the thali, perfected

Nano Hana restaurant in Dhobichaur recently added Thakali items to its menu, making it the most recent Thakali bhanchhaghar in the Valley. Customers can now sip on jhwai khatte cocktail, a fiery Thakali drink, and plunge their fried tempura sides into timur ko achaar while dipping in the restaurant’s hot bathing pool.

The decision to add a Thakali kitchen came after the restaurant changed owners five months ago. The eatery then not only had the earlier ‘royal’ stripped off of the signboards—in line with the republic Nepal—and had its venue switched, from Lazimpat to the northern gate of Narayanhiti museum, but more importantly, its three new owners now also included a Thakali man

From Burtibang, Baglung, Lila Prasad Sherchan was born into the restaurant business, so to speak. His parents ran a little bhatti, a name for Thakali hotels in rural areas, where guests only pay for food; lodging is free. After he came to Kathmandu 15 years ago, he started a Thakali bhanchhaghar in Gongabu before teaming up with fellow Baglunges—Padam Giri and Purna KC—to take over Nano Hana. The inclusion of Sherchan made possible the addition of Nepali flavours to the existing mostly Japanese menu. Besides, says Giri, Japan and Nepal bond over buckwheat.

When it comes to the food business, Sherchan is a natural. In fact, he says, most Thakalis are—one of the reasons the Thakali bhanchhaghar is such a popular brand in Kathmandu—second, perhaps, only to Newari cuisine. According to the Thakali Kitchen Entrepreneurs Organisation, of which Sherchan is the secretary, there are 72 Thakali restaurants in the Valley alone. It is a thriving business that owes its popularity to the Thakalis’ business acumen and the reputation they developed in places like Mugling.

When the Prithvi Highway first came into operation in the seventies, Mugling became its lunch-and-dinner hub and Thakalis quickly dominated the food business there. The Thakalis, native to the Kali Gandaki Valley—Thak Khola in particular, from where they gained their ethnic identity—are known to be astute businessmen. Thakalis used to once control the salt-trade route from Tibet to India via Mustang. The Ranas even conferred ‘subba’ titles on a few Sherchans, bringing them closer to the Capital. And although numbering only few thousands in population, Thakalis are never scared of packing off to greener chowks.

But merely knowing the hot spots to open a restaurant—whether it be at Burtibang Bazaar, Mugling or at places like the Gongabu bus park or near hospitals and banks—is not enough to ensure good business; the food has to taste great too and that’s where Thakali women and their epicurean taste buds come in.

Traditionally, Thakali families are matriarchal in structure and women are usually the owners of the restaurants, where they also cook. Roshni Sherchan, one of the sisters running the Tukche de Cafe Thakali bhanchhaghar in Baluwatar and three other similar restaurants, including one in Pokhara, says that even at home, Thakalis demand tiptop food from a hygienic kitchen. Over the years, Thakalis have adopted rice as a staple, made their daal thicker, left mustard greens slightly undercooked, created radish achaar that can only be consumed after a few days and popularised the jhwain khatte cocktail as a mother’s warm medicine. And while they took these dishes to their restaurants, they left behind intestines filled with blood and then boiled for snacks at home.

As for finance, connections with the Ranas helped some of the Subbas; labour migration to Japan in the early-nineties helped others; and the rest relied on the dhikuri system, where members pool money and use  the collection whenever needed. With funding secured to back up their penchant for hygienic kitchens and good food, and with Thakali women overseeing the cooking, Thakali bhanchhaghars boomed. Many believe this is the golden period for Thakali kitchens, which could last for the next decade or two.

Telltale signs of threats to ‘pure’ Thakali kitchens are already here, exemplified by the formation of the kitchen organisation itself. In its bid to preserve and promote Thakali restaurants, some of the criteria the organisation demands of a true Thakali kitchen have already become points of controversy, even within the ethnic group and even before  the organisation has been formally registered.

Many Thakalis, like Roshni, believe that a real Thakali restaurant should have a pure Thakali cook. But what constitutes a ‘pure’ Thakali, let alone a Thakali cook, is questionable. The organisation has tried to solve this by asking that the restaurants display the four Chan gods—that represent the Sherchan, Bhattachan, Gauchan and Bhattachan clans—to represent their adherence to Thakaliness. As Lila Prasad says,  people of other ethnicities will not feel comfortable with adhering to  this criterion; but then that rule also alienates Hirachans, Jhuharchans, Lalchans, Pannachans and other Thakalis who go without the suffix ‘chan’ and simply write Thakali as their last names. It also leaves out children of inter-caste couples and people like Lila Prasad’s partners. (Giri calls himself a ‘fallen’ Thakali in jest.)

Even if the puritans settle the differences and include all Thakalis in the definition of a Thakali, a threat remains in the form of some Thakalis not willing to break away from their traditional working methods and in the form of their own changing lifestyle. Thakali kitchens have mushroomed only as a series of small independently owned restaurants and never made themselves corporate-large like Hot Breads, The Bakery Cafe or KFC. Many Thakalis speculate their inability to trust others with business management to be the reason for the modest size of their establishments. “We like to do everything ourselves: from shopping for ingredients to cooking the food,” says Lila Prasad, who distils marpha liquor and uwa alcohol at his home for Nano Hana. If there is not a single Thakali cook, Thakalis fear the taste will be compromised. While this has already come to pass in Mugling, it is beginning to cause problems in the Valley too.

The younger, educated Thakalis are interested in the food business only as a fall-back option. Bhugol Sherchan, for example, had to close down her five-year-old Yumi restaurant in Putalisadak last year after she could no longer run it and her children showed no interest in her business. Roshni is already resigned to the possibility that her children might prefer to do something else. Even earlier, those who migrated to Japan for work would ask their mothers to quit the food industry, which led to many bowing out.

Some say the only way to salvage Thakali bhanchhaghars is by training youths to be Thakali cooks, regardless of their ethnic background. Roshni, on second thought, too defines a pure Thakali cook as someone with at least 15 years of experience in a Thakali kitchen. For nitpicky customers, this might no longer mean an authentic Thakali cuisine, but then when has it? Thakali khana is the best of what Nepal eats put together on a plate. If Thakalis can scour the country for best tasting food and make it even better, they can do so with cooks of any ethnicity and let their bhanchhaghars evolve further.

Published: 11-01-2014, The Kathmandu Post