Monday, January 31, 2011

The Last Kathmandu Post: Colourful Nepali Cuisine

A main course at Thamel House Restaurant

Every Nepali meal that I had was a feast of colours and flavours. The fact that these restaurants are frequented by mostly locals made each experience even more interesting. Thakali Kitchen is a no-frills restaurant that serves affordable staples like daal bhaat and momo. It was here that I had my first Nepali dinner and a surprisingly good chilli relish to go with the steamed momos. Unlike Thakali, Thamel House Restaurant is grand, complete with a stage in the courtyard, which provides entertainment to the evening crowd, I think. I had the full-course lunch here and it was amazing. I love the rich Kalo Daal (lentil cooked in iron pot with heated purified butter and herbs). Just that and some sada bhuja (boiled basmati rice) will do for me. With side dishes like Khasi Ko Ledo (stewed mutton), Bandhel Tareko (boiled and sauteed wild boar with gelatinous layers of skin!) and Khukura ko Sekuwa (skewered, grilled chicken over charcoal) kept pouring into my large bronze plate, it was definitely worth the slightly more expensive pricetag. Oh, not forgetting the warm dessert of Shikarni (whipped yoghurt with nuts and cinnamon powder). Lunching at the family-run Mustang Thakal was an intimate affair. The kitchen was bustling, helmed by an old lady. I had the Mustang Thakali Chulo Special, which came with rice, daal bhaat, saag (boiled, sauteed mustard greens) and stewed pork, complete with cuts of the knuckle. The smiling staff made sure that everyone was well-fed and kept refilling the empty plates. Two full servings later, I had to decline a third. It was a challenge walking back to the hotel after that.

Fantastic chilli relish for the momos at Thakali Kitchen.

Tender pieces of stewed pork at Mustang Thakal.

Saag - mustard green appearing in every Nepali meal.


This is my last post on Kathmandu. It feels like I've not said enough about my short stay in this colourful city. There's still a story about a patriotic taxi driver, the impossible untangling of traffic congestion come the peak hours, getting lost in the maze of lanes and of course, food tales. But there's only so much that I can fit into January. Hopefully I'll do a better job the next time, when I visit the sacred lake of Gosainkund.

The sun sets in Thamel, Kathmandu.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tibetan Food @ Yangling (Thamel) and Yak (Kwa Bahal)

Thukpa from Yangling

A few years back, I spent a night in Di Qing, a Tibetan County in the Yunnan Province, China. It's also known locally as the shangri-la, which I thought was quite befitting. There, the air was crisp and clear, the plains in shades of green and gold, and the lakes were pristine. Time basically stood still there, in 2006. It was still cold towards summer and we kept warm drinking butter tea, served with bowls of ground roasted barley. Before leaving, we had an enjoyable local lunch but the cooking seemed rather Chinese than Tibetan.

Momos from Yangling

This time, I promised myself to make time for some real Tibetan food in Kathmandu. And that's not easy, considering that I haven't had a good gauge of what's really real and also, when distraction was the many different, fascinating cuisines to choose from in this melting pot. A few general observations of the Tibetan food I had in Kathmandu - the menu goes way beyond the wide range of momos, which are indiscriminately served in all restaurants here, and between Nepali and Tibetan cuisines, the most obvious distinction is the subtler, more natural taste in the latter.

Tungba from Yak

At Yangling, I had my first of many thukpas, a noodle soup. It was cooked a la minute, and I'd discovered this while nibbling the finely chopped garlic, which must have been sauteed with the assorted vegetables before the pouring of chicken stock. Pre-cooking (or constant simmering) would have dissolved both the vegetables and garlic. I liked the slight tang from the tomatoes in the stock, which was appetising. The noodles reminded me of our la mian, only smoother and, for the lack of a better word, al dente. And it's never a one-dish meal because, like everyone else, I'd want a plate of momo or kothey (fried momo) as on the side. It's only right, I think. Yangling's version had a clean, minimally seasoned taste with the savouriness coming right from the meat.

