It was a dinner we’d looked forward to with great anticipation; a cultural event where one of our favourite chefs would share with us the food of his homeland and his life journey.
“I would love to invite you and a guest to join me on a culinary journey, sharing with you flavours and recipes from my childhood growing up in Khandbari Nepal, a small rural village.
Along with my Chef de Partie Digamber Shrestha, we will prepare our favourite Nepalese recipes using contemporary techniques.”
(Executive Chef, Intercontinental Sanctuary Cove Resort)
Yet as the event drew nearer, we were filled with mixed emotions.
Just a few days before the dinner, a massive earthquake took place in Nepal with catastrophic results. Besides those killed and injured, hundreds of thousands were without such basic necessities as water, shelter and food.
The irony was not lost on us, that we were taking an indulgent culinary journey to bridge boundaries and gain understanding while in Nepal so many were struggling to get food to survive!
But with both Nepalese chefs’ families safe (though Para’s family was still living in a tent for fear that buildings may collapse), they made the decision to proceed with the dinner, raising funds for earthquake relief as well as cultural awareness.
I’ll admit to knowing very little about Nepal besides its geographic location – a pillow-shaped country bordering the Himalayas. Nepal is culturally diverse with several different ethnic groups, each with their own cuisine. Dishes also are influenced by the cultures of surrounding nations, particularly India, China and Tibet.
Chef Para’s village, Khandbari, is the capital of North-Eastern Nepal close to the Chinese border. As a youth, part of his family role was foraging for food in the surrounding countryside. He took milk to the market before school; freshly picked vegetables and fruit in the afternoon. Cooking was a common activity in his childhood, and seeing the hard work put in by farmers, Para decided to become a chef. He had little money and, after attending university in Kathmandu, two days’ walk and a 12 hour horse ride away from his home, his working life began the hard way. Coming from a country town, he had no contacts, so he worked for ten months for free doing night shift as the only worker. Para worked in the Kathmandu Hyatt, in the Intercontinental Dubai and San Francisco before coming to Australia.
“Food was so much a part of our daily life, that you ooze passion for food,” he told us. “Food took a lot of hard work to grow, but we used what we had right there. When you butchered a chicken, you’d throw the liver onto the fire to cook. We’d use every part of the chicken.”
It was a theme seen throughout the dinner: nose to tail meat consumption and the use of seasonal produce at hand; influences which we see reflected in The Fireplace’s own menus.
We began the dinner with small tastes, which in Nepal are often served with drinks. Some of these tastes were familiar (Spiced potato salad, Fulaura or lentil balls, Beef Choila – similar to a dry rendang curry with mustard oil, and Lamb Sekuwa – grilled lamb skewers), but other dishes such as Poleko khurako kalejo – Fried sheep stomach, lung and liver were far more challenging. A Nepalese delicacy, this was definitely not my favourite dish of the night!
A succession of dishes followed after we are seated:
• Pakora made with lentils, buckwheat and potato. While rice dishes such as Pulao are common in some parts of Nepal, rice does not grow in the mountainous region where Para lives, so other grains such as buckwheat are often used instead.
• Lamb sekuwa (absolutely delicious grilled marinated lamb) eaten with beaten rice (chiura) and tomato pickle (achar), the mysterious condiments on the table, whose use puzzled us.
• Steamed barramundi with Nepalese fish jelly, fried spiced whitebait, fermented garlic and spiced okra pickle – the melt-in-your-mouth fish was well complemented by the exotic condiments.
• Chicken Momo. The momo were delicious! These Tibetan-style dumplings have a filling of chicken and Nepalese spices, encased in flour dough. In Nepal, they’re served steamed or fried, accompanied by dips and pickles. Heavier than a Chinese dumpling, they’re a popular and hearty street food snack, commonly sold from big steamers on the sidewalk.
• Yomari, a classic dessert using Para’s mother’s own recipe. This dessert made from palm sugar and sesame filling encased in a rice flour pastry is considered a delicacy. A little similar in consistency to Japanese mochi, the Yomari’s triangular shape is said to represent one half of shadkona, the symbol of wisdom. The Yomari were served with Kurauni, a dessert where fermented milk is reduced with coconut to achieve a marshmallow-like consistency.
Of course, having the chef explain the menu has many side benefits, including the discussion of food philosophy. Para spoke of the values he engenders in his staff: how important it is to love what you do, to greet and farewell every diner who enters the restaurant, to study and take inspiration from the best chefs in the world and their recipes, to be creative with ingredients. “There are so many things you can make using a carrot,” he says.
Most of all, the first step on the journey is to be self-aware. Get involved in life. Look at how you can make changes for the better every day. Take the freedom to do what you truly enjoy. Love what you do and love more what you do – put your heart and energy into it.
Eloquently yet humbly, Para took us beside him on his journey from the Himalayas to where he is today. Tables turned, we were the ones who were displaced as diners, turning to each other: “What is this? How do we eat it?”
Nepalese food and the Nepalese way of life may be very different to ours, however the same principles apply in both places – take what you need, use it to the best of your ability, and strive to improve your world.
There was a richness of spirit, positivity and generosity to match an evening of food rich with flavour and culture. With our ‘first world’ materialism turned on its head somehow as Para spoke, $50 notes found their way into the brass container, adding to the IHG’s substantial donation through their charity Shelter In A Storm.
Disclaimer: Good Food Gold Coast were guests of The Intercontinental Sanctuary Cove Resort.
Recipe courtesy of Executive Chef Parashuram Pathak.