In Kathmandu, the Nepalese chef making authentic Sichuan food
San-Dai has never visited China but speaks fluent Mandarin and is catering to Nepal’s Chinese tourists.
Kathmandu, Nepal – Back in 2011, on the day Ramesh Bishwokarma opened his restaurant in the packed tourist quarter of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, his very first Chinese customer walked in, saw Nepalese workers inside, then turned around and left.
“I ran up to him and asked him, Why? Was it the cost? Was it the menu? Was it the fact that Nepalese were cooking Chinese food?” he recalls.
Ramesh, who everyone calls San-Dai, a term of endearment in Nepal for someone who is like an older brother, is speaking at his restaurant, New Chong Qing Wei, where he is cook and owner.
Speaking in Mandarin, the customer asked him whether he could cook Chinese food. San-Dai, who by then had been cooking Sichuan food for four years, replied in Mandarin, and asked him to order something.
“After he ate, he messaged his other friends about a Nepalese man cooking Sichuan food – and all of them walked in,” recalls 31-year-old San-Dai with a hint of pride.
The modest interior of the restaurant, with its benches covered in imitation leather, is a stark contrast to the glorious flavours of the dishes San-Dai serves.
In the outdoor area under an awning of zinc sheets, four Chinese men smoke incessantly and dig into cold buffalo in mala sauce, the numbing flavour of which comes from Sichuan peppercorn (or timur, as it is known in Nepal). Indoors, in the private dining section, a group of six customers from Beijing dig into Dou Ban Yu – whole fish in spicy bean sauce. This is their first time in Nepal, and they learned about San-Dai’s restaurant from friends who had eaten there before.
On Jyatha, the lane where New Chong Qing Wei is located, Chinese tourists stretch out their selfie sticks. Jyatha is in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district. It hums with life, but Thamel is no longer the realm of the mountaineers and trekkers who once popularised it. Now, it is the Chinese who travel to Nepal the most, after Indians, for whom the open border offers convenient access.
In 2002, Nepal was the first South Asian country to become an “approved destination” for Chinese visitors. As the number of tourists began to increase, totalling more than 100,000 Chinese visitors for the first time in 2013, restaurants like New Chong Qing Wei started to emerge.
Even so, New Chong Qing Wei is an outlier in the midst of nearly 150 Chinese-owned restaurants that operate in Thamel today – not just because it is Nepalese-owned, but because San-Dai excels at cooking Sichuan cuisine and speaks Mandarin despite never having set foot in China. His restaurant is a microcosm of the larger tourism boom associated with the arrival of Chinese people in Nepal and the need for local entrepreneurs to adapt to this new reality by learning new skills.
After the 2015 earthquake, Nepal announced a visa fee waiver to encourage Chinese tourists to return. The country is expecting at least 350,000 Chinese visitors during Visit Nepal Year 2020, more than double the 150,000 who came in 2018.
Thamel has responded to the influx with signs in Mandarin advertising hotels and restaurants. It is not uncommon to hear street hawkers selling their wares in Mandarin.
There are no exact numbers confirming how many Chinese businesses operate in Thamel, but a government document suggests that Chinese-backed businesses in Nepal would account for almost half the 14,000 jobs brought to the country by foreign direct investment.
Xian Tang, who runs the Jialin Pavilion restaurant in Jyatha, employs six Nepalese workers. She started the restaurant with her husband nearly five years ago and explains, with the help of an interpreter, that it has been relatively easy running a business in Kathmandu.
“Earlier, governments would change every nine months. Nepal is more politically stable now, so the number of Chinese tourists has been increasing,” she says.
Xian, who is from China’s Shandong Province, says she and her husband came to Kathmandu after friends told her it is a “nice place without too many problems”.
A new job
Watching San-Dai cook, it is evident he relies on his culinary instincts as much as on recipes. He modifies the balance of spices according to his clientele, especially if they are regulars.
Back in 2007, San-Dai was taking Japanese lessons, ready to join the thousands of Nepalese who move abroad to work as unskilled labour, when he was offered a job at a Chinese restaurant in Thamel owned by a man named Wang Chu Wei from Chongqing, China. It was the beginning of the Chinese tourism boom.
“I was ready to go to Japan, and someone told me Thamel would be a good place for me to practice my Japanese. So I started doing the dishes at this restaurant which was run by a Chinese man, and was popular with Asian tourists,” he explains.
Within a few days, he was chopping vegetables and learning Mandarin.
“[Wei] taught me a few words, and I taught him some English,” San-Dai recalls. He cannot read Mandarin but speaks it fluently.
Learning to cook Sichuan food
A year into the job, Wei fell ill and wanted to shut down the restaurant. San-Dai had picked up bits and pieces of Sichuan recipes and felt confident about starting to cook. “I asked him to keep it open,” he says. Wei agreed to let him try running the kitchen.
“A customer asked for fish in pickled cabbage – Suan Cai Yu – and I wasn’t fully sure of the recipe. But [while cooking] I kept tasting the dish, adding spices as I thought it should be. That was the first Chinese dish I ever served.”