Fermented millet for the tungba

There are many good restaurants in Kathmandu, especially in the Thamel district, yet I'd decided to return to Yak Restaurant on my last night, to reminisce a fantastic dinner I had there previously. It's an aged, cosy restaurant with dim lights and where tables are partitioned like in those old cafes. Yak exudes a rustic charm that lets the imagination runs wild. At one point, I'd imagined this being a place where trekkers and hunters would dine and share their close encounters with the yeti. Here, it's a full house come dinner time and on my last night, I had shared my table with a French couple in dreadlocks. They were vegetarians.

Buff kotheys from Yak

I started both nights with the tungba, an alcoholic beverage that tasted like beer, served hot and gasless. Hot water is poured into the fermented millet and a straw is used to suck into the simple mixture. The straw is heat-sealed at the tip to ensure that only liquid is permitted to flow through. A simple and smart idea, I must say. Mildly intoxicating and sweet, it's an interesting change from hot ciders...and beers. With a drink like that, some fried food is almost compulsory. The choice of kothey (fried momo) was good. I went for the buffalo meat filling that was juicy, with the dumpling skin nicely browned with a crunch. The chilli dip was fiery hot, but not at all sour. And it had a faint, familiar scent that reminded me of nutmeg. It's a good feeling when you see both locals and visitors packing a restaurant because you know that the food will be good, usually affordable and that you've successfully avoided a tourist trap. Back to the buffalo, I had the buff tsampa as well, which was basically barley porridge with buffalo meat and some greens. Except for the sprinkling of salt, I failed to detect the usage of other seasonings. On the last visit, when most of the favourites were sold out (even the suja tea), I resorted to the pakhora to go with my tungba. Although this is essentially a sub-continental dish, Yak's version was still very much satisfying. Not to be deceived by the burnt colour of the shell, the vegetable patties were sufficiently moist. With food so good, it's no wonder that I finished a plate each of kothey and pakhora, a bowl of thukpa and a tub of tungba within an hour. I must have impressed the French vegetarian couple. Or traumatised them.

Pakhoras from Yak

I don't see myself landing in Tibet in the next few years for there are still a few places on my list that I've yet to visit. So, until I have an opportunity to understand what is real, Yak Restaurant and Yangling Tibetan Restaurant will remain as my gauge for delicious, authentic and affordable Tibetan food. For all I know, this might just be as close as it gets outside Tibet.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pashupatinath, Kathmandu

Smoke engulfs the ghats behind the temple. At the riverbank, a deceased burns in the wooden pyre. A few steps away, the cremains of another and the charred, smoking logs are swept easily into the holy river of Bagmati. The logs, more of coal now, are collected at the lower stream and reused for the next cremation. Nearby, a mother rubs the forehead of her child with the blessed water of the same river. The far quiet end of the temple finds an ancient yogis' cave while on the opposing ghat, colourful sadhus are posing for the visitors' cameras, for a fee. At the top of the the temple that admits only the Hindus, marigold garlands offered to Lord Shiva are thrown into the same bend of the Bagmati.

One by one, her lifeless limbs fall off the swaying stretcher. This pale old woman in red is being carried to her transition, covered by a piece of long, white cloth. Mourners walk behind her. A burly man in a clean, white shirt wearing a gold watch lowers her gently onto the burning ground at the riverbank. He wraps her with layers of white and yellow fabrics as he chants. He's the ceremony conductor, perhaps. Crowds, young and old, gather around the ghat to witness the ritual, expressionless. Cremation at the upper stream is more expensive, someone said. Soon, the pyre will form, set on fire and the transition shall begin.

Divine. Pensive. Haunting....just another day at Pashupatinath.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dechenling @ Thamel, Kathmandu

One of the issues that I'd observed in Kathmandu was electricity rationing or load shedding, as they call it. As the demand for electricity increases, this is important for distribution to all parts of Nepal without having to face a meltdown at the hydropower plants. A commentary in one of Nepal's English newspapers debated on the need for such deprivation when a better solution may be as simple as building more hydropower generators or investing in alternative energies. Reading this at the cosy Pumpernickel Cafe on a lazy afternoon had me thinking of how much I was affected by the shedding. During my short stay here, most of the time, blackouts would begin in the evening and continue until midnight. On some days, it extended to the next morning. The hotel did provide lighting powered by their own generators but I'd say that it was minimal and insufficient. The bathroom, for example, was still dark. So, I'd hung my torchlight on the shower curtain's rail to enhance visibility. The water heater had to be turned on 15 minutes in advance, a lesson that I'd learned the hard, freezing way. It still brings a smile whenever I think of the mishaps related to the shedding, but it may not be so funny for the people enduring this problem on a daily basis.

