Bini’s Kitchen Restaurant

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

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.

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

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's Kitchen Restaurant

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's Kitchen Restaurant

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 Kitchen Restaurant

Bini’s colorful kiosk on Market Street, San Francisco

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

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.

Life journey

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 Kitchen Restaurant

Bini’s new digs, South of Market district, San Francisco. Photo: Geetika Agrawal

The food

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.

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

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.

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

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.

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

Lamb momos, in all their splendor

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

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.”

Bini's Kitchen Restaurant

Encore: Bini and her creations

Visit Bini at Bini’s Kitchen 

McKesson Plaza, 1 Post Street

San Francisco, CA 94104

(415) 590-3087

Bini’s Kitchen Restaurant Website

Grocery Café

Grocery Café

 Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)  Photo courtesy: Richard Shaw

I find it interesting how certain memories from ones’ childhood endure over time.  Living in Calcutta (now Kolkata) as a child, my first entre to Burmese food was ‘Khauswey’- chicken stewed in a gravy redolent with coconut milk, onions and turmeric.  It would be served either over egg noodles (traditional) or rice (completely non-traditional) and I remember literally licking our plates clean when it was on the dinner menu.  For us, it was sufficiently different from traditional Indian food, to become very enticing and almost a novelty.  It wouldn’t be till years later, and half a world away, that I would be reintroduced to Burmese food; this time in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Burma by the Bay

In 1962 the Burmese army overthrew the ruling government in a coup.  The political and economic turmoil that resulted led a number of Burmese to resettle elsewhere. Aided by the United States Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the subsequent removal of restrictions on immigration from Asia, a large number of Burmese found their way to America.  Decades later, as a result of the government crackdown following the 1988 uprising against the junta, another wave of Burmese landed on American shores.  Missing their way of life in the ‘old country’, some decided to cater to the growing Burmese diaspora in the Bay Area and open Burmese restaurants.  Burma Superstar in the inner-Richmond district was the first restaurant that actually put Burmese cuisine on the San Francisco culinary map. The number of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area has since skyrocketed.

Serial Restaurateur

William Lue immigrated to the Bay Area in the 70’s.  A Burmese of Chinese origin, he worked in Chinese and Burmese restaurants in San Francisco through the 70’s and 80’s.  Following a lengthy hiatus, he returned to the food industry with a Burmese food truck, Burmese Gourmet in 2012.  Since then he has opened a string of Burmese restaurants in the Bay Area including Pacheco Bistro in Martinez, Refined Palate in Orinda, T.W. Burmese in San Ramon and Grocery Café in Oakland. As an immigrant, promoting his culinary heritage and helping other Burmese immigrants assimilate rank high on his list of aims, and he uses his restaurants effectively for that purpose.

Grocery Café

Grocery Café entrance

London calling

The current incarnation of Grocery Café in Jack London Square in Oakland sits in a venue vacated by a Hahn’s hibachi, a popular Bay Area Korean chain.  The original restaurant was elsewhere in Oakland, but forced to move due to extensive modifications called for by the health department.  The new larger venue is bright, airy and inviting and a brief glance at the menu assures me that none of the standards have been omitted.

Grocery Café

The Hahn’s BBQ sign hasn’t been completely removed

Grocery Café

The interior  still maintains the Hahn’s vibe, though the food is dramatically different.

Sandwiched between India, China and Thailand, Burmese cuisine is an amalgamation of the three cuisines, yet very distinct.  Turmeric and onion are almost ubiquitous flavors and nowhere is this combination more evident than in the national dish of Burma- Mohinga, a noodle based fish chowder.  Also well known are the salads or ‘thoke’, in particular laphet or tea leaf salad made with fermented tea leaves.  The version at Grocery Café is slightly Americanized, in that lettuce is added to the mix.  We started with the Burmese Paratha, a multi-layered Indian-inspired flatbread with a curry dipping sauce and then moved on to Khao Swe thoke, a noodle salad with a curried coconut dressing and condiments on the side.

