The 'Wohs' at Wonowcha...

Features Issue 17 Aug, 2010

Eating out in Kathmandu offers many options to the gourmet and there is no lack of choice of food for the daring, the discerning or the downright fastidious.

Eating out in Kathmandu
offers many options to the gourmet and there is no lack of choice of food for the daring, the discerning or the downright fastidious.

For the discerning there are ranges of polished establishments offering food from different lands, served on fine chinaware with gracious waiters in white gloves and all. There is besides this the packaged ‘Nepali’ eating experience so beloved of tourists and other visitors to Kathmandu, epitomized by restaurants where everything is meticulously ethnic and the food looks and tastes pretty much like it ought to – to the tourist.

But this in not the real world of Nepali dining. This type of dining is stage managed to cater to the tastes and sensibilities of visitors, and this fact becomes apparent from the obvious lack of Nepali patrons in such places. Of course it is not to say that these places do not provide a fulfilling experience. They do. But what is also true of these places is that they do not represent the grimy realities of what common citizens– and indeed even many foreign residents – consider to be a true local dining experience.

And here we shall introduce to you the place behind the Krishna Mandir at Patan. In case you are wondering what this place is called, the answer is in the previous sentence. It’s a place with no name. Just a location. But ah! Its fame!!

For thirty-eight years this place has existed serving pretty much exactly the same fare. There are no handmade napkins, no uniformed waiters, no fine cutlery and no fanfare. In fact, if you are squeamish about smoke blackened walls and greasy floors and open kitchens, lit up,  by removing a sheet of tin from the roof, then this place is not for you. Though it is anything but polished (in fact it is honestly grimy), it has a healthy patronage that has not diminished down the ages – and has in fact grown. The hygiene and class conscious types will therefore miss getting to visit what is almost an institution amongst locals of Patan, and for anyone who is a fan of Newari food - the real thing that is.

Since it is a bit tedious to keep referring to this place as ‘ the place behind Krishna Mandir in Patan’, we will for ease of reference call it ‘Wonowcha’ henceforth. Not exactly an easy alternative as far as pronunciation goes, but Wonowcha is apparently what some of the locals refer to the place as - so Wonowcha we will call it - though no signboards anywhere  identify this place as such.

Wonowcha serves a very limited fare. There are just four varieties of buffalo meat served and they are choyla, kachila, dyakula and sukuti, which are grilled meat with herbs, mincemeat mixed with spices, boiled meat in gravy and dried  meat respectively. Two types of vegetables constituting potato gravy and pea gravy, or aloo kawab and kerow are also served. Then there is chivda or dry beaten rice and lastly - and this is the places claim to fame - the ‘barahs’ or ‘wohs’. This particular pancake-like dish is made out of a paste created from crushed black lentils that have been soaked overnight - which is lightly fried in mustard oil along with a topping of an egg - or egg and kachila.

Gyannani, the daughter of the gentleman who started the business, is herself a grandparent now. According to her,  her  father started the business prior to 1990 BS - which would make the business over sixty-nine years old. All day long , Gyannani sits behind the great black pan, carefully crafting the renown barahs or wohs, surrounded by dishes of choila, kachila, chivda, kerow, aloo kawab, dakula and sukuti. A steady stream of hungry customers come in and satisfied customers stream out, while the lady calmly creates her dishes.  To her left, her daughter in law (its a family business) handles the cash counter – which is not really a counter but a wooden stool within serving distance of the dyakula, chivda and the aloo kawab. The cash box is an out of work mo-mo steaming dish. There is also a house drink served here, and in case you were wondering, and if you have not guessed it already, it is the ubiquitous ‘chyyang’ . Modernization however has not left this place untouched – testified by the small shelf behind the cash counter stocked with Gill Marry whiskey!

This place, as mentioned earlier, is no model of hygiene or classy dining. What it is though is an institution amongst the Nepalis of Patan (and indeed Bhaktapur and Kathmandu according to some) for traditional food of the variety served here. The reputation could be by virtue of its age but most -like the two hungry customers from ICIMOD who tell us they have been coming here for over twenty years, - say the food has remained the same throughout. Thus, working on the assumption that the food was good back then, we could infer that the food is good now also, and so conclude that Wonowcha serves good authentic Newari fare!

While there, we observed with interest a Japanese tourist who on entering, pulled out an illustrated Japanese guide to Nepal which carried a quarter page recommendation of the Wohs here, along with a photo of Gyannani at her post. Gyannani we noticed was not impresses as she is taciturn, and has seen it all over her thirty years odd of being at her post in this kitchen. We were impressed though to think that a Japanese tourist should find his way to this place that after all, has no name - and which apparently had a reputation that extended to the land of the rising sun.

Should you want to visit this place though, just head to Patan, find the impressively carved Krishna Mandir, step behind and  enter a nondescript passage beside a curio shop.  If you suspend your disbelief that such a place should be so well known, then you might get to tasting the wohs and maybe become a faithful. Then again, you might not have a taste for this food and come away unimpressed but should you take the time to sit for a while, and maybe even take in a chyyang or two, you will get a taste of a dining experience, as authentic as you could ever hope to find in Kathmandu.