Only five miles north of downtown Boston, in the hip town of Somerville close to the Tufts University campus sits a special restaurant: Masala. It is special not only because of its food but also because of its ethnic origin. In a city where Italian and Irish restaurants abound, Masala is one of only a handful of Nepalese restaurants in the the entire Boston region. Founded in 2011 by Binoj Pradhan, an entrepreneur active in Boston, the restaurant now serves both Nepali and Indian food. Its popularity has only gone up since its establishment 6 years ago and today draws alike both connoisseurs looking for a dip into an exotic cuisine and amateurs just looking for a hearty meal.
Masala owes the success of its menu to one person: Dammar Thapa. Although he did not have a hand in the restaurant’s initial opening, Dammar was recruited and made co-owner by Binoj in 2013. Dammar subsequently gained full control on all matters related to food. What followed was an escalation in foot traffic into the restaurant that Dammar and his staff wake up every morning relishing to satisfy!
Early Potential for Cooking
It was in 1994 that Dammar, still a young aspiring chef in Kathmandu, Nepal, decided to apply to a culinary training program organized there by the Australian government. Entry into the program was surprisingly tough: only 25 out of 2000 applicants were invited to enroll. Dammar was one of the lucky 25! For the next nine months, he applied himself tremendously to come out of the program a well qualified chef. He spent the next several years hopping between chef roles at some of the finest five star hotels in Kathmandu among which were Hotel Radisson and the Soaltee Crowne Plaza, arguably the biggest hotel in all of Nepal.
Coming to America
After highly successful stints in Nepal, Dammar decided to take a plunge into the unknown. In late 1997, he decided to to leave the country altogether and work for Carnival Miami Cruise. His path there was anything but straightforward though. He was denied a US employment visa not once but twice. But his talent proved to be the real winner when a representative from the cruise personally flew to Nepal to ensure Dammar’s visa. The third time was the charm and Dammar flew to Miami in 1999. For the next full year, he deftly served tourists visiting on the cruise, significantly broadening his experience in the process.
Striking It Out on His Own
He later decided though that a life in the seas was not for him. In 2000, he left his job at the cruise and determined to strike it out on his own as a chef in the American market. By 2001, he had moved to Boston where he has been ever since. His first major project in Boston was the Himalayan Bistro Restaurant, one of the earliest Nepalese restaurants in all of Massachusetts. At a time when Bostonians, or Americans anywhere else for that matter, were wholly unaware of Nepali cuisine, Dammar was a pioneer. He claims to have designed one of the very first Nepali food themed menus anywhere in New England and oh boy did customers love it! While many of his customers had prior exposure to Chinese or Indian food, virtually nobody had ever tasted Nepali food and some, needless to say, didn’t even know it existed. But Dammar, operating out of the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston where Himalayan Bistro is located, started to change that.
His work at the restaurant was soon covered in favorable light by both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. Nepali food, once unheard of anywhere in Boston, was soon on the map and although still not as widely known as some of its Asian counterparts, began its inexorably upward trajectory in the city in part due to these early efforts from Dammar’s side. After serving at Himalayan Bistro for a couple of years, he zeroed in on another opportunity in Sharon, Massachusetts. The result was a new restaurant by the name of Coriander Bistro where Dammar continued to display his skill for pure culinary magic, spreading the word about Nepali food even further afield in the state. A few years there and Dammar was ready for what is likely his most successful stint so far: Masala.
Success at Masala
In 2013, Dammar became the head chef and co-owner at Masala Restaurant. Only two years old at that time, Masala was still a young enterprise with a rapidly growing customer base. It was Dammar who has since overseen a dramatic increase in both the daily number of visiting customers and delivery orders. For its size, Dammar explains, Masala has an unusually large menu. The onus of doing justice to every item in it while keeping expectant customers satisfied is a balancing act he accomplishes with aplomb on a daily basis.
He passionately toils at the restaurant morning, noon, and night. Each new day starts with opening the restaurant around 11 in the morning, followed by routine inventory checks and a litany of other tasks that normally comes with operating a restaurant. He is in charge as well of the entire kitchen staff and plans out the whole day while expertly handling any moment to moment contingencies. Having worked here for a good four years now, he is well aware of the ebbs and flows of the business throughout the day and throughout the year. But he is ever vigilant of unpredictable spikes in the flow of people, especially on the weekends when large groups prefer to munch on the scrumptious all you can eat lunch buffet during the day and students from the nearby Tufts campus arrive for the restaurant’s famous $3 Margaritas and snacks at night.
