Kathmandu Kitchen: Spiritual Sustenance
Paritosh Acharya with thali
Food in Nepal depends on terrain, and whether you're near the border with India or farther north near Tibet. Yet, Nepalese cuisine isn't exactly Chinese and not completely Indian. Like its people, it's somewhere in the harmonious middle.
Friday, January 9, 2009
The Kingdom of Nepal is sandwiched between the bottom of China and the top of India. In Nepal, food follows terrain. You can’t understand the food without a geography lesson.
“It’s a small country, but it is so diverse you can’t believe it,” says Paritosh Acharya. He’s a server at Kathmandu Kitchen. He’s from Nepal, and he knows the land.
“If you go to the Himalayas, we are more influenced from China – from Tibet.”
With Acharya is Rosy Shrestha, also from Nepal. She says the Tibetan influence gave Nepal lots of steamed foods like dumplings. Closer to sea level, the food changes.
“If you are more going toward the hot regions,” she says, “then you find people eating more spices,” she says.
Paritosh and Rosy are both students. They’re part of a population of about 400 to 500 Nepalese that rely on the restaurant for festivals and feasts. The outside of the place is a bit worn. But, inside Kathmandu Kitchen is one of Broadway’s rare white-tablecloth restaurants.
“Maybe that’s the way Nepali people are,” Rosy says. “They are more formal in everything. Restaurants in Kathmandu, especially, you’ll be seeing tablecloths on their tables.”
As servers, Rosy and Paritosh are the culinary equivalent of Nepal’s prestigeous Sherpa guides.
“People are so curious!” Paritosh says. “We have a big menu, if you haven’t noticed it. They have all these questions.” Which is not a problem. “I am so happy to answer them, tell about this food.
Rosy is just as generous. “If I find a person coming for the first time in this restaurant, I’ll be the happiest person at that moment. Because we feel it’s really important that people from America are valuing us, too, through our food.”
With the cuisines of China and India pushing in on all sides, Nepal’s food has become an elevated hybrid. Where else would a menu have a dish with potatoes, bamboo shoots and curry? And, there’s the mystery of all the food cooked in a clay pot – at least that’s how it’s described on the menu.
When Paritosh takes me into the kitchen to see it, my first thought is: Calling this a clay pot is like calling a bulldozer a spoon.
Paritosh directs me to take a peek inside.
“The clay pot,” he says, extending his arm in the direction of extremely hot air, “known as the tandoori oven. One thousand degrees.”
There’s a frightening low roar as I let my microphone hover a second in the maw of the tandoor. The oven is really a kiln shaped like a wine barrel. There’s a charcoal fire smoking inside on the bottom.
To cook food in this vertical inferno, the cook threads chicken breasts down a 4-foot rod that’s got a sharp spear hook on the end. “We say “jeer” in Nepali,” Paritosh says. “Big iron skewer.”
The cook lowers the full length of the jeer into the oven so the spear is at the bottom of the barrel, while the chicken hangs on.
That’s not all that cooks in the tandoori oven.
“We cook chicken tandoori, chicken tikka, lamb sekuwa….and the naan bread,” Paritosh says.
I ask, “How do you cook bread in here if the chicken is on a skewer?”
Paritosh says, “PA: Let us show you! It will be cooked all together.”
I watch the cook powders the dough for flour. He pats it with his fingers, then flips it back and forth, throwing it between his palms. With a quick motion, the flat dough is transferred from the cook’s hands down into the tandoor, where it sticks to the side.
“Did you see that?” Paritosh asks, hoping the cook wasn’t so quick that I missed the technique.
“That’s amazing,” I say. “It sticks to the side of the tandoor. It’s bubbling up like a tortilla cooking on a wall!”
“The heat is all over the oven,” Paritosh explains. “It’s not just on the bottom near the fire.”
The oven may be hot, but the food’s not. Not spicy-hot, that is. That’s because, Paritosh says, “we don’t use a lot of spices.”
They use enough spices to keep things exciting. Paritosh stands back as the cook’s spices explode in hot oil. As they enter the pan, the cook names them while shaking the pan.
“…cumin seeds, and then put ginger paste and garlic, both.”
Whether it’s Aloo Dal, Lamb Curry or Chicken Chilli, Nepalese spices never overwhelm. Rosy says this balance is an appropriate metaphor for the Nepalese culture.
“If you talk about how food would show Nepali people,” she says, “then it would be the calmness in them.”
The calmest way to enjoy Nepalese cooking is to order the thali – t-h-a-l-i. A thali is a metal tray with separate compartments for lentils, pickles, Tibetan dumplings, curry and the flat bread from that clay pot. All you do is pick a main course.
Nepali harmony and cooperation take care of the rest.