Grocery Café

Paratha and curry dipping sauce

Grocery Café

Khao Swe Thoke

What about the ‘khauswey’ of my childhood?  The Ono Khao Swe came in a big bowl with wheat noodles and chicken swimming in a fragrant mild curry broth, accompanied with fried shallots and lentil fritters (referred to as exotic fritter in the menu).

Grocery Café

Ono Kahao Swe

Grocery Café

Accompaniments to the Ono Khao Swe

The flavors were spot on taking me back to my childhood and we pretty much licked the bowl clean…. some things never change!  And if one wants a little more spice, 2 kinds of chili pepper condiments, green and red are provided to kick things up a notch.

Grocery Café

Chili pepper condiments

Though I didn’t see it on the tables, ‘ngapi’ or fermented fish paste is apparently available upon request as a condiment. The other dish we could not pass up on the menu was the oxtail stew, a fragrant stew with kabocha squash, sliced ginger and mushrooms.  The Chinese influence was evident in this dish, with the ginger and the mushrooms, but the addition of bay leaves gave the dish an identity all of its own.

Oxtail Stew

It was served with a mound of coconut rice, not entirely dissimilar from the Indonesian Nasi Lemak.

Coconut Rice

The restaurant does not currently have a liquor license, though a number of tables in the know decided to B.Y.O.B. I don’t believe they charge any corkage fees either, and a nice crisp Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc would compliment the food perfectly!  They do, however, serve a selection of Burmese and Chinese teas for those so inclined.

Burmese restaurants have matured in the Bay Area and are now considered a viable alternative to the more traditional Chinese and Thai.  And with folks like Lue promoting the cuisine of their homeland, the buzz will only increase.  For a taste of Yangon, Grocery Café is just a short hop over the Bay Bridge for San Franciscans and well worth the effort.

Visit

Grocery Cafe
90 Franklin St,
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone:  925-566-4877

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant's homey Filipino food is a gift from Josie Yumul

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Lively conversation among a group of friends at Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant is halted as soon as a huge flat basket, lined with banana leaves and topped by heaps of artistically arranged food, arrives on the table.  A mound of rice is surrounded by piles of lumpia, barbequed chicken, grilled squid and pork, crunchy deep fried shrimp, a whole grilled tilapia, salted eggs, purple yams, eggplant, steamed broccoli, chopped mango, onion and tomato. Little dishes of shared dipping sauces are distributed. Each diner has a separate plate lined with a banana leaf.

Kamayan is the name of this classic Filipino preparation that is traditionally eaten with the hands, by pinching a clump of rice and adding meat and other accompaniments. “The word kamayan comes from the Tagalog word kamay, which means ‘hands,’” says Pampanguena’s chef and co-owner, Josie Yumul. “It’s our traditional way of sharing, the way we grew up eating.” Dining on banana leaves carries an additional benefit. “When hot food is placed on the banana leaves,” explains Josie, “they exude a special essence.” (If eating with your hands is not your thing, utensils are provided on request).

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Kamayan

Josie and her husband Lan opened this, their first restaurant, in 2010. It’s a homey, family-run spot in San Francisco’s Excelsior district with Filipino soap operas on the TV and wooden cutouts of fish, lobsters, and anchors brightening the walls. Josie originally prepared a daily standing buffet of hot dishes, but after two years, realized that customers would prefer made-to-order dishes. Now the Filipino-native prides herself on making everything fresh. She arrives each morning at 8am to marinate the meat, cook the pork until it’s soft, clean the fish and chop the vegetables. Then she is ready to assemble and cook up whatever diners order. She only added Kamayan-style meals a few years ago, when some customers requested them and is proud to be the only restaurant in San Francisco to currently offer them. They come in sizes for 2-6 people (the more people, the more different dishes), which are reasonably priced, considering the mountain of food included. “It’s a very popular way of eating back home,” Josie says, “so I wanted to share it here. People love it – you get to taste a big variety of things. You can also order it to go.”