Located just a brief walk away from the subway station in Davis Square, which in many ways has evolved to be the cultural heart of Somerville in recent decades, the restaurant is fairly convenient to reach from anywhere in Metro Boston. Once inside, customers are often awed by the soothing Himalayan music reverberating against walls filled with the finest Nepalese paintings. But as with any restaurant, Masala is Masala because of its food.
Masala offers all major food items conventionally served as part of Indian cuisine in North America. Whether it’s the famous chicken tikka masala and its close cousin the chicken korma or the stimulating Indian biryani and the curry-themed Vindaloo, Masala has it all. Dammar has worked hard to optimize the dishes to cater to American tastes. He explained that the vast majority of Indian dishes are simply too spicy for the American market. He admits therefore that the food served is somewhat modified to tone down the spiciness but he maintains that he will never compromise on taste.
What makes Masala special though is its additional suite of Nepalese dishes. It can go almost unsaid that Masala serves the famous “momo” which are specialized dumplings widely regarded as a signature component of Nepali food. Not radically different from traditional Chinese dumplings, momos are distinct both for the thinness of their external wheat wrap and the wide variety of sauces that they are often dipped in. The menu offers several varieties of it in addition to the generic steamed variant. The momos are indeed very popular at the restaurant and it is not surprising that the daily lunch buffet also has an all you can eat momo section.
The Nepalese menu at Masala is heavy on cuisine innovated by the Newars who are an ethnic group native to Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. The Newars, because of their centuries long inhabitation of the largest urban core in Nepal, are a diverse group who had significant commercial and cultural links to both Tibetans to the north and Indians to the south. Their central role in this cross civilizational exchange gave rise to a bewildering variety of food over the centuries. The Newari themed “Chhoyla” is without a doubt one of the most exotic items in the menu as is the “Sekuwa” which is variety of barbecue traditionally cooked on firewood.
While Kathmandu and its urban Newari residents historically formed the cultural center of Nepal, most of the country is actually mountainous and rural. The menu at Masala has not ignored the cuisine of these remote reaches of Nepal. “Tama”, a dish derived from bamboo, immediately comes to mind in this regard. Bamboo is often not considered edible but the denizens of Nepal’s high hills realized long ago that if cut and cooked at a young age, it is tender enough to be chewed and just sour enough to stimulate the taste buds. Just as exciting is another dish named “Sel” which is a slightly crunchy circular loop of wheat, also native to the mountains of Nepal.
Dammar says that the menu at the restaurant is fairly well established by now. But he is far from complacent. He constantly experiments with new dishes and tweaks recipes in his bid to strike the right formula for a new item worthy of the menu. His trials span the realms of both Nepali and Indian culinary traditions. He offers these experimental dishes for free to customers on multiple nights every week to gauge their response. If they like it, he might even put it on the next iteration of the menu! He also likes to keep pace with the changing tastes of customers and these special dishes he makes, he says, are a guard against obsolescence, always a threat in the food industry.
Vision for the Future
Dammar leads an active life outside of work as well. Although he likes to spend time with his family while not working, he is also an avid sports enthusiast. He is passionate about all four sports teams from Boston and especially about the Patriots! He is also a medium distance runner and often participates in community organized runs in addition to occasionally playing soccer with friends. But pastimes aside, he has a very grand vision for the future of Nepalese cuisine.
He correctly assesses that although Nepali cuisine has broken out from its shell in the global market, it is still seen as being a derivative of either Indian or Chinese food. Armed with social media and digital means, tools that were not even available when he started out as a chef, he aims to increase awareness about Nepali food which he hopes will someday have a separate identity in the manner that Thai or Vietnamese food, for example, already have.
According to him, Nepali cuisine has certain peculiarities that are not seen in any other cuisine in the world, including Chinese or Indian. The extremely mountainous terrain of Nepal and the resulting centuries long isolation it caused have made Nepal a petri dish for culinary experimentation. Dammar believes that the time is now ripe for the jewels of this petri dish to transcend their so far insular confines and enter the world at large. He hopes to be an important part of the commercialization of these exotic dishes in the future.