Kathmandu – a city that abounds in rich cultural history despite the rapid urbanization that is transforming its skyline is adamantly holding on to its roots. With fast food chains mushrooming and most restaurants serving western or western inspired dishes, Nepali food is taking a back seat in the Capital city, fighting for survival. In this whirlwind of westernization, there are some eateries that are not only preserving our amazing Nepali cuisines but also showcasing its variety and richness. Although outnumbered by the fast food chains, they stand out for their authenticity, creativity and most of all, their stories! Two of these hidden gems are NewaLahana in Kirtipur and Raithane in Lalitpur.
Three friends, bonded by food and their passion for Nepali ingredients and Nepali cuisine, decided to start an eatery that would represent Nepali food that would go beyond the ubiquitous dal, bhaatand tarkari. ‘Raithane’ is a unique restaurant hidden in one of the little alleys of Patan, where they have fashioned a warm, cozy place that seems to be an amalgamation of many parts of Nepal. Prashant Khanal, Jason Shah and Mathilte Lefebvre are the three creative minds behind Raithane.
‘Raithane’ basically means something local to the place, and the name fits perfectly with their story and purpose. This restaurant serves food that represents Nepal as a whole, from the fertile lands of the Tarai to the highlands of the Himalayas. Each dish in the menu represents a culture and a community of Nepal. Just looking at the menu reminds you how rich the Nepali food culture really is. Since Nepal is an agriculture based country, many of the produce are seasonal. As everything they use is organic, the menu changes according to the seasons. The main purpose of the restaurant is to promote Nepali cuisines and Nepali ingredients and they have definitely made their mark in the short eight months since their establishment.
These young minds have taken up the challenge of making sure the food culture of Nepal does not remain hidden in the far corners of rural Nepal and can be enjoyed right here in the cosmopolitan city that is fast losing its authentic Nepali values and heritage. They rely on word of mouth rather than commercial advertising to lure customers who come with a genuine interest in authentic Nepali tastes.
NewaLahana is a genuine Newari restaurant initiated by a community in Kirtipur under the leadership of Raj Man, a native of Kirtipur who is a community man and a change maker. But NewaLahana is so much more than just a Newari restaurant.
As the story goes, a group of youths from this community approached Raj Man for employment. One of the biggest problems in Nepal is youth unemployment and this community was not immune to this national problem. To cater to their needs, in August 2006, Raj Man came up with the idea of doing something within the community that would promote their culture by commercializing it so that the entire community would benefit from it. To implement this plan, 71 households within the community came together to be a part of the project and the rest is history. NewaLahana, the eatery that they established has now become one of the most famous Newari restaurants in the valley. When this project was initiated back in 2006, about 39 youths from the community were living in gulf countries. Looking at the data now, there is only one of them living abroad for employment. Among the 71 households, 83 people are involved in this amazing project. Raj Man proudly proclaims, “There is no one over the age of sixteen in this community who is unemployed.
From employment to cleanliness, this project has also initiated a cleanliness drive where each member of the community takes turns to clean their locality every day, and each member has to contribute only an hour a month. Raj Man who is known as ‘the man with the broom’, has pledged his life to clean Nepal. About five years ago, he started travelling around the country to clean the whole of Nepal, and he is still at it. He hopes in the next three years he will be able to make the entire country clean.
Newari culture is a big part of Kathmandu, and the food that originates from this community is not only rich but unique. NewaLahana, run by people who belong to the traditional Newar community serves authentic Newari food, and promotes their culture setting an example of communal harmony and a sense of responsibility.
These two restaurants are vastly different from each other, but serve the same purpose – promoting authentic Nepali cuisine. While NewaLahana represents the traditional Newari food from Kathmandu, Raithane represents food from the entire country, from the lowlands to the highest settlements in the Himalaya. They also unwittingly serve a very different purpose – connecting the world with food.
Rildhuk – food of the Himalayas
Rildhuk – one of the dishes made at ‘Meet of Chefs’ during FoodTreX Kathmandu 2019: A Regional Food Travel Summit.
When we think of Nepal, we often think of the colossal mountains that tower over everything else. Sherpas, one of the most well-known ethnic groups of Nepal, live high up in the mountains and surviving in challenging terrain where little grows, they have adapted to the harsh conditions and the limited choice of food. Hence one of the staple foods they rely on is the hardy potato. The potato is not indigenous to Nepal and came to the Solukhumbu, home to a large number of Sherpas, in the mid-19thcentury. Since its arrival in Nepal, the humble potato as it is so often called, has become a major part of the Nepali diet. Rildhuk is one of the many potato based dishes that owes its existence to these sturdy people of the Himalayas. It warms your heart, just like the enchanting mountains it comes from.
Since little else grows up in the mountains as other vegetables are not suited to the harsh climate, potatoes are produced and consumed in large quantities. As Sangam Sherpa from Taplejung says, “Sherpas and potatoes are deeply connected. We have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Potatoes found in the Himalayan region are different from the potatoes found in the market here in the cities. They take around eight months to grow, take more time to ripe, which means they have less water and no pesticides are used. The Sherpa community lives in high altitude, mostly above 2000 meters, so they design food that will help them get through the cold and give them energy with an abundance of taste. Rildhuk was concocted with the same intension – to keep warm during winter.
Rildhuk is a traditional Sherpa dish, which is similar to an Italian dish called gnocchi. It is made from potatoes grown in the highlands – potatoes so soft and buttery that they melt in your mouth. Rildhuk is basically a mashed potato soup, where the soup contains spring onions, onions, garlic, green chilies, turmeric powder, timur (Himalayan pepper)and shercam(whey protein) along with the magical potato. The potatoes are boiled, peeled and cooled; then they are mashed in a large pot until it becomes sticky with no lumps. The mashed potatoes are squeezed into small lumps and put into the soup and served hot. To add more aroma, timurand shercamare added as flavoring agents.
Chef Prashant from Raithane restaurant says, “The Rildhuk we have made today has potatoes from the valley itself. As we could not procure potatoes from the highlands, they have more moisture and might not taste the way they are supposed to.” Since most of the foodies tasting the dish were first timers, they had no complaints. They only wondered silently how much better the dish would have tasted, had it been made from potatoes brought down from the highlands. Stephen Clark from Australia said that he loved the dish so much that he would like to ask for the recipe and make the dish for his friends and family back home. The chefs try to keep the dish as authentic as possible, by using local ingredients without trying to modernize it. The Rildhuk was served with a lot of passion and love.
Rildhuk represents the essence of Sherpa cooking and forms a part of what Nepal can offer to the world as a food tourism destination. This dish is unique; it has a purpose, has great value and most of all, it represents a gigantic part of Nepal – the Himalayas.