How Nepalese food conquered the Bay Area
Daniel Singh, who runs Kathmandu Restaurant with his family, says that even though the Albany Nepalese restaurant has been open for 24 years, he still has to tell customers where Nepal is. “You know where Mount Everest is?” he prompts.
Some Bay Area diners may not know where Nepal is, but their appetite for Nepalese food is vast. There are now three Nepalese restaurants on the same 1-mile stretch of Solano Avenue as Kathmandu — Everest Kitchen and Himalayan Tandoori & Curry House are the others — plus a fourth competitor, Aangan, around the corner on San Pablo Avenue. Several sources count more than two dozen Nepalese restaurants from San Jose to Sonoma, plus five food trucks and one pizza shop specializing in momos, or Nepalese dumplings. Most of these businesses have opened in the past five years.
For all its popularity, however, Nepali cuisine remains almost invisible. The food that most of the 24 restaurants serve doesn’t come from Nepal. The community is so small and so dispersed that only one grocery, in El Cerrito, specializes in Nepalese products.
The story of the Bay Area’s Nepalese restaurant boom is not a comfortable narrative of a growing community feeding itself, but a story of isolation, resilience and drive.
And momos, of course.
In the mid-1980s, the Nepalese community in the Bay Area numbered 40 to 45, according to Anil Pandey, founder of an Alameda nonprofit called Motherland Nepal. The Nepalis who found each other gathered to celebrate major holidays like New Year and Dashain, and for a few years fielded the Yak and Yeti Soccer Club, scrimmaging in Golden Gate Park.
Around that time, Deepak and Lina Singh, who had moved to California from Patan, just south of Kathmandu, opened their first Himalayan import store on Solano Avenue. By 1994 they had two stores, two young sons, and a notion to follow up those achievements with a restaurant. “My husband and I were very passionate to share our culture, food, our crafts with the area,” Lila Singh says.
They rented a small space down the block from Kathmandu Imports, but it took Deepak Singh six months before he was ready to open. There was so much to get right: He commissioned windows, ornate wall panels and paintings from Nepal. Running two stores while opening a restaurant and parenting two toddlers was brutal. Lila remembers 22-hour days, punctuated with naps on the benches at the restaurant in the final weeks.
Even the first menu, bound in cloth, was an elaborate production. “We wanted to introduce our journey through our lives,” Lina Singh says.
But how to encapsulate a cuisine few Californians had ever tasted? “Nepal is so diverse in terms of geography, climate, ethnic groups, etc., and people living in the mountains eat very different from those living in the Terai (plains),” writes Jyoti Pathak, owner of the cookbook and associated food blog “Taste of Nepal” (http://tasteofnepal.blogspot.com) in an email. Among the country’s population of 29 million are more than 100 ethnic groups and as many mother tongues.
The Singhs focused on the cuisine of their ethnic group, the Newars. They designed the menu as a Newari culinary calendar, replicating a dish from one holiday feast per month. They listed snacks like momos and a smoked-lamb dish called choella alongside family favorites.
For a number of years, Kathmandu restaurant operated alone. Lila Singh says Bay Area diners proved both curious and complimentary. But by the mid-1990s, other Nepalese restaurants appeared.
Nepal was changing. So were the Nepalese immigrants coming to California.
Kashi Ko Chewela, smoked lamb marinated in spices at Kathmandu Restaurant in Albany. Kathmandu introduced the Bay Area to the dish 25 years ago.
In 1996, the Maoist People’s Liberation Army and the national military forces incited a civil war that lasted 10 years and killed an estimated 17,000 people. At the peak of the conflict, Maoists occupied two-thirds of the country, from the lowlands to the Himalayas. When the conflict was finally resolved, the Nepalese royal family abdicated, and the Communist revolutionaries set aside their guns to become the largest political party in the national parliament.
The war also created refugees like Nawang Phurba Sherpa, who returned from his first major trek from Mount Everest in 2008, only to flee for his life.