Reaching here after a 15 minutes walk out in the cold, the warmth of Dechenling was welcoming. Somewhere between the soup and main course, we'd had a blackout. The shedding had begun. But that didn't last long because the established restaurant had a power generator. Luxuries like the background music were gone though, like how Windows would operate on Safe Mode. Only two tables were occupied that night - the long table at the center and me at a corner next to the coal-fueled heater. At the long table sat a few well-dressed locals that spoke a mixture of English and I guess, Nepali. They seemed oblivious to the blackout.

Although Dechenling offers an extensive menu ranging from Nepali to Tibetan to Western dishes, I was here mainly for a taste of Bhutanese food. My knowledge of this country nears zero. I'm only aware that it's mountainous, clean and where Wong Kar Wai choreographed Tony Leung and Carina Lau's wedding.

The set consisted of a soup, 2 main dishes and a dessert. The soup was a tsampa or ground roasted barley flavoured with bits of meat and vegetable. Served thick, it reminded me of the Cantonese peanut congee. It has a sublty earthy aroma that grew on me in Kathmandu. The wait staff asked if I wanted my mains served just spicy or very spicy and I chose the latter, unknowing of the Bhutanese definition of what's (hot and) spicy. The two mains in the set were phaksha paa (pork stew with chilli and radish) and kewa datse (potato curry with cheese). Both came piping hot, so that was good. The pork cuts were surprisingly tender, despite the half centimetre range thickness, and the radish slices were still crunchy - not overcooked. The stew itself was well-seasoned. It didn't take long before the tongue numbed and beads of sweat began forming around the forehead. I thought the kewa datse would be able to mellow down the burn but it didn't. Instead, it added to the intensity, thanks to the loads of local green chillies, akin to our cili padi. At that point, the nearby heater seemed more like a curse than a blessing. The sweatman, in a sweater, unleashed. The folks from the long table each stared my way for a while, as I wiped the continuous flow of sweat off my face. If I could use the whole tablecloth, believe me, I would. Things got better after gulping half a bottle of the Everest beer. Back to the kewa datse, it was a stunner. Usually gratinated, never had I thought that chillies, cream cheese and potato could be curried and taste so wonderfully. And to think that it's a staple, not a special dish, that Bhutanese have been enjoying all their lives! The cream cheese, with its richness and slight tang, was the force majeure here, and to me, tasted even better when lumped with the stew and white rice. I downed the rest of the Everest Beer before dessert was served. The beer was a limited edition, dedicated to the legendary mountain climber, Mr. Nima Gombu Sherpa, who scaled the Everest 12 times. The words were definitely more interesting than the taste, I must say. Dessert came as...a dessert, as the menu simply stated without any description. I believe it was a parfait of sweetened semolina with cubes of fruits (peach, perhaps) and topped with a plastic cup.

The few streetlights were still out as I made my way back to the hotel from Dechenling. That must have lasted until the next day. The dropping temperature made the walk even more challenging. Thank goodness I was now loaded with some heat from the dinner.

The introduction to Bhutanese food was both interesting and delicious. I fondly remember the newfound kewa datse and am looking forward to tasting it again. In Bhutan, hopefully.

Do click on this link for some words on Dechenling the restaurant.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Swayambhunath, Kathmandu

There was a signpost at a corner of the southwestern part of Kathmandu's Durbar Square, near the Kasthamandap, that pointed towards Maru Tole. That name, Maru Tole, sounded really familiar. It was one of the starting points leading to Swayambuhnath from the square. For convenience, most opt for the taxi to get there but this time, with the rest of the morning and afternoon in hand, I'd decided to go on foot.