On his first day on his own, San-Dai handed Wei 42,000 Nepalese rupees (about $370) in earnings. He asked Wei to teach him more of the Sichuan cuisine from the Chinese city of Chongqing.
He taught me for three years. I noted down his recipes and worked on the dishes according to my taste. Finally, when he thought I had learned enough, he told me I could now open my own restaurant.
“He taught me for three years. I noted down his recipes and worked on the dishes according to my taste. Finally, when he thought I had learned enough, he told me I could now open my own restaurant.”
San-Dai has fond memories of Wei, who has since returned home. “He taught me when I didn’t know anything about food, and now I can call myself a cook because of him,” he says. “The man treated me like a son.”
In 2011, San-Dai, together with a few Nepalese friends, opened his restaurant, named in honour of Wei, his city and its cuisine. “I called it ‘New Chong Qing’ because, well, here I am, a Nepalese, cooking food from Chongqing in Kathmandu,” he says.
San-Dai’s friends pulled out in 2015, after the earthquake, and he now runs the place with his brother, who assists him in the kitchen, while his wife and father help with customers.
San-Dai hopes to visit China one day. “I want to see how Sichuan chefs cook,” he says “and try that here”.
Cultural ties – then and now
Contact between the Chinese and Nepalese can be traced back to the fifth century with travelling Buddhist monks such as China’s Fa Xian and Nepal’s Buddhabhadra. Culinary exchanges go back to the seventh century, when, as Nepalese historian VK Manandhar writes, Nepal’s kings sent “a ‘bitter leaf vegetable’ resembling lettuce … and an aromatic ‘Western celery'” to the ancient Tang dynasty court.
Depending on who you ask, the first stand-alone, authentic Chinese restaurant in Kathmandu opened sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, although a few Chinese restaurants in high-end hotels served what is now known as Indian-Chinese cuisine.
Balaram Adhikari, a Mandarin-speaking tour guide, says one reason Thamel is bustling with Chinese restaurants today is because Chinese travellers seek out their own cuisine when they are abroad. Around 2010, Adhikari says there were no more than “four or five” Chinese restaurants in Thamel, but the numbers have risen since 2012. “Now, one can find even street-side vendors selling Chinese snacks here,” Adhikari says, referring to foods like chicken feet.
Today, both San-Dai and Xian purchase their spices from Chinese-owned stores that import them directly from Sichuan. “Before the earthquake, I would go to Zhangmu on the border to buy the goods. Now there are at least 10 Chinese stores in Kathmandu,” San-Dai says.
Ingredients are imported from China using the land route via Gyirong, the proposed railhead for the ambitious trans-Himalayan railway project.
Relations between the Chinese-owned businesses and Nepalese patrons are cordial. “Locals tell me they like my restaurant,” Xian says, “and although competition has increased with new businesses, that’s a good thing, because more tourists are also coming.”
However, the increased competition poses problems for local entrepreneurs, especially when it comes to capital investment. In 2017, San-Dai was asked to move his restaurant from its previous location, a prime ground-floor spot on the main street, when a Chinese-owned restaurant offered the landlord twice the rent he had been paying.
The growing number of Chinese travellers means that there is a transformation under way in Thamel, which has evolved from the traditional Nepalese neighbourhood it once was.
Nepalese writer Rabi Thapa, who has documented the history of Thamel, highlights wider concerns that the neighbourhood could lose its “distinctive modern Nepalese character”.
“Thamel has always adapted through waves of development in the past. The question is whether the scale of the Chinese wave is too much for a smallish place like Thamel,” he says.
“While some of us frequent the new Chinese restaurants, the Chinese businesses are mostly for the Chinese,” Thapa adds.
The government is also concerned about the use of Chinese digital wallets such as WeChat and Alipay, which were banned in Nepal in May 2019 because they violate Nepal’s banking laws with payments technically bypassing the country as the transactions are made between Chinese accounts. Although Alipay said it would formally start its service in Nepal, it has not yet. “If we legalise online payments, and transactions can be taxed, it can benefit Nepal,” says Adhikari.
Negotiating changes in Nepal
Tourism is a vital part of the burgeoning bilateral relationship.
Tourism brought more than $615m to the Nepalese economy in 2018, a year when average tourist spending in Nepal fell to $44 a day, the lowest in seven years. But Chinese tourists offered a silver lining for the country.
“According to operators, Chinese tourists spend around $100 per day,” says Sangam Prasain, business editor at the Kathmandu Post.
Thamel business owners say that without Chinese tourists, it would be difficult for them to run their operations. For its 2020 tourism initiative, the government is trying to bring in more tourists by waiving climbing fees for some Himalayan peaks and appointing Chinese actress Xu Qing as a tourism goodwill ambassador.
As bilateral relations deepen between the two countries, more and more Chinese businesses like Xian’s restaurant will open in Thamel, while local Nepalese entrepreneurs like San-Dai and Adhikari will inevitably have to adapt. The competition is creating new anxieties for local entrepreneurs. But in a tourism-dependent economy like that of Nepal, there is little choice but for them to negotiate these changes as best they can.
“Even if there are no other Chinese restaurants in Thamel tomorrow, and Chinese tourists stop coming, I’ll still be here,” San-Dai says.