Thursday, August 4, 2011

Newari Food in Kathmandu at Newa De Cafe

Like many countries, Nepal is a patchwork of ethnicities and languages. The Newa, or Newari, people are the indigenous population of the Kathmandu Valley. The Newaris are well-integrated into Nepali society, but like many ethnicities they maintain their own language and cultural customs. Lucky for us, these customs include a unique and delicious cuisine.

Kathmandu has many places to indulge in Newari food, running the range from cramped hole-in-the-wall joints to fancier establishments like Naxal's Wujala Moskva, a Newari/Nepali/Russian restaurant with charming private garden seating alcoves and a nightly cultural show. Bhumi in Lazimpat has a more hip and modern atmosphere built around an appealing garden area, but the Newari bites we had there did not justify their price. Great place for a beer, though.

When we crave Newari fare, we hit up Newa De Cafe, a somewhat hidden gem in the touristy neighborhood of Thamel.

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Newa De Cafe is obscured in the back of a small plaza immediately north of the entrance gate to Kathmandu Guest House.

Here you will not find ambiance, unless your idea of ambiance is a rather dingy dining area badly in need of a face lift and some natural light. The uninformed tourist might rightfully be scared away upon first step into this establishment, but rest assured that the food here is safe, authentic, delicious, and cheap. The dining area is not that bad, but the table on the patio outside makes for a welcome dining alternative.

The menu offers a range of à la carte Nepali and Newari items. The Newai set meal, samar baji, will give you some exposure to the basics.

On the left is potato and bamboo shoot soup. Moving clockwise from there we have spicy potato, pickle, "bodi" (black-eyed peas), and fried soybeans. In the center is beaten rice, or baji, which is rice literally beaten into thin, dry flakes. The meal is good, but I can take or leave the beaten rice, which in my opinion tastes a bit like stale cereal. The soybeans are quite hard and crunchy -- almost like chewing on an unpopped popcorn kernel for those of us who will admit to having tried that (guilty). Again, it is not my favorite Newari food, but certainly worth trying, especially considering that the price for the entire set meal comes in at a whopping 83 cents.

The title of best Newari dish has to be reserved for chatamari.

Menus often refer to chatamari as "Newari pizza" (although, given that the Newari people have been cooking in the Valley since prehistoric times, maybe pizza is actually "Western chatamari"). The dish has a rice flour base that more resembles a crepe than pizza crust. The base is then topped with a mix of beans, lentils, vegetables, and (if desired) meat or egg. In my opinion, a good chatamari has a slightly crispy outer edge. While the crepe base can be delicate and a bit floppy, it is still pretty easy to eat chatamari in slices much like pizza.

Another Newari staple is bara, a fried lentil pancake that can have egg or meat added. I ordered the egg bara.

The mushy inner texture coated by a slightly crispy skin reminds me a bit of potato pancakes I have had. Whether the bara is the Newari latke or the latke is the Jewish bara is one of the great questions for the ages.

Newari cuisine gets funkier from here, at least for the average American palate. Some of the meat dishes involve parts of the animal like tongue and lung that are often left off of dinner plates in the States. Adventurous eaters are sure to be thrilled working their way through this menu. The friendly staff at Newa De Cafe will be happy to guide you.

If you are looking for inexpensive eats in Thamel, Newa De Cafe is easy on the pocket book and by far the least expensive restaurant we have found there. Veg dal baht is 95 rupees and veg momos are 55 rupees. Our lunch above (one set meal, two chatamaris, and one bara) totaled just 215 rupees (3 USD) after a 10% service charge, making it one of the best deals in Thamel.

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