Nepali Asian Restaurant: Uttam Tamang, the manager and owner of Nepali Asian restaurant, takes careful attention to greet every customer with a firm handshake and a warm smile. After showing them to their brightly colored booths, he turns to an associate and orders in swift Nepali; a plate of perfectly formed veg momos, and pork sekwa (Nepali-style roast pork) for a group of young Bhutanese men on their lunch break.
The restaurant’s location in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood was not made at random. Carrick is a quiet, working class neighborhood located just ten minutes from metro Pittsburgh, and is home to one of the largest population of resettled Bhutanese/Nepali refugees in the United States. Carrick, with its easy access to public transportation and affordable housing proved a prime choice for immigrants looking to start again.
Carrick’s main shopping center is divided neatly in either direction – to the left stands a Rite Aid, Pizza Hut and Good Year, to the right – a grocery store specializing in South Asian ingredients, a landscaping company advertising their services in Nepali, and the new Nepali Asian Restaurant.
“This place is relatively new, I’ve only been opened for two and a half months”, says Tamang, who previously operated a local Nepali grocery store. Since opening the restaurant with his two brothers and friend at the helm, this family run restaurant has seen success with both Americans and Bhutanese/Nepalis alike. Bhutanese patrons chat in Nepali while taking turns at the buffet, filling their plates with fresh curries, red rice and daal, a staple of the Bhutanese diet. I watch Tamang move attentively, deftly, gently inquiring if patrons are enjoying their food with a genuinely friendly and welcoming air.
“Gross National Happiness”: Uttam Tamang is originally from Bhutan, a small, independent, himalayan kingdom, located at the crossroads between China and India, with a modest population of less than 1 million people. Due to isolationist foreign policy and relative size, Bhutan remains a mystery to much of the Western world. It is a country perhaps most famously known for its system of “Gross National Happiness” as an alternative to conventional measures of development. It is often touted as one of the ‘happiest’ countries on Earth. This purported happiness, however, did not emerge without great human cost.
The Bhutanese immigrants first came to Nepal as refugees from Bhutan in the 1990s, seeking refuge after an ethnic cleansing initiative led by the King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and the Buddhist elites of the royal government. His “One Nation, One People”, policy imposed mandatory dress codes, cultural homogenization and citizenship annulment laws, all aimed at silencing the ethnic Nepalese/Hindu minority, also known as the Lhotsampa. When peaceful pro-democracy protests began in response to these laws, the kingdom responded with harsh violence. A mass exodus of approximately 100,000 Lhotsampa into neighboring Nepal and the West Sikkim region of India began in late 1990.
Soon after, official camps were established to accommodate the exodus of people. Many migrants resided in those camps for more than a decade prior to resettling in another country. Many children and young adults were born in these camps – having never set foot in their ancestral homeland of Southern Bhutan.
Since 2008, the U.S. State Department has resettled more than 2,000 Bhutanese refugees directly from Nepali refugee camps to Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas as a part of the UNHCR’s Third-Country resettlement program. According to data compiled by the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, approximately 5,000 ethnically Bhutanese currently live in the city. Most of them are second-wave migrants – meaning legal immigrants who’ve followed friends and family members to Pittsburgh from other American cities for the same reasons immigrants landed here centuries ago: a growing job market, a wealth of educational opportunities and an established, tight-knit community. Pittsburgh, with its verdant hillsides and mountainous topography, reminds many of the migrants of the foothills of Southern Bhutan.
Overall, the Bhutanese community in Pittsburgh is a vibrant community that is steadily growing both in numbers and in influence, evident from the rows of Bhutanese/Nepali owned businesses emerging in the market district and Bhutanese community leaders being elected to local neighborhood councils. Nepali grocery stores, clothing shops and cafes line the strip malls of Brownsville road, selling all things from hard-to-find spices, saris, cigarettes, to incense and religious icons. Nepali language signs adorn a variety of storefronts, mixing in seamlessly with established American businesses. The population of resettled refugees has slowly been able to build lives for themselves that closely resemble the ones they were forced to leave behind.
Leaving the lands and farms on which they had grown oranges, rice and lentils for generations is painful for many of the migrants to recall. Many migrants, understandably, are reluctant to talk about the traumatic memories they have been forced to carry with them over many borders. Behind closed doors, fear and anxiety paralyze those who are still adapting to a country, language culture that they don’t understand.
Despite all of this, it can be said that Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese population is thriving. Bhutanese businesses have become part of the fabric of Carrick. And despite the education and language barriers, young people are getting jobs and degrees, and children are often the ones helping their elderly relatives fill the gaps of linguistic and cultural miscommunications. The Bhutanese Community Association was established in 2010, and has since provided recreational activities, community events, youth programming and ESL/civic education classes for older migrants looking to pass their citizenship tests.
