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Kathmandu diary

Kathmandu may not be foodie's delight, but by avoiding tourist traps, you can get to eat well, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2008 12:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Anyone who has been to China will tell you that the principal difference between a real Chinese menu (i.e., at a restaurant meant for Chinese people) and an 'international' Chinese menu (at a place frequented by foreigners) is the nature of the ingredients.

Chinese food divides quite neatly into flesh (what we eat when we go to Chinese restaurants) and the Other Parts (what the Chinese eat). So I was little surprised when the Chinese restaurant at The Yak and Yeti Hotel, where I stayed, seemed more 'real' than 'international'.

I asked for a fairly innocuous starter of shredded pork with chilli oil only to be met with looks of utter scepticism from the Chinese lady who took my order. I looked at the menu again.

By page two, I knew what kind of restaurant I was in. Main courses included fried pig's intestines and various Other Parts of many dead animals. "The Shredded Pork?" I asked the nice lady. "What part of the pig is it exactly?' She nodded. "The pig's ear," she said. "Can you eat that?' "Er, no," I said. "I'll have to look at the menu again."

Eventually, I found many dishes that did not involve sheep's bladders, pig's stomachs and cow's noses. And the food was very good - or at least, the fleshy parts were. I asked the Chinese lady if many Nepalis ordered the Other Parts on the menu.

After all, Nepali cuisine boasts of a papad made from the blood of dead goats. No, she said. They didn't get many Nepalis. Really? What about Indians? No, again. So who exactly came to chomp on the chicken's feet and sheep's intestines? Chinese. Really? Yes, many, many Chinese.

And sure enough, she was right. In the course of a week in Kathmandu, I was intrigued to note that the restaurant was always full of groups of unsmiling Chinese men from the mainland. Most spoke no English.

They took over private rooms, ordered vast off-menu banquets and spoke to the restaurant's Chinese staff (managers and chefs) in languages that excluded the Nepali waiting staff. It seemed strangely incongruous to find so many Chinese people in Kathmandu but the nice lady at the restaurant assured me that Nepal is full of Chinese officials, businessmen, 'experts' and technicians who demand real Chinese food and give the more touristy places a miss.

I have no idea quite what all the Chinese do in Kathmandu (perhaps South Block has a better idea), but I gather that Chinese interests have bought over 30 hotels (at the three-star level) in Nepal and that Kathmandu is bracing itself for more Chinese arrivals. Perhaps these will be budget tourists.

Or perhaps, they will be officials. But either way, it means that there are already more restaurants in Kathmandu serving authentic Chinese food than there are in all of India where 'Chinese' places, ironically enough, tend to have Nepali chefs. A nd it isn't just the Chinese. Near The Yak and Yeti, I fixmd a Korean restau- rant that claimed to be oi en 2-1 hours. Further: its signboard said. it could also arrange "dance performances by beautiful girls". A Korean dance bar in downtown Kathmandu?

The mind boggled. I resolved to find out. At the door, a Korean woman wearing a hat so authentic that it could have come from a geography textbook greeted me warmly. Was I interested in going to 'singing room' where I could sing songs? Ah, Karaoke!

No, I said. But, just for curiosity's sake, could I sing English songs there? "Oh no! Only Korean." She paused to giggle. We were joined by a more aggressive Korean woman. Were they really open all 24 hours? "Only for singing room." And the dancers? "Not for you." I tried again.

Did they serve bulgogi and the traditional dishes of Korean cuisine? The woman in the silly hat nodded enthusiastically The other woman scowled. "We are from North Korea," she said somewhat grimly. "Not South Korea." And were there many North Koreans in Kathmandu who desired 24-hour Karaoke plus "dances by beautiful girls"? "Yes." There was little more to be said. I conveyed my regards to Comrade Kim Jong II. Silly hat giggled.

The other woman looked angry. I made my excuses and left. T the Chinese and North Korean experiences got me thinking. In the old days (the 1980s or so), Kathmandu was full of Japanese and South Korean restaurants. But the gastronomic invasion from the Communist Far East was a new development. Neither the Chinese nor the North Korean restaurants seemed interested in foreigners: both catered only to their own nationals.