It's a 3 km walk, crossing the Vishnumati river and a highway, passing through villages and exploring the less commercialised side of Kathmandu. As I ventured deeper into the quiet suburb, the signposts reduced. Not that it mattered, really, as the map itself was no more than a few unnamed white lines. There was no clear indication that I was on the right track but since the holy stupa sits on a hill, I was only reassured by the fact that I was still ascending the uphill path. I looked up constantly, anticipating a golden arc or any feature of the stupa.

The steep, endless eastern stairway seems to serve as a test of faith of the believers. At the top, panting, I was rewarded with one of the most spectacular views of Kathmandu, only lower than the view from the eyes of the Buddha, drawn on the stupa, guarding the city. I retreated to a nearby bench to enjoy more of the view, accompanied by the familiar chants supplied by the nearby CD vendor. I must have stayed there for a good 30 minutes.

A Tibetan Buddhism site, the rituals observed were similar to those at Bodhnath, except that here, there were more deities and chaityas, an indication of the marriage of Buddhism and Hinduism that is quite uniquely Nepal.

Not forgetting the macaques...lots of them. But they were never a nuisance.

Worshippers upon reaching the hill and before turning to leave were seen touching the gilded vajra (a celestial thunderbolt representing enlightenment that stands at the eastern stairway entrance) as they muttered words of prayers, eyes closed. I followed suit, not so much for wanting to attain nirvana but to express gratefulness for an enlightening journey thus far.

Do click here for more photos of Swayambuhnath.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Scribblings: The medieval kingdoms of Nepal

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Great, I was nowhere on the map! My first instinct was to follow the stream of people. It may sound like a great idea but in a foreign land, it takes a little more courage to do so.

Even at the square's entrance, I was still finding my bearings. The complimentary booklet did a better job at explaining the city's history than as a map. I took my Lonely Planet Tour Guide from my bag and the touts voluntary tour guides started swarming my way.

I ran for dear life, entered Lion's Gate and found myself surrounded by temples and shrines. Unlike Kathmandu, the colours were more natural, almost in shades of sandstone. Under King Bhupantindra Malla's column, I studied my position thoroughly and found my way to Taumadhi Tole, where the soaring Nyatapola Temple was located. And it didn't take long before I made it to the Dattatreya, a temple carved with erotic scenes at Tachupal Tole. Here as well, two dance platforms were constructed on opposing ends but instead of dancers, small batches of harvested grains were left to dry.

The spread of drying clayware at Potter's Square was, on the other hand, massive and with the kilns located within the square, the complete process can be observed, if one stays long enough.

Perhaps it was due to my visit in the afternoon that this City of Devotees was a much quieter affair compared to bustling morning at Kathmandu.

I glimpsed at my watch and realized that I didn't have much time left to wander. And I rushed to Sunny Cafe for a taste of samay baji.

Kathmandu Durbar Square

My friend, don't read Lonely Planet. They make you lonely.

That has got to be one of the most interesting marketing lines that I've heard in a long time. A solo traveler with a book in hand that looked rather Japanese, I was an easy target for them, especially in the morning when most tourists were still busy breakfasting in their hotels. The durbar square was at its busiest and most colourful in the morning as the market began its short operation and devotees arrived to pray to their respective Gods, so there's no way that I'd want to miss this experience. And inevitably, dealing with touts comes with the package.

You have to give credit to this particular friend for such a creative line and for his persistence - unknowingly, he had followed me to the top tier of Maju Dega, a towering Hindu shrine. While I acknowledged his efforts, I had to decline his offer because I'm a total Lonely Planet Tour Guide junkie. By 11 am, I think I'd ignored a dozen of them and I was getting restless.

But I was held back by the incredible sights of the square - smoke emitted from the various temples (especially at Kasthamandap or the Pavilion of Wood), the regal gold and red paints of the historic buildings and the vegetables and fruits hawkers in action.

I must have returned to my reference point, the stunning Kal Bahirav (the manifestation of Lord Shiva in his most fearsome, where people were made to swear the truth in the past) a few times, and yet, I'd still missed the Kumari-ghar or the House of the Kumari Devi, the incarnation of goddess Taleju. I was just not fortunate enough to meet her that day, I guess. I left while the durbar was still buzzing. By now, I'd located most of the touts and I believe they'd known me as the lonely guy. I exited the chaos, headed towards Maru Tole, northwest of Kathmandu, where life took a much slower pace, and began a peaceful 3 km walk towards the holy Swayambhunath.