A self-taught cook, Josie credits her parents and mother-in-law for getting her started. She moved to the U.S. 32 years ago and worked for many years as a medical assistant. Her husband still works the night shift, 11-7, at the Post Office and comes in to help after he sleeps.  Their children help serve on the weekends when they don’t have school.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant
Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

The restaurant is named after Pampanga, the province in Luzon, Philippines where Josie grew up. The area is famous for its cuisine, including dishes like fresh grilled fish and sisig, a sizzling pork dish.

“Growing up in the Philippines, my parents always owned a liquor store where they also sold a few food dishes. As the oldest of six children, I was expected to help out at the store, starting when I was seven years old until I went to college at age 20.  My brothers and sisters stayed in dorms at school, but I didn’t, so that I could help my parents. My life was school, home and work, with very little time to socialize. So, at age 25, I decided to come alone as an immigrant to the US, where I had relatives. I worked and sent money back home. First, I lived in LA, where I met my husband. Then we moved to San Francisco.”

Besides the Kamayan feasts, Pampanguena serves a wide range of Filipino specialties, starting with silog, a popular breakfast style that combines elements such as pork sausage, eggs, tomato and garlic fried rice. These plates are served all day. Other dishes include soups, noodle dishes like pancit canton, BBQ pork and adobo chicken, grilled or fried fish and kare kare, which pairs tender oxtail meat with a peanut butter based sauce.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Kare Kare

In the kitchen of Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant, with its 8-burner stovetop, Josie needs to focus. It takes concentration to make every order from scratch and have the dishes done at the same time. It’s all about timing. Since she makes every order fresh, Josie is happy to make adjustments to accommodate diners’ special requests or allergies. Many dishes can be made vegan.

Desserts include the popular turon, a caramelized banana rolled up in lumpia wrapper, silky, dense flan and halo halo, a mixture of shaved ice, ube (purple yam) ice cream and evaporated milk with toppings such as sweet beans.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Turon

“The recipes are my own,” says Josie. “Once I eat in a restaurant, and I find something good, I figure out how to recreate that at home. I started to cook with my parents. My mother in law was a very good cook and I learned from her before she passed away Every time she taught me something I remembered and applied it. “

To describe how she made the transition from medical assistant to chef, Josie explains, “Whenever I had parties at home, my friends told me I should open a restaurant. When I brought food to potluck meals at work my co-workers also told me my food was so good I should have a restaurant.”  She heard this praise so many times, that after 25 years of working for others, she started this new venture with the support of her husband.

One thing that is sacred to this family is the need for a break. Every year, they close the restaurant for 2-3 weeks and either travel back home to the Philippines, another destination or just rest at home. Their children, now aged 22, 18, 14 have all helped out by serving in the restaurant.  “Just serving,” Josie sighs, “they are not interested in learning to cook.”

Although Pampanguena is open 10-8 everyday except Monday, they are busiest on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And note that they only accept cash, as their small business needs to avoid as many fees as possible. (There is an ATM located inside the restaurant).

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Sitaw Kalabasa

Filipino cuisine features a distinctive counterpoint of flavors: sweet, salty and sour and a mixture of influences reflecting the islands’ history. While inhabitants trace their origins back thousands of years to the Malay Islands, the archipelago of 7,000 islands in the southeastern Pacific Ocean has shared trading contacts with China, Japan, Portugal, Spain and the U.S. Each succeeding group of traders and missionaries brought their own ingredients that got adopted into local cuisine. For example, Spanish flan is an almost daily dessert. Lumpia is reminiscent of a Chinese spring roll but with a filling of garlic, pork, chicken, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage and coconut palm hearts. Rice, which is essential to meals, is also made into porridge, puddings and sweets. Native crops such as coconut, taro, bananas, mangos, breadfruit, various cabbages and many other fruits and vegetables are important ingredients in Filipino cuisine.