Uttam is happy that his long journey home has ended in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He smiles as he recalls playing soccer his teenage years. He feels thankful that many of the people he had grown up with have all found themselves in the neighborhood of Carrick. I see light return to his eyes as he describes how a rival restaurant owner used to sit next to him in school.
“Most of my childhood friends are spread out across the country”, he explains, gesturing vaguely into the distance, “Utah. Chicago. Michigan. All different states…” His voice trails off, lost in thought.
The Food: As I walked into the restaurant, I was immediately greeted by fragrant aromas of cinnamon, cardamom, and other warming spices. It was later in the afternoon, and a small crowd of both American and ethnically Bhutanese customers gleefully chat with Mr. Tamang as he makes his rounds through the hum of it all, making sure that orders run smoothly, sharing laughs with regulars and making sure to receive each customer as they are seated into their colorful booths. The restaurant’s seasoned chef, who spent ten years in India as a cook, is solely responsible for the array of dishes designed to please both American and Nepali palates. Day and night, he works tirelessly; delicately folding together juicy momos and crushing spices for curries. While there is an option for a lunch buffet, I opted for the menu options, each approved by Mr. Tamang himself. I ordered a plate of their signature chicken momos, Nepali-style chow mein, and a mango lassi to wash it all down. Momos are perhaps the most famous Nepalese dish in the west, a plump, petite pocket of ground meat elevated by a symphony of ginger, coriander, tumeric, cinnamon, shallots, garlic and cardamom. Momos are the default dumpling native to South Asia; Nepal and the West Sikkim region of India. The dish bears resemblance to the Japanese gyoza and Chinese baozi in form, yet it is set apart by a unique blend of spices. These momos were spectacular specimens of the Nepalese delicacy. The thickness of the wrapper perfectly encased the the fillings without becoming waterlogged or gummy – not too thin or heavy in the slightest, but just right. The accompanying peanut tomato chutney, was a lovely mix of tangy tomatoes, creamy peanuts with a kick courtesy of a healthy dose of chili. While each dumpling is a flavorful solo act, it is the rich, spicy, flavor of the dipping sauce that creates a truly remarkable duet.
For my main course, I went for the Nepali style chow-mein, recommended to me by a few other diners. Chow-mein is a dish with which most Americans have some familiarity, one could make the argument that it has been permanently adopted under the umbrella of westernization. Incredibly popular throughout the Chinese diaspora, chow mein roughly translates to ‘stir fried noodles’. It is perhaps one of the most globalized dishes in the world, with almost every country putting the dish through a regional twist to suit the tastes of the local population. Nepali style chow mein was brought into Nepal via Tibet, where it has become one of the country’s most popular fast foods, ubiquitous with the food vendors lining the busy streets of large Nepali cities such as Kathmandu. Soft noodles are tossed with an assortment of spices and fresh vegetables and herbs, creating a unique textural experience. The brown, soy-based sauce delicately covered each noodle, careful not to overwhelm the delicate flavor of cooked red bell peppers, cabbage and long beans. Garnishes of fresh green onion, chili paste, coriander leaves, lime wedges add a unique depth to the dish, as do the toothsome yet tender pieces of fried goat meat.
The arrival of the mango lassi is a welcome, refreshing sight. The creamy, sweet, and deliciously satisfying blend of mango pulp, milk and yogurt offers a wonderfully chilly reprieve from the onslaught of spice.
The menu itself is small, yet diverse, with Nepalese fare that would satisfy both picky American eaters and purists of South Asian cuisine. Americans come in as tourists looking to take a trip through plates. For Carrick’s population of resettled refugees, it is a taste of nostalgia, a reminder of a life, of a culture in flux. Migration is often described as a prolonged period of disorientation, and it is perhaps these small luxuries such as authentic, homemade food, are enough to help reorient oneself.
“The Lives We Build”: When I ask Tamang to speak more to his childhood, to put into words the arduous journey to create a home, he politely declines. “All that matters…is the life I am building here.The delicious food, vibrant sense of community, and welcoming staff at Nepali Asian restaurant make for a truly unique experience. Diners not only leave with a feeling of nourished satisfaction, but also a sense of deep peace with the world. One cannot help but think about the concept home, and community, and the complete isolation one often feels in increasingly segregated American neighborhoods and cities. Perhaps the idea of home goes beyond arbitrary lines drawn in the sand, beyond borders, beyond culture and language. Perhaps it is something, instead, that is internal: a deep feeling that we all possess. Perhaps home is something you create, slowly, over time, brick by brick, or plate by plate.
I would like to thank the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh for helping to make this article happen.
Nepali Asian Restaurant
2122 Brownsville Rd, Pittsburgh, PA 15210
About the Author
Erica Hom is a writer, advocate, daughter of immigrants, hobby cook and lover of global cuisine. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Russian literature from the University of Pittsburgh. She works in the nonprofit field, and has a passion for helping immigrants rebuild their lives in the Pittsburgh area.