Patan Durbar Square

The Sun Dhoka (Golden Gate) opened and I was in the Patan Museum, a hidden gem in the busy square where an impressive collection of religious art awaits. At 11 am, I had the privilege of having the whole museum to myself.

I sat by the window on the top level of the former palace and had an aerial view of the durbar square. In ancient times, the Malla Kings used to live here and perhaps, had sat at the same position as I did.

Directly in front of me was the Garuda statue, facing the Krishna Mandir or the Temple of Vishnu. In front of the Krishna Mandir, flocks of pigeons were fed and a young girl dressed in a red, traditional costume was posing for her parents' camera. Her grandmother looked pleased. On my far left was the octagonal Krishna Temple, an outstanding construction at the entrance of the square to greet the visitors. Below, porters were carrying water from the Manga Hiti (a water conduit) to the nearby stalls. To my right, men in traditional Nepali hats and women in colourful dresses sat in the wooden pavilion of Mani Mandap, watching the world go by, just like me. The square appeared to be the smallest of the 3 medieval kingdoms but its Newari architecture was stunning. In Sanskrit, Patan is called Lalitpur or the City of Beauty. I can't agree more.


Click here for more photos of the Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Click here for more photos of the Kathmandu Durbar Square

Click here for more photos of the Patan Durbar Square

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Samay Baji @ Sunny Café, Bhaktapur

Most of the time, I’m proud of my self-planned itineraries, which are both practical and comprehensive. But not in Bhaktapur, no. At Sunny Café, where the balcony overlooks the crowded durbar, if I’d known, I’d have allocated an extra hour to chew my samay baji. This was my first Newari dish in Nepal and it certainly left a lasting impression.

To be honest, I didn’t know what samay baji was until that very afternoon. When I saw the rather exotic name on the menu, I just knew that I had to give it a try. It was a whole new universe on a plate for me. By now, I can tell that samay baji is a ritual dish, an assembly of, among others - spiced potatoes, black-eyed peas, scrambled eggs, buffalo jerky, fried julienned ginger, black soy bean, and hard, beaten rice placed at the center of the dish.

Upon ordering, the kitchen got busy and it didn’t take long before the different aromas of fried spices started permeating the air in the dining hall. Because it took more than 30 minutes to prepare, I’d almost turned to leave thinking that Sudip had probably gone to the guards to report a missing tourist. I’m glad I’d stayed and was served a dish with everything freshly cooked, which explained the lengthy preparation time. Somehow, nothing was fiery hot, but just well-spiced. While I finished every other side within seconds, the jerky and cereal-like beaten rice greatly impeded my speed and had me testing the strength of my jaw and my patience. Despite the tiring exercise, I must say that it’s a great option for dieters as the more you chew, the lesser you’ll want to eat. There’s some psycho-physiological truth there but I’ll just leave it at that, for now.

I was told that Bhaktapur is famous for its yoghurt. It’s called juju dhau or king of curds. Indeed, the king was rich, smooth, creamy and sweet, making it a good end to the samay baji lunch. Before I left, the owner offered me a shot of raksi, a local distilled rice wine. It certainly brought some warmth to the cold winter’s day. But this raksi was a monster and had me dazed as I left the Lion’s Gate. And was I glad that I made it back to the parking lot...despite being already late for more than 2 hours.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Nagarkot and a view of the Langtang Himalayan Range

The old Toyota Corolla that Sudip drove looked surprisingly clean in a city constantly plagued by layers of dust and smoke. The interior, however, was unkempt and the suspension seemed fatigued. Still, this was the car that took us safely to the peak of Nagarkot, a village at an elevation of about 2000 m and one that promises an excellent view of the Langtang Himalayan Range. Despite his age (I think he must be in his early 20s), it appeared to me that Sudip had held this job for the longest time, judging from his impressive tackling of the sharp bends and narrow lanes, and cognitive cursing the intolerant road users, which I'd found rather amusing. What I'd learnt from him and some of the taxi drivers in Nepal is that, the most important part of the car is not the brakes....but the horn. To a certain extent, I think it’s true.