Like several generations of ethnic Sherpa before him, whose villages traditionally migrated with the seasons up and down the slopes of the mountains, Nawang made a good living through trekking. The business he started in 1990 ushered groups from France, Korea and Japan up various Himalayan peaks. Two days after bringing a group of Singaporean mountaineers home from Everest, he rejoined his pregnant wife and two toddlers in his home village. The Maoists knocked at his door, requesting 500,000 rupees and demanding he join the revolution. When he turned them down, they attacked.
They knocked him down. His wife screamed. Sherpa took advantage of the distraction to flee, alone — first to the bushes, eventually to Kathmandu. Even then, the revolutionaries tracked down his business. So he left his family and flew to San Francisco on a tourist visa and stayed on, undocumented, for many years, working at Indian restaurants up and down the West Coast. With little formal education to help him find work, Sherpa says, cooking allowed him to earn money and send funds home to support his family.
Each time he returned to San Francisco, the Bay Area’s Nepalese community had grown larger — many Sherpas like him, but also people from all over Nepal, escaping the war and the privation it caused. Nepalese immigrants concentrated in Sonoma and El Cerrito but spread as far south as San Jose.
Nepal is a small country, immigrants repeatedly say, and those who make it to the States are drawn to places where they have ties back home. Groups like Pandey’s Motherland Nepal formed to help new arrivals find homes, jobs and basic services.
Kathmandu Restaurant’s first competitors in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as Ramesh Lama’s Little Nepal in Bernal Heights (now closed) and Dhruva Thapa’s Taste of the Himalayas in Berkeley (now a chain), offered relatives and fellow immigrants a place to work.
Both of these restaurants served momos, choella and a few other Newari dishes, but restaurateurs like Lama and Thapa realized that Nepalese food was too unfamiliar to stake their livelihood on. So they played up the geographic proximity between Nepal and North India, surrounding the most popular Nepalese specialties with food that American diners expected to order at Indian restaurants: tandoori chicken, shrimp vindaloo, malai kofta, naan — a pidgin cuisine in itself, really, divorced from what most people eat in India.
As former employees of both Little Nepal and Taste of the Himalayas went into business for themselves, they adopted this new menu template. Cookbook author Pathak estimates that the menus of many Nepalese restaurants she visits in the United States are 80 percent North Indian and 20 percent Nepalese.
Bay Area diners didn’t notice.
Twelve years after the war ended, Nepal has remained one of the poorest countries in Asia — only Afghanistan has a lower per capita GDP, according to a 2017 Global Finance magazine analysis of International Monetary Fund data. The April 2015 earthquake that killed 9,000 Nepalis was another economic blow.
With nationwide unemployment at 40 percent, millions of Nepalese have left the country since 2006 in search of work. Malaysia, Qatar and other Persian Gulf states are major destinations; according to Al Jazeera, remittances from workers abroad make up almost a third of Nepal’s GDP.
Some have come to the United States, sponsored by family, but many more newcomers played the green card lottery. Over the past decade, Nepalese applicants for the U.S. Diversity Visa program have more than tripled, and in 2018, Nepal accounted for 7 percent of the 50,000 visas the United States granted. The only country that surpassed it, in number of visas awarded, was Egypt.
According to a Pew Foundation analysis of U.S. Census data, the Nepal-born population of the U.S. jumped from 69,000 in 2010 to 140,000 in 2015, more than three-quarters of whom have been in the country for less than a decade. The foundation counted the Nepalese population of the Bay Area in 2015 at 5,000. Pandey estimates that, when you include Nepali-speaking Tibetans and Bhutanese, it’s more like 20,000. The actual population may be somewhere in between.
In the past decade, restaurants with names like Everest Kitchen, Yeti, Annapurna and Tashi Dalek have opened around the Bay Area. Other Nepalese immigrants have taken over Indian restaurants without changing their names.
