Himalaya view, Mustang region, Nepal. Photo: Patricia Sauer
The repetitive motion is almost dizzying. A table-full of hands pinch and fold, pinch and fold the endless circles of dough that hug morsels of meat or vegetable filling. These pleated pouches with their distinctive little well in the center will become juicy Nepalese momos. Every day, Binita Pradhan (known affectionately as Bini) and her crew assemble thousands of stuffed momo dumplings, plus an array of other foods, to share her love of her native Nepalese cuisine. It seems to be working, as Bini’s Kitchen Restaurant sells about 15,000 momos a week in locations such as a kiosk near the Montgomery BART station, the San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market, Fort Mason’s Off the Grid, plus markets and street festivals around the city.
Making momos by the tray
But there is a deeper reason behind Bini’s determination to succeed. It stems from the night that changed her life. After suffering for nine years in an abusive relationship, she finally couldn’t take the pain any longer, so she took her 4 year old son and found her way to a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Now, after years of support from her family, friends and the people at La Cocina (San Francisco’s incubator kitchen that cultivates low income food entrepreneurs), Bini wants to return the favor. Her ultimate goal is to use her success to help other immigrant women, who find themselves in a similarly painful predicament.
Bini with her addictive momos and chutney
Memories of Kathmandu
Food memories inevitably lead back to childhood. Bini fondly recalls, “huge family gatherings where we sat in the kitchen, making our own dough and then all making momos together. We would make a batch, eat them, and make another batch. Back home, the boys could eat 65 of them at one sitting.” Dumplings, which are eaten in various forms around the world, are believed to have originated in China 1,800 years ago. They were already popular in Kathmandu in the 17th Century, having been introduced to the country by Nepalese travelers from Tibet. Typical fillings on the streets of Kathmandu are water buffalo (termed buff on most menus), lamb and mixed vegetables. Bini sells lamb, turkey and vegetarian versions at her outlets.
Bini and her crew
In Nepalese culture, as is common in Indian, African and Arab cultures, food is eaten with the hand. The etiquette for eating momos, Bini explains, is to avoid breaking them. “Grandmothers would say: God has given you five fingers so you grab it with your five fingers and put the whole thing in your mouth and that means you are saying thank you to God. Back home, mothers still feed their children with their hand and the food becomes a connection between them.”
Bini and her mother share a very strong connection. Before cooking for her family full time, Bini’s mother worked as a chef for the royal family in Kathmandu. But Bini remembers spending lots of time at home in the kitchen with family members, all enjoying her mom’s cooking. In her mother’s kitchen, Bini recalls, “It was never a small pot. It was a big pot to share with whoever came over. Cooking was always in my blood. I’m grateful I was raised that way. Back home we wore saris, and I would hold on to my mom’s sari to see what she was doing. Ahh, she’s putting in spices. The spice blends I make are from her, they are my mom’s creation.”
Spices are the key to Nepalese cuisine
Spice blends are an essential element to create the unique flavors of Nepalese foods. The tangy tomato cilantro sauce that accompanies Bini’s momos contains timur, which is similar to black peppercorns but grows exclusively in Nepal. Only the real thing will make her sauce taste right, so Bini imports the spice from her home country, where villagers must climb Nepal’s famed mountains to obtain it. “Timur comes in male or female varieties,” explains Bini, “and I use only the Queen; I want the female, because the female is stronger, powerful and potent.”
Other spices that go into her complex blends, such as black cardamom, green cardamom, whole nutmeg, cinnamon and bay leaves, Bini roasts and hand-grinds. She makes a point of distinguishing Nepalese food from the cuisine of its bigger neighbor, India. “In the Bay Area,” she says, “there are many restaurants that claim to serve Nepalese food but it’s really just Indian food. Our Nepalese food is very different – India doesn’t have momos or gurkha chicken.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that over the last decade, momo stands have proliferated all over India and they have now become one of the most popular street-foods there. So India does have momos, albeit slightly altered for the local palate.
