The allure of Nepal, famed for its breathtaking mountain vistas and adventurous trekking trails, has always been a traveler’s dream. Yet, its culinary offerings, deeply rooted in the country’s rich diversity, remain lesser-known on the international stage. Enter Santosh Shah, who set out to change that narrative, not only by introducing the world to a myriad of Nepali dishes but also by challenging the conventional representation of Nepali cuisine.
Shah, originating from Siraha district in eastern Nepal, achieved international acclaim as the first Nepali victor of the BBC‘s MasterChef: The Professionals, Rematch in 2021. His appearance on the show became a milestone in showcasing the culinary variety of Nepal, a country comprising over 100 distinct ethnic and indigenous groups. While dishes like momos (dumplings) and daal-bhaat-tarkari (rice, lentils, and vegetables) have become popular representations, the true depth of Nepal’s food culture is still waiting to be explored.
During his MasterChef journey, Shah served an array of dishes that transported British palates straight to Nepal. He served spicy buffalo ribs, the sweet delicacy yomari from the Newa community, and an 18-dish vegan extravaganza featuring flavors from the Madhesh province of his childhood. He also introduced the judges to traditional rice wine, cherished by various indigenous communities for festivities and religious rituals.
Taking inspiration from his journey, Shah ventured into the restaurant business, unveiling a culinary haven in Janakpur, emphasizing dishes from the Mithila region. With aspirations to branch out, Shah envisions expanding this culinary concept to Kathmandu and to regions with a significant Nepali diaspora.
Kathmandu already houses gems like Raithaane, co-owned by Prashanta Khanal. The restaurant strives to bring lesser-known ethnic dishes to the forefront. Khanal, also an author, sheds light on Nepal’s varied food culture through his writings and the cookbook “Timmur”, inspired by a spice resembling the Sichuan pepper. His efforts resonate with Shah’s ambitions of globalizing Nepali cuisine.
However, amid the rise in popularity of indigenous food, it’s essential to address the concerns of Binti Gurung, a food historian. Gurung stresses the importance of narrating indigenous communities’ philosophies and histories while presenting their cuisines. Promoting their food without acknowledging their stories can be seen as a mere commercial exploitation of their cultural and historical richness.
Addressing these concerns, both Shah and Khanal emphasize their initiatives to uplift local communities. Shah’s restaurant, for instance, hires single mothers from the Madheshi community, while Khanal’s Raithaane sources ingredients from diverse ethnic groups.
While Shah aims to propel Nepali cuisine to global fame, leveraging his celebrity status, Khanal believes it may be a longer journey. Drawing parallels with South Korean cuisine, which surged globally due to K-pop, films, and strategic campaigns, Khanal points out the need for a broader soft power strategy for Nepali food to achieve similar recognition.
As these chefs chart the path forward, the world gets a taste of Nepal’s rich culinary tapestry, challenging and redefining perceptions of Nepali food.