Nagarkot is located roughly 30 km from the city of Kathmandu, but it took us more than 2 hours to reach the peak. And that's expected when the highways are no more than a pair of uneven roads with vehicles merging from all directions. There were not much to see along the way until we started ascending the mountain. Terraced plantations, trekkers, villagers going about their daily chores and the occasional foreign cyclists were just some of the sights that caught my attention. I checked into a room on the second highest floor of Hotel View Point that, as the name suggested, offered a good view of the Himalayan range. And it was not until the next morning that I came to know that I had a direct view of the rising sun, backing the highest peak in the world, the Everest.

Almost 12 hours earlier, I nearly missed the flight to Kathmandu as I overslept from an exhausting final day at the old workplace and a 10 km run on that very same morning. In a couple of minutes, I managed to stuff the essentials into my knapsack except for the winter jacket, which I'd only discovered while transiting in Bangkok. At the hotel's rooftop, with a panoramic view of the mountains, I shivered under my thinning sweater as the strong wind blew. It must have been below 10 deg C at that time. The thick clouds had reduced the visibility of many peaks, except for the snowcapped Langtang (7246 m) and the 1st (7406 m), 2nd (7150 m), 4th (7102 m) and 5th ( 6950 m) Ganesh peaks. I survived sunset and the only thing that kept me warm was the thought of a Nepali buffet to be served later that evening.

The next morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn when the other tourists were already positioning themselves around the balcony and rooftop for the best view of sunrise. The temperature dropped even lower in the early hours of the morning but it was less torturous now as the body had adjusted itself to the environment. The 3 helpings of rice and curry from the buffet helped too, I guess. Heat from the rising sun progressively evaporated the eastern clouds, increasing visibility of the mountains as if bringing them to life. The lush green of the terraced plantations below us and the chirping of the birds completed this amazing experience.

From the breakfast table, I saw a couple of men washing their cars with much enthusiasm and diligence. Sudip was one of them. Ah, that explained the sparkling clean car. We left Nagarkot for Kathmandu at noon but not before stopping by one of the 3 medieval kingdoms of Nepal - Bhaktapur.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bodhnath, Kathmandu

Santaman was waiting in the arrival hall of the Tribhuvan International Airport with a garland of fresh marigold and a big piece of paper with my name printed on it when I stepped out of the gate. As you might have correctly guessed, with such hospitality, that I'd splurged a little and arranged for a personal driver through a local tour agent (thanks for the good recommendation, FBB's Dive Wife!) prior to my departure. With only a few days in the Kathmandu Valley, I thought it was a sensible decision as I didn't want to waste time haggling with the taxi touts.

A short exchange later, Santaman led me to Sudip, my driver for the next 2 days. The initial plan was to head directly to Nagarkot for a view of the Himalayan sunset (and sunrise) but we still had some time to spare, I thought. I'd decided to stretch my dollars and asked to visit another site before leaving for Nagarkot. It was between the sacred temple of Pashupatinath and the Great Stupa of Bodhnath. Santaman suggested the latter and I'm glad he did. In ancient times, Bodhnath was on the trade route between Tibet and Nepal. Travelers would come here to seek blessing for a safe journey ahead.

I'd never seen a stupa of this magnitude and architecture before. Standing before it, I was humbled and in awe. But certainly, there's more to the gilded tower, saffron paint and whitewashed dome that makes Bodhnath a World Heritage Site.

In the late afternoon, there were fewer tourists than pilgrims circumambulating the mandala - in the clockwise direction. While performing the Kora, these Tibetan Buddhists also turned the Mani (prayer) wheels, counted Mala (prayer beads) and/or chanted mantras of the deity of compassion. It was this, the practising of the faith of these pilgrims, that had been most unforgettable.

Two hours later, I rushed to find Sudip at the parking lot across the road. I was late. When we met, he just smiled, perhaps relieved that I had returned safely. Nagarkot now?


Do click here for more photos of Bodhnath.