Nepal’s local eateries
The Small Star Restaurant is one of the most popular tongba spots in Kathmandu. (Thomas Bell)
A typical Kathmandu bhatti – a sort of Nepalese speakeasy -- has minimal décor and is fairly hard to find. The signature drink, a rice-gin concoction known as raksi, or aiyla, is well more than 50% alcohol and costs just 40 Nepali rupees for a double shot.
Most tourists who visit Nepal rarely get a taste of this Newari social scene, opting instead to dine at more mainstream restaurants. But hidden in and around Kathmandu’s nameless alleys are countless traditional bhatti serving rice-based home brew and various buffalo meat snacks, often in historic (albeit rather gloomy and timeworn) settings.
For the Newar people, whose culture dominates the older parts of Kathmandu, going out to eat and drink revolves around sampling the same foods that are used in traditional Tantric ceremonies, a ritual that is integral to the Newar’s blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. Buffalo meat, “beaten rice”, ginger, soybeans, dried fish and boiled eggs are collectively known as samaybaji, each symbolizing different offerings to the gods.
One of the best places to sample this traditional cuisine is in the bhattis of Patan, Kathmandu’s twin city, across the Bagmati River. In the ancient unnamed lanes around Durbar Square, any low doorway with a greasy green curtain leads to a bhatti, offering the best (or the worst) of the hostess’s Newari cooking in an environment of smoky, picaresque charm. Apart from the formidable aiyla, there is also chyang, a milky rice beer which tastes faintly like cider. In Kirtpur, an historic town just outside Kathmandu’s main ring road, Newari cuisine is getting a boost from Newa Lahana, a community co-operative located near the Uma Maheswar temple. To find it, head to the western end of the small hilltop town and ask directions. Diners sit on straw mats on the floor of the unfinished concrete building and look out over the hills and fields that disappear under the encroaching urban sprawl.
Back in Kathmandu, where most streets do not have names or have names that no one uses, the cold winter days call for tongba, a warm drink originating in the mountainous north, a favourite of many hill tribes. Tongba appears as a large pot of fermented millet grains. Drinkers pour hot water over the grains and drink it through a straw, which blocks the millet. One of the most popular tongba spots in the city is the Small Star Restaurant, located on an alley full of shops selling cloth and cotton thread, just off Thahiti Square, one block south of the tourist district, Thamel. Sitting around a flask, topping up your drinks and eating buffalo chilli is a fine way to pass the afternoon. On a cold day, expect this place to be packed upstairs and down.
Halfway along New Road there is a street leading south, with an Everest Bank on the corner. About 70m down on the left side, there is water pipe that has been adopted as a shiva linga (a phallic symbol that represents the god Shiva, ubiquitous throughout Hindu South Asia) and is covered with red powder. Above is a small sign for New Dish, a restaurant which serves only momo dumplings.
These steamed dumplings made of buffalo, chicken or mixed vegetables are popular and universal throughout Kathmandu. But New Dish is famous for one thing: pork momos. During lunch times and after work it is jammed with shop and office staff.
The bhatti may be hard to find, but it is worth the effort to go where the locals go, if only to say you have tried buffalo chilli and a glass of raksi or two.