Bini’s colorful kiosk on Market Street, San Francisco
Sonu, the manager at the kiosk…. Mango lassi, anyone?
Nepal which may be best known for Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, is a landlocked country the size of the state of Illinois, situated between India and the Tibet region of China. The Himalayas not only provide dramatic backdrops, they are home to eight of the world’s ten highest peaks. Nepal is a crossroads of cultures with numerous sacred temples and monuments. It is also one of the world’s poorest countries, a bad situation made worse in 2015 when a series of massive earthquakes killed almost 9,000 people and destroyed 600 years of history in a few seconds, reducing many famous temples to rubble, which was followed by a devastating monsoon in 2017.
Born and brought up in Kathmandu, Bini moved to Mumbai, India to attend culinary school, then returned to work in Nepal. She moved to San Francisco in 2004, when her sister was here and having a baby. She is enthusiastic in her love of the Bay Area and its people. The feeling is mutual. Her food is so appreciated by locals that Bini’s Kitchen is quickly expanding. It’s hard to believe she only started cooking as a business in 2013, after a very rough period in her life, which she is willing to talk about:
“I got married in 2006. It was a love marriage, but I was very naïve and didn’t know much about him. But after 9 years of abuse and domestic violence, I just had enough. In 2013, I took my son and left my ex. We stayed in a shelter. From the shelter, my sister and brother in law put me up in the their house and that’s how the journey started. My first cooking began in her house, her kitchen.”
Bini’s sister ran a daycare preschool, and Bini began to cook for some of her clients. She started by making rice, chicken, eggplant, and cucumber raita. News about the quality of her cooking spread quickly. Bini recalls, “I would cook during the day and then deliver the meals to people’s homes in brown bags at night with my son in the car.”
And then the decision that changed her life: “One client was a Spanish chef and he told my sister about La Cocina, Bini recalls. “He said I should go and apply. I came for the interview and then they called me and said I was selected. And I was like Wow! And here I am today.”
The relationship between Bini and La Cocina has become very deep. “This is my second home, “ says Bini in La Cocina’s kitchen, while she and her crew fold and stuff momos. “And for my son, who is 8 now, it’s a second home too. My relationship with La Cocina has given me so much strength. I wouldn’t be here today without La Cocina’s help, plus the support of my family and my clients. My success is thanks to people like Caleb [La Cocina’s executive director]. These are my people. They have seen me cry, they have seen my happiness, and they have walked with me through thick and thin. And with La Cocina’s support, Bini will achieve her dream of opening her own restaurant, projected for the fall of 2018. The large space at 1001 Howard Street in San Francisco will serve as an operations center for all of Bini’s outlets, plus she plans to have a 30-seat restaurant counter and a take-away case, with fresh momos that customers can watch being steamed.
Bini’s new digs, South of Market district, San Francisco. Photo: Geetika Agrawal
The smell of spices greeted me as we walked up to the Bini’s Kitchen kiosk on Market Street in San Francisco, near the Financial District. It was a little before noon and a line had formed outside the Bini’s kiosk, replendant in its warm-spice colors. My yardstick in measuring any Nepalese restaurant is whether chicken tikka masala (ubiquitous to all generic Indian restaurants in the US) appears on the menu. I took my place in line and glanced at the menu… No chicken tikka masala on the limited menu…now that was an auspicious start! A small sign to the right proudly proclaimed that lamb momos were back, subliminally urging us to order the same. We ordered 2 combination plates that included 2 kinds of momos, the vegetarian and lamb, jeera rice, kwati (referred to as Nepalese chili here) and gurkha chicken. Since there is pretty much no seating at the kiosk, we schlepped our food over to the Crocker Galleria with all the other folks on their lunch break.