Chef Sherpa is no exception: For the past three years he worked at Urban Curry in North Beach, owned by Purna Sherpa (relation unknown), another former Everest guide. Last month, Purna Sherpa sold the business to another Nepalese owner, and Nawang Sherpa moved down to Sunnyvale to help his boss open a new restaurant. With the help of other immigrants, the refugee now can work legally, although his asylum status is provisional and he can’t return for a visit. The war may have ended in 2006, but Sherpa said that as late as 2015, Communists were attempting to solicit money from him through his family. He has never returned home for a visit or met his youngest son, who is now 19.
Prajit Raj, co-owner of Annapurna, is a diversity visa lottery winner who worked for Qatari airlines and sold cars in Northern California before he and chef Vishnu Dhimir took over the former Breads of India space in Old Oakland, an attractive high-ceilinged room with stained-glass windows. He points to the wall where he’d like to hang a painting of Annapurna’s peak.
Dhimir became a cook at Taste of the Himalayas when he arrived in the United States a few years ago. Raj asserts that all Annapurna’s food, whatever its origins, is Nepalese. “There are so many foods that have come from India to the Nepali community,” Raj says.
The critical component is that all the cooking at Annapurna starts with Dhimir’s spice blends, and these masalas give Annapurna’s Newari chicken choella and North Indian palak paneer (both delicious, by the way) the true Nepali flavor. “You drink Coke in America and go back to drink a coke in Nepal,” he explains by way of analogy. “It’s the same Coke. But still you can find a different taste because of the water.”
If Nepalese cuisine has a breakout star, what Bay Area diners most associate with the country, it is momos. The dumplings are on the menu of every Nepalese restaurant, even ones that otherwise concentrate on chicken tikka masala and mattar paneer. The Bay Area now has at least five momo trucks: Namaste Nepal, Momo Grill Truck, Momolicious and two the Everest trucks.
It’s no surprise that momos have been a hit in the Bay Area, the United States’ strongest Asian American community. The fillings may be seasoned with coriander and cumin rather than ginger and green onion, and the dumplings may be served with a thick tomato chutney, but momos are folded into either the same half-moon shape as jiaozi or the circular, pleated-topknot style as Shanghainese xiaolongbao. We know momos. And yet we know momos as uniquely Nepalese.
“When you walk down the street here you see pizzas, burritos, burgers,” says Daniel Singh of Kathmandu restaurant. “When you walk down the street in Nepal, it’s momos, momos, momos.” Momo love is not limited to the Bay Area: In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens in New York, so many Nepalese restaurants have opened that the neighborhood organizes an annual momo crawl.
Locally, some credit for momo love may be due to Binita Pradhan, owner of Bini’s Kitchen. In the fall of 2013, Off the Grid invited the La Cocina graduate to set up a stall at its Fort Mason food truck gathering, where she served chai, chicken curry and momos. Momos became the center of her catering business, then at her Market Street takeout restaurant, and now the prepared dumplings sit on Whole Foods shelves. Observe her team at work, and a half-dozen cooks are folding momos — Bini’s Kitchen sells upwards of 10,000 a week.
Aside from Bini’s Kitchen, some of the best momos in San Francisco can be found in a 4-month-old Tenderloin pizza shop called Himalayan Pizza and Momos. Santosh Gurung’s extended family, immigrants from Pokhara, has run a North Indian restaurant named Saffron Grill since 2005, but Gurung wanted to join the Nepalese restaurant boom, to represent his food to the broader community. “I love the Bay Area very much,” he says. “Every corner I go to, it’s a different diversity, and it’s so beautiful to me. I want to add to our diversity.”
When the family found a vacant pizza shop on Golden Gate Avenue, they hired cousin Nab Raj Dhakal, who had run a pizza place in Kathmandu before emigrating, to help them take it over. Now they serve classic American pizzas as well as a “Himalayan pizza” with roasted chicken and a Nepalese spiced tikka masala sauce; these are in addition to North Indian dishes, Nepalese chow mein (surprisingly delicious) and a few Nepalese entrees. The restaurant’s signature dish, of course: chicken or vegetarian jhol momo, dumplings bathed in a roasted-tomato stew whose most distinctive spice is timur, a Nepalese relative of Sichuan peppercorns.
