Friday, February 3, 2012

Nepalese Ambassador in Jackson Heights

We are new to the ambassador program, but thanks to Talisa and Jeff, we’re looking forward to exploring New York’s many eateries. What’s not to like - good food, great company and the chance to discover a new favorite place.

The venue for our introduction to Nepalese cuisine was the former location of the late, lamented Spicy Mina’s. Now named The Woodside Cafe (64-23 Broadway, Woodside, NY 11377), it is not to be confused with Woodside Bakery and Restaurant a few blocks away.

The Woodside Cafe, as the outside signage proclaims, offers Italian, American, Nepal and Indian food, but if our experience was anything to go by, they should forget about hedging their bets and embrace their Nepalese identity. We’ve had Nepalese before and found it…well, just OK; but this night opened our eyes and taste buds to new and delicious possibilities.

Our ambassador for the evening, Nirmal Thapa, is active in the Nepalese community and blogs for the Nepalese Website Parakhi. com. While we waited for the rest of our group to arrive, Nirmal gave us a quick overview of Nepalese culture and gastronomy. The country has distinct regions which influences the cuisine - including the middle hills of the Himalayan foothills, the valleys of Kathmandu and the southern subtropical lowlands. The largest concentration of Nepalese outside of Nepal is in New York, with  Jackson Heights alone the home of 9 Nepalese restaurants.

Our dinner for the evening was from the Newari region, developed over centuries by the Newar of Kathmandu.

The first dish was the always popular Momo, dumplings filled with chicken and beef, although they may also be stuffed with vegetables or other meats, including pork, lamb, goat or yak.  They are usually either steamed, or fried and served with tomato based dipping sauces. The flour based dough is thicker than a won ton skin, but more tender than jioazi (gyoza) or pot sticker.  The skins were thick enough to offer resistance to each bite without being tough, and offered a nice chewy accompaniment to the meat fillings.

Momo are an anytime dish, served with lunch, dinner, or as a snack. The variety of fillings and shapes is endless, limited only by the imagination of the chef. There is even a momo with Snickers or Mars bars, sold in tourist areas of Nepal, but that seems to cross the line from nouvelle to sacrilege.

As a side drink, we were served with Lassi, a drink made with yoghurt, syrup and fruit.  In Indian restaurants, the most popular lassi is mango, but we had the banana, a light and refreshing alternative, not overpoweringly sweet. Although none of the foods we tried was especially spicy, I imagine it could be used as a palate soother as well as a dessert.

Kachila is the Newari equivalent of Steak Tartare. Made with the meat from a beef rib, with no fat, gristle or connective tissue, it is brought to room temperature and mixed with fenugreek seeds boiled in mustard oil and cilantro. Instead of being minced, the meat had been very thinly chopped or sliced, which it gave it a more robust texture. It will be hard to ever eat the Western version again, without comparing it, unfavorably, to Kachila.

Chatamari is the Nepali Pizza, a thick crepe made out of rice flour, similar to the South Indian dosa, which is thinner and crispier and usually rolled up. Our chatamari came with a topping of chicken, black-eyed peas, potatoes, the ever present cilantro and a fried egg in the center, with a side sauce of goat curry. I want to say that this was my favorite, but everything else was too good to be demoted to second best.

Our final dish was another staple of Nepali cuisine - Thal, a”simple plate”  with a combination of foods. Our Newari Thal came with beaten rice, sautéed spinach, potatoes, beans, black-eyed peas, roasted soy beans, cauliflower, chicken, pickled radish, mustard greens and achar.  There were also side dishes of Chicken curry, curried potatoes with bamboo shoots and the dessert of fried cheese ball (similar to the Indian Gulab Jamun) in yoghurt.  Beaten rice or Baji does not look like rice at all. It is made from dehusked rice which has been flattened into flat, dry flakes and dry roasted. The standout for me was the roasted soy beans, which had a smoky, burnt taste without being bitter or acrid. The combinations of textures and tastes is enhanced by eating with the fingers, which we, in the company of relative strangers, did not do. Maybe next time.

A cup of chai tea to finish the evening. I was hesitant to partake, given my intolerance for caffeine, especially at that hour, but I slept like a log, perhaps dreaming of Kathmandu and the Himalayas.

Our Nepali ambassador, Nirmal Thapa, with Malcolm and Diane.

Thanks Nirmal!  See you around Jackson Heights.

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