So how many Chinese and North Koreans visited Nepal? Or were they resident in Kathmandu? It was tempting to link this to the political situation in Nepal. I was there just af ter the election, which the Maoists had more or less won (without an overall majority, though) and many people were making dire predictions about Nepal's future.

Was the Far Eastern communist presence a sign of things to come? In the end, I decided that the knee-jerk connections between food and global politics were premature. Kathmandu has changed in the two decades or so since my first visit but the main difference is that there are many more Indian places. The hippie quarter of Thamel has lost much of its charm. Freak Street seems inappropriately named.

And the quaint, slightly 'foreign' air that once distinguished Kathmandu has disappeared. That said, there are many places where you can eat well and in prettier surroundings, and still pay much less than you would in Delhi or Bombay Babar Mahal Revisited is a picturesque complex of shops and restaurants near the Singh Durbar, the country's secretariat. It looks like a cross between Bombay's Courtyard and Delhi's Santushti.

But the shopping's not as good as either of those places. And the food is much better I had lunch at Chez Caroline, the complex's French restaurant and was startled by how good the experience was. The restaurant itself is very pretty, with many outdoor tables in a courtyard. Service is surprisingly good - waiters are efficient and knowledgeable. And the wine list offers very drinkable house wine by the bott1e, carafe or glass.

The food was fresh and authentically prepared. Little things were done well the French fries were crisp and perfect. An Australian lamb chop was served like a steak, cooked to a juicy shade of pink. A lemon tart, a chocolate fondant and American-style waffles were all more than adequate. It is impossible to get simple French food like this anywhere in India. At hotels, it's always over fussy and far more expensive. What a surprise then, to eat so well in Kathmandu! A s pretty as Babar Mahal Revisited .was the Garden of Dreams at th@ edge of Thamel.

The two-floor restau rant overlooks a spectacular garden and when the weather is good, the location is unbeatable. The food was good (though not in the same league as Chez Caroline) and reasonably priced: In Thamel itself, there are fewer and fewer places where you get a good meall There's the mountaineers' joint, Rum Doodle, and a few surviving remnants of the hippie era. But at least 20 dark an sleazy dance bars, full of half-dressed women gyrating to Hindi film songs, have sprung up. They are packed with loud and drunken Indian tourists and successfully destroy what little charm remains in Thamel after sundown.

Still, there are some nice places too. A local foodie recommended Caf6 Mitra, a barely sign-posted two-floor restaurant with good food (proper food, that is - not the banana pancakes and buff steaks that Thamel specialises in) and wine on the Chez Caroline pattern, by the bottle, carafe and glass.

I was told that Kathmandu's best pizzas are to be found at Fire and Ice (also at the edge of Thamel), but I couldn't work up the appetite for a pizza in Kathmandu. I t's never been easy to fmd good Nepah food in Kathmandu outside of private homes. I've never had as good a Nepali meal in Kathmandu as I always do in New Delhi's Safdarjung Road.

But there are places worth trying. The Yak and Yeti surprised me with the quality of its Nepali room service and bar snacks. And I had a good experience at Baithak, a Nepali restaurant in the Babar Mahal Revisited complex that serves the kind of Rana cuisine that I have some experience of. The worst meal I had in Kathmandu was a Nepali set-dinner at a tourist trap called Nepali Chulo just off Durbar Marg.

The food was bad, service was slow, prices were high and the whole point of the experience seemed to be so-called Nepali folk dancing. I decided that I'd had enough when a Nepali man wearing a dirty off-white bear suit appeared and began hugging guests. He was, I gathered, meant to be the yeti. As I was leaving, another Nepali dressed as a peacock turned up. Fortunately, I got out in time. Would I recommend Kathmandu for a foodie holiday?

No, I don't think the food's that good. Hotels are expensive and the flights are overpriced. But if you do find yourself in the Nepali capital for whatever reason, do not worry. If you avoid the obvious tourists traps and look around a little, you won't find it difficult to eat well.

Read more of Vir Sanghvi's columns:

Tracking the bhutta story
Much ado about foie gras
The Great Hotel Scam
Cultural Revolution
Rude Food photo gallery