Flavours of Mithila in BoudhaKnown for his effort in promoting Mithila cuisine, chef Maheshwar Shah’s second Mithila Food Festival allows one to dive into the cuisine he grew up in.
Utpala Cafe on Tuesday afternoon is bustling with people. The restaurant has an ongoing three-day Mithila Food Festival, which ends on February 25. On the first day of the festival, staff of this vegetarian restaurant in Boudha are on their toes to ensure that things are in order. There’s a constant flow of guests walking into the restaurant. Staff are briskly walking out of the kitchen carrying trays of food to refill the empty trays at the buffet counter.
In one corner of the restaurant’s spacious outdoor dining, guests line up at the tea and paan counter. The former is served in traditional matka (earthen clay) cups and at another corner, keeping true to the Mithila theme of the festival, are a few Mithila paintings on display.
At the heart of all the action is Chef Maheshwar Shah, a native of Dhanusha district. As it is the first day of the festival, Shah splits his time taking care of important guests who have come to inaugurate the festival and monitoring the kitchen and the buffet counter.
Seeing Shah’s enthusiasm and insight of Mithila cuisine, it’s hard to guess that on a daily basis Continental, Mexican and Italian cuisine is what he cooks as an executive sous chef at Vivanta Kathmandu, an upscale hotel located in Jhamsikhel. The three cuisines are what he has spent the last 17 years of his life perfecting his culinary skills in hotels and restaurants in Benaras, Bangalore, Dubai, and Kathmandu. But in Kathmandu’s culinary circle, he is known more for his efforts in promoting Mithila cuisine, and this Mithila Food Festival is one of his works that points in that direction.
“I grew up on Mithila cuisine and my earliest memories of food are all Mithila dishes. I remember my mother preparing khuddi roti, which is made out of broken bits and pieces of rice, and roasted potato chutney for breakfast. I remember the pungent smell of fish being fried in mustard oil filling our house every time my mother cooked tareko machha,” said Shah. “Back then, everything on our plate was grown by ourselves or they were sourced locally. Mithila cuisine is where my heart lies and promoting this rich cuisine has become something of my passion.”
It was 2000 when Shah left his village of Sabaila in Dhanusha District for Kolkata in India to pursue his Bachelor’s degree in hotel management (BHM). In 2003, he graduated and spent the next 14 years away from Nepal working.
“During those years that I was far from home, it was food that I relied on to stay connected to my roots,” said Shah. “On most days, I’d come back to my apartment and cook Mithila dishes for me and my roommates. I’d also cook for my colleagues at work.”
When Shah returned to Nepal in 2017 and started working at Gokarna Forest Resort, Kathmandu, he started to move beyond just cooking Mithila dishes for friends and colleagues and getting the cuisine out there in the world. Currently, he teaches at several hotel management schools and has gone the extra mile to teach his students about Mithila cuisine. Last month, he put together his first Mithila Food Festival at one of the colleges he teaches at.
“Restaurants in Kathmandu that serve Nepali cuisine are limited to only a handful of local cuisines. There’s a dearth of local indigenous cuisines in the mainstream food scene, and we need to get more of our local cuisines out there,” said Shah. “Mithila cuisine is not only very diverse but also very nutrient rich.”
One of the reasons, Shah says, that Mithila cuisine has not yet gained prominence in the city’s food scene is because of his community’s lack of awareness on the need to promote their cuisine.
“When I went to India to study BHM in 2000, I was the first in the whole village to do so. And to this day, only a handful of people have pursued BHM. When you work in a restaurant, people look down on you and call you names such as halwai and bawarchi. When I was first starting out in the restaurant world, I hid my profession from my friends and relatives,” said Shah. “For years, there’s only been a handful of people from our community in the hospitality world, but things are changing for the better now and more people are joining this industry and realising the need to promote our Mithila cuisine.”
People, says Shah, are also more open to trying out different cuisines and that makes things so much easier.
“Popularity of dishes such as bakkha, which was something one could only get in Tarai until a few years ago, in Kathmandu signal that people here no longer hesitate from trying out unknown dishes,” said Shah. “I am very hopeful that it will only be a matter of time before Mithila dishes like phophi, taruwa, khesari saag soup and khuddi roti will no longer raise eyebrows in Kathmandu’s restaurant scene.”
For any cuisine to survive and thrive outside its geographical origins, commercial success is a must, and Shah is also very well aware of that.
“Apart from being nutrient-rich, the flavours of our dishes are very similar to what most Nepalis are used to,” said Shah.
To make sure that the food served at the Mithila Food Festival is as authentic as possible, Shah says that he has imported around 75 percent of the ingredients from Tarai.
“During the three days, we will be presenting some authentic Mithila dishes, from bathuwa saag ko soup to tilauri, til ko chutney, a wide range of taruwa parwal ko bharuwa to naglati,” said Shah.
Food has also always served as an easy entry point into learning about different cultures and Shah’s Mithila Food Festival justifies it. As wide-eyed foreigners and Boudha locals sample dishes they have never heard before, Shah makes it a point to answer their questions and share with them information on details of dishes, the ingredients used, and preparation methods and the Mithila culture.
“If people from the regions of this country travelled to each other’s regions and ate the local food there, we will get a deeper understanding of who we are and what connects us,” said Shah.
Mithila Food Festival
Where: Utpala Cafe, Boudha
Time: 11:30 am to 5:30 pm (buffet lunch only)
Date: February 23-25
Price: Rs 350