Nepali Cuisine Comes into its Own

The nation’s cuisine is far more than dal bhat and momos: restaurants are gradually incorporating regional specialties in Nepal — and abroad.

Rida Bilgrami

July 15, 2020

Nepali Cuisine Comes into its Own
Phalgi is a winter Sherpa dish, pictured at Raithaane. (Rida Bilgrami)

In a courtyard at the end of a narrow alley in Patan, a city in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, lies Raithaane, an unassuming restaurant whose short menu changes seasonally. There are no signs of dal bhat (steamed rice, lentils, and vegetables) or momos — items that have become ubiquitous stand-ins for the richness of Nepali cuisine. We order an assortment of dishes including phalgi — a hearty radish and potato stew with smoke-dried buffalo meat — prepared by the Sherpa community to provide sustenance in the harsh conditions of the Himalayan hinterland; kanchemba or buckwheat fritters, a popular snack from the Thakali community in north-central Nepal; and taruwa, seasonal vegetables deep-fried in a rice flour spiced batter that are intrinsic to the cuisine of the Maithili community — from eastern Nepal — and the Tharu people — from southern Nepal and northern India. My friend and dining companion, who has spent most of her life in Kathmandu, tells me that Raithaane is a rarity in the city’s dining scene — these diverse dishes would typically not be under one roof.

Raithaane (“vernacular” in Nepali), founded in the fall of 2018, takes a culinary voyage across Nepal, a country that may be geographically small — about the size of New York state — but is home to over 120 ethnic communities with distinct food cultures. Raithaane sees itself as part of a nascent conversation on the expansive range of Nepali food culture — a movement pushing the perception of Nepali cuisine beyond dal bhat and momos.

The three co-founders of Raithaane met as members of the Kathmandu Food Collective, a movement focused on exploring sustainable food systems in the country. Prashanta Khanal, one of the co-owners, told me that the restaurant’s mission is to reacquaint Nepalis with their food heritage and showcase neglected indigenous ingredients — including grains (such as foxtail millet) and lesser-known ingredients (such as wild lichen). The co-founders developed the menu through years of research, spending time with farming communities and collecting recipes from friends and family. Raithaane’s ethos exemplifies a farm-to-table model with a more nuanced understanding of terroir, centered on the rich history of the land and their farmers.

Sujeev Shakya, a Kathmandu-based historian and author of several books on Nepali history, notes that this movement is partly driven by the end of the decade-long Maoist insurgency in 2006 and the subsequent weakening of the Maoist stronghold in the 2013 elections. This turning point led to a renewed appreciation for regional cuisine. He notes that the Thakali people serving dal bhat ran inns that became more visible on the highways as the country invested in more infrastructure. Traditional Newa delicacies such as yomari (steamed rice cake filled with molasses, nuts, and sesame seeds) also started appearing on menus. Restaurants in Kathmandu’s Boudha neighborhood — home to Boudhanath, the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet — started serving Sherpa cuisine.