--By Archana Prajapati and Sushil Pangeni
Thakali dishes are one of the most preferred choices when it comes to authentic Nepali cuisines. Thakali restaurants or Bhanchha Ghars, as they are more commonly known, have become desirable places to eat for both local and foreign restaurant goers.
Over the ages, Thakalis have been known for preparing and serving delicious food. Thakali restaurants today have been carrying out an ambassadorial type of service by serving delicious food using traditional utensils with attractive interior decoration, and with staff wearing ethnic dresses offering typical Thakali hospitality.
The main identity of Thakali restaurants is to serve rice or dhnedo (porridge of buckwheat, millet or maize), Kalo Daal (black lentil) garnished with butter-fried Himalayan leaf garlic called Jimbu, potato and Sukuti (dry meat), chicken, lamb mutton and red pepper pickle along with other items.
There are around 600 Thakali Bhanchha Ghars across the country with around 400 in the Kathmandu valley alone. Muglin, Narayanghat, Butwal and pokhara are the places where a large number of Thakali eateries can be found outside the Kathmandu valley. Similarly, members of the Thakali community have also opened restaurants in Japan, Hong Kong, USA, UK, Australia and many other countries.
"A normal Thakali restaurant can be opened with an investment of Rs 100,000. Whereas, Rs 500,000-Rs 10 million is needed for middle and upper-middle level restaurants and above Rs 10 million for high standard ones," says Naresh Kumar Tulachan, General Secretary of Thakali Sewa Samiti, the social organisation of the Thakali community which now oversees the standards of Thakali restaurant business.
"The cost for opening restaurants depends on the type of furniture, type and qualities of utensils, kitchen decoration and dining room and the rent,” he mentions. According to him, Thakali restaurants are providing employment to around 5,000 people across the country.
Thakali people living in the Thak-Khola Valley created the Thakali cuisine which was a transition between himalayan and lowland dishes. Cooking and serving delicious food has been the main business activity of the Thakali community from the beginning. It gradually developed as family businesses over time. Similarly, the cuisine was served at inns run by Thakalis across the country which were known for serving first-class food and lodgings to domestic and foreign trekkers.
Currently, restaurants in the Kathmandu valley mainly attract Nepali customers while restaurants outside the capital and valley are serving domestic as well as international tourists. The restaurants now-a-days provide their guests with services like Wi-Fi, car parks and a home-like dining experience. Seeing the success of Thakali restaurant owners, people from other communities have also started to open similar restaurants, say entrepreneurs.
Thakali cuisine is famous for its distinctive taste, and for using typical ethnic utensils and decorations. The unique style of dish preparation is followed by an attractive presentation that gives it a different identity. Along with the already mentioned rice or Dhendo, Dal and curry with Jimbu, local chicken and goat meat, pickle of tomato and red pepper, Thakali food also consists of Gundruk (fermented leafy green vegetables) with soybean along with green cabbage and ghee served in typical Thakali plates and bowls. Similarly, other popular items are spinach soup known as Gyang-to, Ngsel – a leaf-based dish made from buckwheat and served with buckwheat pancakes, Leppakhu and Tasya- dishes prepared from goat head meat in a special manner and Ghuenti- a type of sausage prepared from the intestines, fat and other parts of a goat.
Restaurants- A Family Business
Thakali restaurants have gradually advanced with the development of transportation and have gained popularity. Generally, these eateries are run as family businesses. According to restaurateurs, Thakali restaurants mostly employ family members of the respective owners and hire workers outside the community if needed. “Currently, Chinese restaurants run by the families are gaining popularity everywhere in the world. In the future, Thakali restaurants can get similar recognition,” opines Tulachan, adding, “An example can be drawn from the US which has recently prioritised family business as an important medium to create employment.”
While these restaurants are mainly business affairs maintained by Thakali families, other people too are being attracted to the ethnic cuisine business. Himalyan Java has recently opened an exclusive Thakali restaurant at Naxal, Kathmandu. The Nepali coffee chain partnering with head chef Shambhu Basnet started operating Nilgiri Thakali Delights. It serves a variety of Thakali dishes including Dhendo/roti, Kanchhemba, Mustang Garliac, Garliac Fry and Mustang Alu and Thakali soups. According to Basnet, the restaurant is planning to open new outlets in Pulchowk and Durbargmarg.
According to Krishna Kumari Serchan, President of Thakali Sewa Samiti, new rules are going to be introduced for restaurants. The Samiti is forming a new committee to evaluate restaurants and set new standards for the quality of foods and other services. The committee will create a common logo for Thakali restaurants. The logo will be made mandatory for entrepreneurs to open and run Thakali restaurants. The Samiti has become the main body of the Thakali restaurants after the dissolution of the Thakali Restaurant Association a few months ago. It is planning to organise cooking classes for the new generation to maintain the quality of the authentic cuisines.
“The quality of taste has been changing with the passing generation. Besides that the entry of non-Thakali people into the Thakali restaurant business is becoming another challenge,” mentions Serchan. She says that the authentic taste cannot be maintained as people outside the community are opening Thakali restaurants randomly. “This can negatively impact the business that attracts a wide range of customers,” she claims.
“Unique taste of food and warm hospitality are key factors for the burgeoning Thakali restaurant business”
Why were you attracted to the Thakali restaurant business?
I had worked in Thakali restaurants for 17 years. Over the period, I noticed that Thakali dishes have become quite popular for both Nepalis and foreigners. The unique taste of the authentic Nepali cuisine and the warm Thakali hospitality are the key factors for the rising popularity.
I started my career as a waiter in a Thakali restaurant. I was taught very well about Thakali cuisines. I also went to Singapore and Korea to give training on Thakali food. I then realised the need to expand our typical and authentic dishes to bring the real taste of Nepal to the world. In the past, Thakali people used to think that letting others in this business poses a threat to their family business. However, their mentality has changed now-a-days. They now encourage people from other communities to open such eateries and meet the expectations of the customers as the population of the Thakali community is small.
How are you maintaining the taste of authentic Thakali dishes?
A food becomes delicious due to its ingredients. Typical Thakali dishes need ingredients found in the Himalayan region. But those ingredients can also be found in the high hills and other parts of the country. We bring the herbs and other ingredients from districts near the Kathmanu valley. Moreover, we bring all the special spices required to create the authentic taste even from Mustang and Manang also.
I personally visit markets to find the fresh spinach, local cucumber and other things. We have assigned separate employees to do the special and minute works in order to maintain the quality. Actually, all Thakali dishes are non-vegetarian. However, we provide both vegetarian and non-vegetarian items to our customers. Here, we offer typical Thakali dishes including Dhendo, Kanchhemba, Mustang Garlic, Sukuti, Mustang Alu and Thakali soups at affordable prices.
How is the restaurant progressing?
It has just been over two months since we opened the restaurant. Despite the short period we have garnered significant attraction. I find many customers coming repeatedly to the restaurant. Some come more than five times a month. This really encourages us to do further good in the hospitality sector.
Can you tell us about the investment needed to open a Thakali restaurant? How much do you earn a month?
Typically, to open a restaurant of this standard costs around Rs 10 million. I do not have the exact record of our monthly income, but we should make monthly savings of Rs 200,000-300,000.
Can you share some of your future plans?
We are planning to open two more outlets in the Kathmandu Valley. We have chosen Pulchowk and Durbargmarg. Similarly, we also have plans to open Thakali restaurants outside Nepal. Our first target is the United States. After the US, we will open outlets in the United Kingdom and other countries