“The reason we do fusion is that we don’t want to get lost,” Gurung says, referring to both himself and his fellow Nepalese restaurateurs. “We want to have the probability of keeping the business running.”
That may be changing. Or rather, restaurant owners may be coming around to Deepak and Lina Singh’s approach from all those years ago.
As she prepares to open her first sit-down Bini’s Kitchen in SoMa in December, Bini Pradhan’s ambitions for the place resemble a bag of popcorn in a microwave set to full power. Fast-casual service and grab-and-go food during the day. Low-cost takeout at night for the residents of the affordable-housing complex above her. A plan to hire and promote women who have escaped abusive relationships. Momo makers on display.
The daughter of an aeronautical engineer and a former cook for the Nepalese royal family, Pradhan grew up in Kathmandu, immersed in delicious food. “We never in our life ate the same thing again,” she said. Friends constantly invited themselves over for dinner.
Pradhan studied hospitality in Mumbai, then worked in Kathmandu for major hotel chains such as Hyatt and Radisson, the first woman, she says, in administration. But she came to San Francisco in 2004 to help her sister out with a new baby and stayed. She consulted for Little Nepal, then fell in love with an American man. Her husband moved the family to Mississippi, Las Vegas and Southern California. He also grew abusive.
In 2012, when her son was barely a toddler, Pradhan broke away from him and moved back to San Francisco.When she began cooking professionally again, she returned to the dishes she grew up with. She sun-dries some spices, just as her mother did, and imports others from Nepal. Her cooks — most of whom are Nepalese and Tibetan — toast spices on a giant flat-top grill and store them in 30-gallon vats.
Pradhan has found investors and an architect, and now watches over the construction at her space at Sixth and Howard Streets. Once the restaurant really gets going, she wants to show San Francisco a Nepalese cuisine they’ve never tasted before.
“I want to go into that deep Newari culture,” she said: Not just sprouted-bean stews and choella, but also kachilla (water buffalo tartare), gundruk bhatmas (sun-dried mustard greens with soybeans), bara (deep-fried lentil patties) and chiura (beaten rice).
But no Indian food. “I studied in India. I love India,” she says. “But there is a difference between the two” cuisines.
At the granddaddy of the Nepalese restaurant boom, Kathmandu Restaurant, you can still order Newari foods you will find nowhere else, like chetamari (a rice-flour crepe stuffed with spiced chicken and vegetables) and chhaang (milky, sweet-sour rice beer). Over the years the Singhs have streamlined the menu to eliminate the rare feast dishes that weren’t selling. Two months ago, they added a few North Indian dishes, since so many customers were expecting to eat those, too.
Deepak and Lila Singh recently opened a market on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley where they serve deep-fried momos and “curritos” — yes, a Nepalese burrito — to Cal students. More and more, the couple are turning over their businesses to sons Daniel, 28, and Daryn, 26. (Daughter Lauren, 18, just entered college.)
Daniel, now in charge of the restaurant, says, “A lot of customers that have returned throughout the years ask: Were you that kid, you and your brother doing homework in the corner? Yeah, that was me. It was interesting growing up one foot in the Nepalese culture, one foot in the American culture. … It was hard to navigate both, but it gives me a great perspective.”
His goal now, he says, is bringing Kathmandu Restaurant into 2018. He’s responsible for adding the Indian dishes, but also for opening for lunch, installing new kitchen equipment, bringing in craft beer and signing up for online delivery services. Lina Singh looks forward to stepping away. The restaurant business, she says, is so tiring.
When the transfer of ownership is complete, Kathmandu will become another kind of pioneer: the Bay Area’s first second-generation Nepalese American restaurant.
Originally published on San Francisco Chronicle on 5 October 2018
Published on Lokantar on 7 October 2018