Looking back at his childhood in Delhi, Raju Bhattrai recalls how hard his Nepalese parents worked. His mother had a job in an international clothing factory, while his father held various positions, including washing dishes, working for the Indian government’s ministry of welfare, and making prosthetic limbs. By the time he was 11, Bhattrai was buying groceries and making meals for his younger siblings, his mom having taught him how to make the traditional dishes of Nepal.
After a circuitous journey to Canada, he’s now sharing the flavours of the Himalayas with Vancouver as the new co-owner of Gurkha Himalayan Kitchen (1141 Davie Street).
Bhattrai completed a master’s degree in sociology in India, then relocated to Spain, where he planned to continue his work in education policy. However, he soon realized he missed being around food. He worked as a server and went to culinary school in Barcelona. When he and his wife started to have a family, they decided in 2013 to move to the Lower Mainland, a place he felt he and his family would feel safe as immigrants.
Once here, he waited on tables at White Spot, among other places, but when he learned from his former employers turned friends at Gurkha that they were selling the West End restaurant, he knew he wanted to make it his own. Teaming up with Prakash Adhikari, a chef originally from Nepal whom he met in Spain, Bhattrai is carrying on the culinary traditions he grew up with.
Although Gurkha has existed since 2013, it’s in a neighbourhood that could be called Vancouver’s new Little India, at least foodwise, with many recently opened restaurants. Within a few blocks on Davie Street are Mumbai Local, India Bistro, Davie Dosa Company, and Kinara Indian Cuisine. Each specializes in different types of food from that country, a reflection of the growing diversity of the region’s Indian population.
At the same time, many people mistakenly assume that Nepali cuisine is the same as Indian fare, Bhattrai explains during an interview at Gurkha, which is on the second level of a house that’s about 100 years old and has a hidden gem of a back patio decorated with hanging lights and flowering planters. While there are, of course, similarities between the two nations’ cuisines, with the use of ingredients like cumin, coriander, and ginger, the food of Nepal is distinct.
“Indian food is very good, but we’re not Indian food,” Bhattrai says. “We use freshly ground herbs and spices, but they’re not heavy spices. There’s also Chinese influence. It’s a tasty food, and you feel good after eating it. Gurkha is the kind of food we used to eat every day at home; this is like Mom’s kitchen.”
Both Bhattrai and Adhikari wear brimless caps, called Dhaka topi, emblazoned with images of two crisscrossed curved knives. Called kukri, these are the traditional weapons of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, who form an important part of the British Army. The blades, the national emblem of Nepal, are now mainly used for cooking.
Recipes call for jimbu, a dried Himalayan herb with a subtle garlic flavour, and dalle khursani, a type of red chili. There’s timut pepper, a grapefruitlike spice, and ajwain, or carom seed, which is in the same family as dill and caraway. Dishes also often contain black pepper, fenugreek, saffron, and cloves.
Menu items with an Asian influence include momos. The Tibetan-style steamed chicken dumplings are served with house-made hot sauce, mint sauce, and tomato-garlic sauce. Lhasa chow mein consists of soft noodles that are seasoned with soy sauce and fresh coriander and stir-fried with seasonal vegetables and tofu or chicken.
Served on a copper platter, dal bhat tarkari is a small feast with lentils, sautéed spinach, and lekaali taam, a Himalayan delicacy with bamboo shoots, black-eyed peas, and potatoes. There’s also warm house-made naan, basmati rice, green salad, garlic yogurt and mango sauce, rice pudding, and more.
Gurkha pulau is saffron basmati rice studded with cashews, raisins, green peas, and green onions. Pohkara lamb takes its name from a lakeside city in central Nepal, with the meat marinated for 24 hours in yogurt, ginger, garlic, and spices, then grilled.
Jackfruit and potatoes are cooked in rukh katahar’s light coriander and cumin sauce, while gorkhali khasi’s bone-in goat simmers in a curry sauce (and is one of Adhikari’s favourite dishes).
“When I was in high school, I began cooking with my mom,” Adhikari says. “I saw how busy she was; we are five kids. When I started helping her, I loved it. It makes me feel very happy. We are sharing Nepali culture this way.”