This restaurant is challenging the notion that Nepali food is just momos and dal bhatAlmost every item on Raithaane’s menu is linked to a particular community and has its own history, illustrating how truly diverse Nepali cuisine is
Tucked away in a courtyard not far from Patan Durbar Square, three food enthusiasts are doing their best to preserve Nepal’s diverse culinary heritage. At Raithaane, the menu is ever evolving, as the partners look to the country’s heritage to take its cuisine forward.
Prashanta Khanal, one of the three, points to various items on the menu, illustrating how every ingredient is intrinsically linked to a specific community and has its own history. There is yangben, the wild edible lichen used by Limbus to make pork blood sausage; kaguno, foxtail millet that is used instead of rice to make kheer primarily in West Nepal; and tsampa, a style of roasted barley flour prevalent in Sherpa communities. These are just three in a diverse range of unique ingredients that are employed at Raithaane to make cuisine that is diverse and true to its ethnic roots.
The reality, however, is that most of the items Khanal points at are lost because people’s tastes and wallets are now directing them elsewhere. So Raithaane, the restaurant Khanal opened with two friends just over six months ago, aims to conserve Nepal’s wide-range of ethnic cuisines by feeding them to people and in the process, rediscovering and cultivating a taste for food that a majority of Kathmandu might have lost touch with.
The aforementioned foxtail millet is hardly used these days, for instance. Khanal cooked the kheer dish for his mother when the trio developed their menu.
“It was a revelation for her,” says Khanal. It reminded her of her childhood, when her parents made it for her—it was called ‘kauno’ back then, she said.
Khanal has been obsessively researching Nepali cuisine for about five years, following the inception of his blog called The Gundruk. While the blog was created to share recipes with friends and family, he soon found himself delving into the food he did not grow up eating. Through friends and his travels, he has been discovering foods that have become relics, compared to the ubiquitous momo, chowmein, fried rice and dal bhat this country holds so dear.
Jason Shah, another partner in the restaurant, says they are both playing with indigenous food while also trying to give them a platform to compete against the diversity of foods available from outside the country. Food such as treacly chakku are never going to lose relevance because of Maghe Sankranti, but those not tied to cultural and religious festivals face an uncertain future, says Shah.
“We are trying to get at food heritage,” says Shah. “We can grow kale here, and it will be local and organic, but we have so many other types of fruits and vegetables. We need to focus on food that is getting lost. The overarching mission is to take stock of what is available today and make a case to keep them relevant.”
The foxtail millet has suffered from a lack of demand, but also because of the labour required to cultivate it, says Shah. The labour involved in keeping some of these foods alive is one factor in their sentence to irrelevance.
“If we can create a demand for different kinds of kaguno, at least we can have a relationship with its farmers and, as long as we are here, they might just keep growing it,” he says. “There is self selection going on. But the rate of loss is extravagant.”
“It’s less seasonal and, with all this technology, there’s hybrids being grown in plastic tunnels year-round. In turn, we are losing all our varieties,” says Khanal. “Tomato means tomato, and potato means potato. But there are many types that are completely different.”
Currently on their menu there are many items, including apples, that will have to be replaced, as cold-stored or imported apples take over once summer draws close.
Raithaane’s menu is ever-changing because of seasonality, but the trio is focussed on gaining its customers’ trust. That means sticking to Raithaane’s mission statement, and framing the conversation the restaurant was set up to start. One day, they might have a juju dhau and honey Raithaane pie, but other days, it might be unavailable; or one day, they might use one grain in a salad, and another the next.
“We want to frame the journey. We want to say ‘we’ve got a new grain, we want you to try it’ and people know what to expect. Once you frame it properly, you will definitely get the benefit of trust, so we can play around,” says Shah.
While much of their menu is dedicated to dishes like the Sherpa rikikur—a potato pancake with yak butter and yak whey, scallion and yoghurt sauce— and Thakali kanchemba, buckwheat chips with timmur chhop, the trio is also adapting ingredients in contemporary ways. For instance, tsampa is used in Raithaane’s apple crumble and its eponymous pie, and local grains are used for crepes, galettes and salads. Outside of their ethnic cuisine, there is a distinctly French influence, which comes from the third partner, Mathilde Lefebvre.
The restaurant also sources its coffee locally, and roasts it to order for French press and pour-over style coffee. Raithaane is an urban restaurant, however, and has to cater to a market that wants certain things, says Shah.
“We've got to make things cooler, because we have to cater to a certain set of values. Only then, can we exist as a platform,” he says.
Raithaane has had a steady flow of customers since opening, and its public profile is increasing thanks to social media. The three partners are continuing to make an impact, reminding Nepalis of what food heritage the country has. While they do not want to coax anyone away from the joys of dhal bhat or momos, chowmein or chicken chilly, they do want to encourage people to think about the cross-section of cuisine the country has long been defined by.
“You can’t define Indian food by chicken butter masala or mattar paneer and naan. There’s so much more to it,” says Khanal. “We need to challenge these views. We want to define Nepali cuisine as more than momos and dal bhat tarkari."