instance, has the best bacon in Thamel and the option to order half-portion breakfasts (NPR 150-200) is a boon. The Pumpernickel Bakery makes croissants (NPR 45) worthy of a Parisian boulangerie. Or2K, a first-floor Israeli vegetarian restaurant on Mandala Street, has fantastic salads (NPR 200) and a brilliant mezze platter (NPR 300). Fire & Ice makes the best wood-fired pizzas around. And Sam’s Bar—with no frills and no food—serves the friendliest drinks in town, thanks to its Austrian owner/bartender, Verena.

And however timeless it seems, Thamel is changing.Kathmandu has always been a great place for drinking, with laidback pubs like Tom and Jerry’s, Sam’s Bar and the Jatra Café & Bar packed with gap-year trekkers and hardcore mountaineers retoxing after Spartan weeks at high altitude. But on my third night in town, I took Verena’s recommendation and checked out The Factory, a recent addition to the scene that’s run by a young Nepali named Max, and discovered a completely different kind of nightlife.

As the sound system thumped out a shuddering bass beat, I climbed the stairs from Mandala Street to a hip, retro-industrial style club that would not look out of place in Manhattan—except for its expansive size. It was too early for a big crowd but it was clear this was no backpacker’s dive, as a table of young Nepalis in designer togs ordered up a bottle of imported wine and, across the room, a couple of UN types pecked away on laptops. I ordered a Jack Daniel’s and settled in, ready to embrace the new Nepal.