Like many newbies to this particular region of cuisine, I was unsure of the differences between Nepali and Indian food. Even within the countries themselves, there are variations and specialties from one region to another. With so much complexity and nuance, it can be intimidating, even a little overwhelming. Both the ingredients and the flavor profiles can be similar. Some claim that Nepali food uses less ghee, cream and sugar, so it is usually lighter than Indian food. Others say that typical Nepalese food begins with a curry and rice first of all. Perhaps the differences simply come down to the subtle choices of four or five spices or blends, such as garam masala, cumin and coriander powders, the hot sauce, or the cooking technique used.
If you ask Arzun Chuhan, chef and co-owner of Namaste Restaurant and Bar (4915 Hampton Avenue, 314-696-8585)he will agree that there is some truth to all of these statements, but he will also tell you that it is all about the “taste of home”.
Originally from Bhutan, Chuhan’s parents immigrated to Nepal and, after almost 20 years, fulfilled their dream of coming to the US in 2010 when they arrived in St. Louis with a teenage Chuhan. Since high school, he has been working in the kitchens of the city’s Nepalese, Indian and Ethiopian restaurants, where he developed his dream: to give St. Louis its own version of the food from his upbringing.
It’s a taste of home, but done your way.
Namaste’s menu, which includes both Nepalese and Indian dishes, showcases the fusion of Chuhan’s previous restaurant experience with his Nepalese heritage. You can still order many Indian favorites such as chicken tikka masala, various vindaloos, tandoori dishes, biryanis, and samosas. Yet even with these popular Indian staples, Chuhan has added his own twist by approaching each dish from a perspective shaped by its origin.
Take, for example, Chicken 65, a popular Indian appetizer of fried chicken in a spicy tomato sauce. My original plan was to stick to exploring exclusively Nepalese dishes, but I decided to throw this into the mix on the recommendation of my waitress Dwivida. Being a big fan of the spicy appetizer, I didn’t need much convincing. However, what arrived at the table was a lighter and more tender version of what he had enjoyed countless times before. Spiced with a typical Nepalese-style mix, it was delicious and offbeat. I couldn’t stop eating the tender morsels of well-seasoned chicken. If this was any indication of things to come, I was in for an exciting and delicious ride.
I knew it was imperative to order momos, the quintessential Nepalese dumpling. But he wasn’t sure where to start. Vegetarian or chicken filling? Steamed or fried with chutney for dipping? Bathed in a spicy chili sauce (chili momo) or swim in a tasty and aromatic tomato-based soup (jhol momo)? I landed on trying two variations. First, I ordered the steamed chicken. momos to get a pure base for the flavors and textures of the dumpling. The filling, which consisted of minced chicken, onions, herbs, and spices, was juicy and flavorful, and the plain flour wrapper was soft and chewy. It was served with a spicy chili chutney. For him momo jholI chose the vegetable stuffing, which was just as tasty as the chicken. The meatballs lay nestled in a bowl of sauce-like, reddish-orange soup, light but savory, with herbs and spices balanced with just the right amount of tartness. My verdict is that you can’t go wrong with any of the momos Just make sure to ask for some.
The chicken choyla is another Nepalese favourite. Tender boneless chicken pieces are marinated in lime, mustard oil, and fenugreek, then tossed with onions, peppers, garlic, and herbs. It can be served hot or cold. Either way, it’s another example of a brilliant and flavorful course that won’t overwhelm you.
i met the chicken thupka several times in my research as I prepared for my trip to Nepali food. However, when I got to Namaste, I didn’t see it on the printed menu. Because it was such a labor intensive dish, it turned out that they were only making it to order. Once I tasted the delicious spice-packed broth, I immediately fell in love. Stretchy, chewy noodles rested just below the surface, and crispy pork rind-like pieces of chicken lay on top along with thinly sliced scallions and coriander leaves. I have a feeling that thupka it will find its way back to the print version of the menu once customers discover how heavenly this dish is.
I couldn’t stop trying Tali. Literally translated as “dish,” this typical Nepalese food has similar iterations in India, South and Southeast Asia, and even the Caribbean. Served on an emblematic circular silver tray, the Tali it is filled with little bowls, each filled with various components of the meal. The Namaste version begins with your choice of curry (vegetable, pork, chicken, lamb, or fish) served at your desired level of spiciness. A bowl contains daal, a mild yellow lentil soup, and another is filled with a refreshing and tangy yogurt. then there is one with Gulab jamun, a milk dumpling served in rose water and sugar syrup, a familiar dessert commonly found in Indian and Nepalese meals. Everything is served with rice, fresh cucumber, carrot, cooked lettuce and find, a seasonal fermented pickle; a scaly naan Flat bread; Y dad, a crispy lentil wafer. Each component except the Gulab jamun, is usually mixed together to create perfect bites. For example, yogurt and daal can be used to balance the spiciness of the curry.
When Chuhan talks about Namaste food being a taste of home, it seems to me that what he is saying is that food is about comfort, but not necessarily in the way we might think. It’s not about heavy dishes that make you want to take a nap afterwards. Rather, it is about soulful and transporting flavors. When Chuhan says he’s “done his way,” he means he’s incorporated his perspective and voice into every dish, and every dish is driven by love, not ego.
Chuhan’s menu and recipes continue to evolve. Just over eight months after his first restaurant (which he runs with his brother Robert and several other family members), Chuhan urges his past customers to revisit Namaste to see how the dishes have developed since then. its opening. He also has exciting things planned for the Dashain and Diwali festivals, some of the biggest Hindu celebrations, this October. Lastly, Chuhan is pleased to announce that the restaurant recently obtained a liquor license and will soon be introducing Indian beers, rums and whiskeys. I will eagerly return to work my way through more of the menu, learning more about Nepalese cuisine and Chuhan’s perspective on it.