Raithaane was not what I expected. An old Patan building propped up by a wooden joist, a long low archway that leads to one of the area’s many charmingly down-at-heel courtyards. Looking left and right, at first I couldn’t see anything that resembled a restaurant. But there it was, tucked away on the left, in a mini-courtyard of its own.
I heard about Raithaane the way you always hear about the best places: words of mouth. It took me a while to find it (perhaps you’re better at Google maps than I am) but it’s just beyond Patan Durbar Square if you’re coming in the front way, down Saugal Tole, directly opposite Metalwood.
But I wasn’t just attracted by the visuals—charming though they are—but rather by the ethos behind it. Partners Prashanta Khanal, Jason Shah, and Mathilde Lefebvre and their team are doing something both innovative and very important here: gathering and presenting lesser known recipes from ethnic groups and areas all over Nepal. You won’t find momos and chowmein on the menu here, rather, you might be surprised by a lot of things you’ve never heard of, or only seen rarely, along with a smattering of western-style recipes made with very local ingredients. And speaking of ingredients, when it comes to the traditional dishes, the team has gone to great lengths to both prepare and present them in a traditional fashion, using, as much as possible, ingredients from the parts of the country the dishes hail from, heritage grains and ultra-local flavors. Eating here is an experience both surprising and delightful, and very, very delicious.
On my first visit, early last year, I sat outside soaking up the sun, occasionally glancing in at the chef plating up colorful ingredients. She even came outside once to pick a few things from the small kitchen garden on my other side. The menu is short but fascinating, and changes regularly: many things need a description because they’re so uncommon in Kathmandu. Some, like kanchampa or chukauni I was already familiar with, the latter of which, a yoghurt and turmeric spiced potato salad, I have fond memories of from repeated visits to Ridi Bazaar in Gulmi, many years ago. For that first lunch I admit to not being too adventurous: I enjoyed their bruschette; the twist was in the chamsur (garden cress) pesto and homemade cheese, on their housemade sourdough bread, sprinkled with bright yellow mustard flowers, which had been growing just a few feet from my plate. It was beautiful and delicious. I also ate a buckwheat galette, filled with hearty mushrooms, cheese, and an egg with a soft yolk in the center to tie it all together.
I’d barely finished my meal, and I was already planning a return trip.
A few weeks ago, I was finally able to return and sit down with two of the partners and ask all my many questions—most of which involved learning the why behind their starting such a unique eatery, and how they’ve managed, despite challenges, to make it a reality. If you’re passionate about Nepal’s food traditions, you’ve probably already read Prashanta’s work—he’s the voice behind the excellent blog thegundruk.com, which I have been happily reading for years now. He grew up in a Brahmin-Newar family, and developed an interest in foods from different ethnic groups around the country, which he began researching. A few years ago this interest became a food collective, where friends met and talked about food over monthly dinners, which then morphed into a series of pop-up cafe events, eventually leading there, to this restaurant, Raithaane. How do you find these unusual recipes, I ask? “Friends, friends’ parents, festivals, talking to people,” they reply. They are adamant that they are not trying to make fusion cooking; they want people to see and taste what it really looked like and how it actually tasted. They are encouraged by the response: prices are deliberately kept affordable and the place has become popular amongst young Nepalis—one of the team’s goals was for this to be a place they would come eat at themselves—and it’s now been discovered by some expats and tourists, too. Nevertheless, they are trying to keep it realistic; they want to grow but not be overrun, and they hope that as they do grow, they can find more suppliers, which, when you are as dedicated to authenticity as these guys are, tends to be one of their challenges. The partners explained that they try to source as many ingredients as possible from local farmers, though some—cumin and fenugreek for example—they haven’t been able to find Nepal-grown. I’m impressed by their conscientiousness, as I’m pretty sure many people would say “It’s all from Nepal,” over a lot less. Their goal, they tell me, is to celebrate underrepresented ingredients, and it’s a job they are doing very well.
While talking I also tried several more dishes, including a winter special and their most popular—and perhaps most unique: chamre & yangben-faksa. Pork cooked with wild lichen and pork blood, served over rice cooked slow in mustard oil. It’s pungent and surprising, a dish that has its origins in the Rai and Limbu community. It’s like nothing I’ve ever had in over twenty years in this country. The fungus itself is collected from the barks of the trees it grows on, and cleaned in an ash wash to make it edible. It was served with a side of kinema mixed with tomatoes—kinema, which I’ve never had before, is a paste made of fermented soyabeans, traditionally made by the Kirat community. Like miso but not, it’s remarkably moreish and more than a little funky. You should give it a go.
Perhaps it was the weather, but my dish of the day was the Sherpa stew, phalgi, its smoky deliciousness accentuated by corn from Jiri. I learned that the corn is first boiled and then sundried to preserve its tenderness and sweetness. Added to the stew with local white beans and other seasonal vegetables, it lent it a most wonderful texture and taste. The broth was warming and the flavors nuanced, and it was satisfying in the best possible way.
We also enjoyed taruwa, a Tharu and Maithil dish that could be described as a sort of local tempura: seasonal vegetables coated a batter of chickpea flour spiced with nigella seeds, served with a simple green chilli and tomato dip, which I did my best to get as much of on each crunchy vegetable bite as I could. Simple and delicious, this dish would be a perfect accompaniment to drinks, and is exactly the sort of thing that I wish was on menus everywhere.
As we continued chatting, a plate of chips appeared. This was just a few days before Maghe Sakranti, and they were no ordinary chips, but a mix of local tubers like yam, taro and sweet potato; you should have seen the colors—yellow, white, purple—and so tasty that they vanished within minutes. Again, a local twist on an ordinary dish easily prepared, and all Nepal-grown. Prashanta told me that he’s happy to share recipes—he’s working on a book now—and their goal is to encourage the widespread consumption of more of these dishes, whether in other restaurants or people cooking them at home. To that end they’ve set up a few shelves that sell some of the ingredients needed to make their food. I was impressed by how remarkably open they were—they’re keen to share what they’ve learned: their goal is not to be an exclusive guardian of knowledge, but to disseminate it as widely as possible, get more people talking about, eating, and hopefully cooking, these underrepresented food treasures. “Our aim is to promote ethnic cuisines and ingredients,” he told me. “Our cafe is a part of the conservation.” They change their menu every few months, and I hesitantly ask if they think they will be able to keep finding new dishes or if perhaps they’ve already found most of what there is already. “I don’t think we’ve even begun, to be honest,” said Jason.
No indeed, Raithaane isn’t what you’d expect. It’s so much better.
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