Hungry City: An Egg Is More Than Just an Egg at While in Kathmandu
Last summer, Mr. Kharel — a computer science major who produces hip-hop tracks under the name Funkyy Buddha — took a trip to Nepal for two weeks that turned into two months. It was an awakening. Back in Queens, he decided to open his own place (with his parents’ blessing) in a former taekwondo studio down the street. He covered the awning with thatch, replaced the doorknobs with elephant heads and had a pair of hands painted over the exit, pressed together in namaskar, the South Asian gesture of respect, honoring the divine in everyone you meet.
In the kitchen, he enlisted Shanti Maskey, a former cook at Nepalese Indian and Tawa Food Corp. in Jackson Heights, Queens. She traces her roots to the Newars, who settled Kathmandu Valley centuries ago. Occasionally, her recipes diverge from the Kharels’. They prefer their buckwheat pancakes sweet and the millet ones salty, but “Chef likes it the other way, so we let her,” Mr. Kharel said.
Sel roti is sweet, too, a great craggy loop of rice soaked overnight, ground into dough and fried. It’s grander in circumference than a doughnut but skinnier, and ambushes you with sugar. Curry is banished from the plate; instead, there is aachar, cool and refreshing, with cucumber, green peas and half-mashed potatoes, and house-made masala for a low-level kindling.
Momos, the monumental dumplings found across the Himalayas, rise like islands from a sauce of tomatoes and earthy spices that Mr. Kharel would not name: “There are too many competitors,” he said. Beef momos are the standard elsewhere in town, but his family is Hindu and doesn’t eat beef; the finest dumplings here are sealed around liquefying knots of pork.
For choila, a plain-spoken Newari snack, chicken thigh is rubbed with ginger, garlic and chiles and brought close to burning over open flame, then left to rest until smoke has sought out every pore. It may arrive cold alongside aachar and chiura, rice grains pounded flat and then fried into gossamer flakes that suggest fossilized tears. Or it may be charred twice, pulled apart and tucked, still warm, into a whole-wheat roti made to order, with a final sluice of tomato and mint chutneys and a scattering of onions and cilantro.
Mr. Kharel calls this “not a taco” and files it alongside fries tossed with green chile, cloves, cumin and coriander, and red-gold chicken wings slapped with masala and chile paste to keep the juices in. There is no border here between New York and Kathmandu, illustrated at the top of the menu with a silhouette of the cities’ skylines yoked into one, high-rises shoulder to shoulder with tiered pagodas.
In Nepal, Mr. Kharel’s father was a journalist who ran a pro-democracy newspaper. He passed on to his son a belief in the power of the collective. A few years ago, Mr. Kharel helped found the Nepalese American Youth Association, which raised funds for relief after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
More recently, he turned the restaurant’s backyard, a pretty arrangement of gravel, picnic tables and paper lanterns on strings of twinkle lights, into a pop-up market featuring Nepali-American designers.
“I know we failed Nepali food back in 2012,” he said of his family. “There’s a lot of explaining to do.”
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