Redefining The Menu
Serving local recipes with a side of history
Food has this unique quality of connecting us. Whether it’s the taste of your mom’s home-cooked delicacies or memories of a particular achaar, it has the power to truly take us back in time. It is an instant uplifter as well as a link to not just your family but theirs and theirs before that. Sharing these and more views with us, is Mr. Prashanta Khanal from Raithane, Patan.
“Growing up in an amalgamation of two cultures, Newar and Brahman, I found myself developing a taste for a wider variety of foods,” he says, “My mom was very strict in following the old rituals and would not enter the kitchen during her period. So she would teach me how to cook these different kinds of foods and I think that’s how I slowly got into cooking.” He notes how while cooking for relatives or friends, the encouragement he received from them made him eager to go back into the kitchen.
This went so well, in fact, that he had many of them asking him for his recipes. So to make these recipes available to friends and family alike, his blog thegundruk.com came to be. Now, this blog has evolved from its primary purpose, to becoming a flourishing food blog that has expanded into recipes and histories of foods from different cultures.
“When I lived in Indonesia, I had a very popular dish called tempeh. It is more fungi based but it is very similar to a dish called kinema in Nepal. Both of these are fermented soybeans but we seem to have heard more about the Indonesian version or the Japanese Nattō,” he remarked, “I started to realize then that I did not know much about my own culture.”
Mr. Khanal elaborates how this realization pushed him to ask more questions and delve deeper into ethnic foods and its rich history. However, deciding to do food researching in Nepal is harder than it seems. There is simply little to no information available regarding these ancient local foods.
So what do you do when Google does not have the answers?
“Wherever I go, I make a habit to ask the community I visit or the local people, to not serve me with dal bhaat. If it is convenient for them, I always ask that they make the dishes they eat during festivals or other dishes they eat in their day to day lives. Also, I insist on using locally sourced ingredients,” Mr. Khanal explains, “I try to stay in homestays and watch how they cook and encourage them to teach me as well.”
As luck would have it, he met his two other friends turned business partners at a food-related event too. Despite primarily being opposed to the idea of a restaurant, the more they discussed
it the more it seemed to make sense. A traditional restaurant beyond dal bhaat and momos. “You know, these foods have been done and overdone by countless restaurants and they’re already better at it,” he stated, “But talking about the larger food system, we could not only preserve the ethnic foods but also try to preserve the almost extinct ingredients like faapar ko geda(buckwheat seeds), tsampa or masyang (red beans). Not only this, but we could encourage the production of these as well as benefit the farmers.”
He proudly calls this venture a celebration of these ingredients and the rich history they carry. Now that Raithane has been running successfully for 3 years, Mr. Khanal discusses the things that distinguish it from the other restaurants in town.
1. The ingredients are sourced either directly from farmers or with no more than one middle
man in order to make sure that this profit goes directly to the farmers.
2. Most of these ingredients are pesticide-free.
3. A seasonal menu that changes four times a year, so it never becomes static.
Mr. Khanal prides his restaurant on authenticity. He says, “We could change the recipes, add more onions or spices to these traditional dishes to make them more palatable for the new generations.
However, I believe that traditional dishes are an acquired taste. We do not design the menu based on an individual customer’s tastes but exist to provide an accurate feel and taste for these traditional foods.”
This does not, however, mean that Raithane is all preservation and no play. Their menu has many items like the Chaku Pie where they have played with the more common ingredients. Personally, he claims, he wants to preserve rather than upscale but he has no qualms about other restaurants which may hold different views.
“You can truly know a lot through food,” he emphasizes, “Not just how these dishes used to be but what they have become depending on their surroundings and whenever cultures have mixed.” Speaking of the aforementioned kinema alone, the base is the same but it became tempeh or nattō as these recipes traveled and expanded over different cultures.
To end on a thought, Mr. Khanal muses, “Nepali cuisine is very narrowly defined. I think it is an injustice to the variety we actually have that we simply view daal bhaat or the more popular Newari dishes as all that Nepal has to offer. There are beautiful recipes hidden in Tharu, Maithili or Sherpa communities as well as the more marginalized Musahar or more cultures which deserve not just to be discovered but flaunted in the frontlines.”