Thursday, April 30, 2009

A feast of the Rana Maharajas

I had a one day stopover in Kathmandu today for meetings with Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. The radio meetings were in the morning, and afterwards I was treated to lunch by Radio Nepal at Babar Mahal Revisited – a complex of old palace buildings that were built in the early 1900s and which have now been renovated into upmarket shops and galleries selling clothes, antiques and handicrafts:



The complex was nearly deserted when I was there. The shops looked expensive, so I guess they were catering only for wealthy overseas visitors. My hosts told me that the political unrest in Nepal was deterring many tourists from visiting the country, and those that were coming were mainly backpackers – and they certainly wouldn't be shopping at Babar Mahal Revisited.

We headed to a restaurant upstairs called Baithak from where we had a lovely view over a central courtyard, shaded by a jacaranda tree:


The restaurant was almost deserted too, except for two locals who were having an early lunch ahead of us:


The maitre d' handed us a menu prepared specially for us on parchment paper which explained the background to the food that we would be eating. It read:

“For a little over a century (1846 – 1951) the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Nepal was ruled by the Rana Maharajas, a dynasty of hereditary prime ministers popularly remembered for opulent European palaces and autocratic rules. The glamour of court life in the Rana years derived from an eclectic mix of the best from many worlds, imported worlds that is, from Japanese horticulture to French musical instruments, Belgian crystal, British tailoring. Italain marble and Chinese decorative arts”

(I wondered who had written this and described the prime ministers as being “popularly” remembered for their opulent lifestyles. But I didn't like to ask and spoil the atmosphere).

The menu went on:

“While artistic taste leaned to the West, the cuisine of the Ranas stayed closer to home, borrowing heavily from the nearby Moghul Court of North India. From the Moghul palaces came Muslim cooks called khansamas who developed an array of Nepalese-Indian hybrids in tandem with the traditional Nepalese Brahman female cooks (bajais). The Rana cuisine is at once more refined and subtle than the Nepalese and Moghul dishes which it incorporates.”

That all sounded pretty good to me as I love North Indian food, and I was not disappointed when the starters arrived. They comprised:

Chicken Momo (steamed chicken dumplings)
Maas Daal ko Bara (ground black lentils deep fried into fluffy balls)
Aaloo ko Achar (marinated and spiced potatoes)
Syamali, Kerau, Badam Sande ko (spiced marinated peas, riverweed and peanuts)

The riverweed was a little bitter, but everything else was very tasty.

Then came the main course served on individual silver platters:


The dishes on the platter comprised:

Khasi ko Bhutauwa (cubes of mutton cooked with spices)
Chara ko ledo (chicken cooked in an aromatic tomato gravy)
Lapsi hale ko Daal (black lentils cooked with lapsi – a fruit that that the maitre d' said was found only in Kathmandu)
Aaloo tare ko (spiced fried potatoes 'Rana style')
Kaauli Hariyo Pyaj (sautéed cauliflower with green onions)
Golbeda ko Achar (charcoal grilled tomatoes, spiced and ground to a pickle)
Kakro, Syano Kerau ko Achar (spiced cucumber and chickpeas marinated in a light yoghurt paste)
Basmati Bhuja (long grained rice simmered in water and clarified butter)

Every dish was delicious and combined on the one platter provided a real kaleidoscope of flavours and textures. We finished off the meal with something called Malpua Kurauni which was a Rana pancake with concentrated milk.

It was a delicious meal and I thanked my hosts letting me experience such interesting cuisine. I wondered how much the meal cost (I thought that it would have been quite expensive) but when I looked up a review of the restaurant on a Nepalese website later, it said the restaurant offered a 12 course Rana feast (which I guess is what we had) for 995 rupees (about US$13). Yes, that is very expensive by Nepalese standards, but for many overseas visitors it would be quite affordable for the quality of the food offered and the ambiance of the restaurant.