Real Newars don't eat quiche. They eat lungs. And stomach lining. And brains. And a lot of other animal body parts that I couldn't place. This week, in an eternal quest for culinary truth, Bhatmara Bhai went for a walk on the Newari wild side.
For the tourist, Newari cuisine comes in elaborate and vastly over-priced packages, often with a heavy dose of "folkloric" dance. A range of cultural experiences is on offer: some dances include a heavy pinch of the Old Baneswor Dance Restaurant School, others are reasonably authentic. Some are just bizarre. Let's take, for example, the young chap who careers around restaurants in a very convincing ornate peacock costume. Very convincing, until your eyes meet the white Nikes poking out the bottom of the costume.
I digress. This is a food column. Much of the food served at upper end Newari restaurants is of a high standard and is rather yummy. But while the offerings are Newari in origin, they have been heavily shangrilised for the tourist palate. I like these restaurants, but genuine article they don't offer. Wunjala Moskova, next to the Police headquarters, my favourite, gets three Bhatmara stars. The cultural show is unobtrusive and entertaining (Nikes notwithstanding). The food and service are excellent and good value. The ambience is superb.
So where do the Newari roots of this touristy razzmatazz hide? Bhatmara sniffed out a small piece of the roots at Harati, a popular bhatti discreetly tucked away in Naya Bazar, off the north end of Thamel. At Harati, the arrangement between owner and customer is simple. People, mostly men, come here to eat, drink and argue. The owner provides chairs and tables. And there ends the decor. There are no dances on offer, no peacock with fashion issues here. Food is what the crowds come here for, and food is what they get.
There is no English menu, so you are going to have to drag along a Nepali chum. The menu is, however, an astoundingly long, long, long list. Mostly of offal. Not quite literally nose to tail, but not far from the truth. You have to like offal if you go to Harati, because there is little else on offer.
Offal is not simple to cook. Brains, lung and marrow are delicate and complex. Finnicky preparation destroys their qualities and Harati plays to their strengths. Their preparation of most offal dishes is very simple. The fried bone marrow, stuffed lungs and tongue were particularly nice. Some of the other 'bits' were, to my mind, tough: their texture definitely an acquired taste.
It is best to abandon concessions to any idea of health when coming here. Many of the dishes are greasy. But is 'greasy' necessarily bad? If a full English breakfast or a plate of steaming pork on sauerkraut (or anything from Holland, nation-of-deep-fried-food) brings a smile to your tongue, you should not hesitate to try authentic Newari fare. The link to health and food is naught but an unpleasant fad, after all. And a few beers or a Khukuri Rum or six will transport you to a better place, a time when personkind's primordial love affair with the flavour-carrying quality of fat was a matter for celebration.
A few vegetarian dishes are also available at Harati and they are simple, unpretentious and pleasing. Most impressively, the restaurant offers seasonal dishes. Bhatmara approves. Big time.
Harati is in some ways a temple for joyful celebration of one rich sampling of Nepal's cultural diversity. Many of the tastes and textures are very unfamiliar to the outsider, but do yourself a favour, try it. You only live once. Food
Bhatmara Bhai now has email: [email protected]