Vegetarian momos and jeera rice, chilli flakes provided on the side
The momos were spectacular specimens of their kind, similar to Chinese dumplings, yet so different. The wrapping thickness was just right, thick enough to be toothsome, but not so heavy that it felt gummy. Both fillings were moist and flavorful, with a spice level that elevated, rather than dominated the natural flavors of the fillings. I could easily detect ginger like in Chinese dumplings, but also tasted onion and warming spices like cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, alien to any Chinese dumpling. The piece de resistance was the tomato cilantro chutney that put each bite over the top. The chutney had a tangy-ness from the tomatoes along with a kick from Sichuan peppercorns and the umami-enhancing asafetida, a pungent resin best used in small doses.
Gurkha chicken close-up… Mmmmmm! Again chilli flakes on the side
The gurkha chicken, named after the famed cadre of Nepalese soldiers, highlighted how the same spices in different proportions, gives rise to a dish that hearkens back to Indian food, yet is so distinct. The chicken was marinated overnight in spices to tenderize it and then cooked in a browned onion and tomato sauce. It was finished off with butter, but was much lighter than the corresponding Indian butter chicken.
Lamb momos, in all their splendor
Kwati: Nepalese ‘chili’ for the soul
Also amazing was kwati, a stew of 8-9 kinds of sprouted beans redolent with spices that included ginger, garlic, coriander, cumin and carom- perfect for San Francisco foggy days. Carom, a seed similar to caraway, smells like thyme but is far more pungent. It has a very assertive taste and can easily overpower a dish unless judiciously used, which it clearly was in this case.
The fact that this is a labor of love comes through with every bite of Bini’s food…to me, that is the highest accolade I can give. I am looking forward to her new venture and tasting other items on her rotating menu at the kiosk.
Her goal to give back
Bini’s present schedule is very challenging. “Right now I feel bad for my son,” she says. “He has cousins and all, but he has not had all the experiences that I got because his momma is working 18-hour days. He has to ask his mom for time, and that kills me.”
“My day starts at 5am. I get up and do my exercises then work in the kitchen 9am- 4pm. Fridays nights, I work at Off The Grid from 5pm-10pm, then clean up, take my crew back to La Cocina, put things in storage, drop them off and return home around 1am. Then Saturday, I’m up at 5:00am, here at 5:40 to be ready for the Ferry Building Farmers Market. Sunday, I’m home with my son. Nights, I’m usually on the computer emailing clients.” But one thing: Bini is sure to always make her son’s lunch.
“My goal is to help the immigrant women who are domestic violence survivors,” says Bini. “That’s why I talk about my pain. Every time I talk, it is still painful. But when I talk about it, it’s going help someone out there. Someone is going to listen and read about this and realize they can get help. That mother might be panicking, thinking ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything.’ But maybe she has a skill, and if she comes to La Cocina, they will help her and she can get a livelihood.”
“Eventually, my plan is to have a way to really help them. When Bini’s Kitchen expands, I want them to come and work for me as employees. I want to do it from my heart because I still remember those days. I remember when I first moved out with my son, I was staying with my sister and looking for an apartment but I didn’t have a job. One day I was so hungry. I walked into a donut shop and I really wanted to eat something. I saw a croissant. I asked the man how much it was and he said $1.35. I looked in my pocket and that is all the money I had: $1.35, but I thought I can’t buy the croissant, because I have my son and maybe he will need milk so I just walked out and continued to look for a job. I still remember that time. I work hard these days, but I feel blessed. This is a therapy for me and I love doing it.”
“My goals are vast. Take advantage of opportunities. Keep helping people. I have a very strong team. I am very proud of them. They are like my extended family. Of course I want to help those women in the battered women shelter however I can. So many people are affected. There are still so many women who blame themselves. I did that too. But if I can speak openly and open my door, hopefully that will help other women not to die. I hope I can help someone and then she can help other women. It will carry on. And my son is the biggest thing to me. I want him to see and feel and respect women.”
Encore: Bini and her creations