The Spanish exerted the strongest influence on the Philippines. Their colonization and rule lasted from 1521 to 1898. Spanish Influence is still felt in names, customs and food. Reportedly, however, the Spanish judged that the native Filipino way of eating with hands was “uncivilized” and taught them to eat with silverware instead. So, enjoying kamayan by eating with the hands may be an essential part of Filipino identity. Now Josie and her family are proudly sharing their heritage through their cooking at Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant.

Pampanguena Cuisine Restaurant

Lan & Josie

Visit

Pampanguena Cuisine

4441 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94112
(415) 586-8899

Yemen Kitchen

Meet the Restaurateur – Abdul Al Rammah, Owner of Yemen Kitchen

Yemen

The irresistible fragrance of sizzling onions and garlic perfumes the small kitchen where Abdul Al Rammah stands at his stove, deftly stirring several pans of Yemeni food at once. The Yemeni-born chef adds ground beef and creamy fava beans to one, chunks of fish and vegetables to another.

Yemen Kitchen sign

Yemen Kitchen sign

He works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, making homemade dishes from his native country in his tiny restaurant on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. The care he puts into each dish, the subtle spicing and the classic combinations appeal to those who remember Yemeni food from their childhoods far away and those who have never been there.

owner of Yemen Kitchen

owner of Yemen Kitchen

Al Rammah opened Yemen Kitchen in June 2015, it’s the culmination of a life working in food service but it’s not his first venture into restaurants. Pretty impressive for a man who admits that growing up in the town of Albeda with his parents and 7 siblings, he couldn’t even make tea. In keeping with the traditional family structure, his mother and sisters took care of all the cooking for the men. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I do,” he says smiling.

NEW YORK

In 1986, at the age of 22, while working as a clerk in an electric utility office in Yemen, Al Rammah took a vacation to visit his brother, who was attending college in New Mexico. After two months there, he ventured on to New York City to visit friends and they convinced him to stay on in “the land of opportunities.” In an always-busy Manhattan deli he began learning about American culture by working 12 hours a day, making sandwiches from 7pm -7am. Then from 8am until noon, he attended English classes. After a meal, a few hours sleep and a shower, he would head back to the deli. It was a grueling schedule for a little pay. “But I enjoyed making food and I never got bored,” says Al Rammah. He stayed New York for one year.

MICHIGAN

One day, a man from the sizable Yemeni community near Detroit, Michigan contacted him. Al Rammah had achieved renown as a star soccer player on a successful team when he lived in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The man knew him by reputation and invited him to come to Michigan to join their team in the Michigan-Ontario league. This was in 1987, before soccer was “discovered” by the American public in 1994, when the US first hosted the FIFA World Cup.

Al Rammah was happy to accept the offer. “Soccer was in my blood,” he says. “It was good team with a lot of nationalities, including members from Italy, Albania, Lebanon and Iraq.”  He also coached the Yemen youth club (ages 19-21).  “But you can’t play soccer all day,” he says. “So I started working at the restaurant owned by the head of the Yemeni community. We served American food, burgers and omelets. I learned a lot from the experience. Work in the mornings, soccer in the afternoons.”

He loved Michigan and lived there almost 20 years. He put down roots, got married, got his papers and because he loved cooking and saw it as a career path, attended the culinary arts program at Macomb Community College in 1995. The next year, he opened his first restaurant, Al-Rasheed, in Hamtramck, and with a partner followed up with three more in the next few years.

SET UP NEW RESTAURANTS

Al Rammah realized that what he really enjoyed, and was quite good at, was the process of starting a new restaurant project from scratch. From installing a ventilation system, figuring out the menu, printing business cards and flyers, to getting the word of mouth out to attract new customers. “Sometimes I worked very hard for two or three months doing all the preparations, before I ever got paid.” In one five year-period, he was on the move. He helped out a friend who had a Middle Eastern restaurant in Indiana for a year and returned to work with a restaurant in Detroit. Then he opened “Sana’a Restaurant” in Brooklyn, but after three years sold his share, and helped out at a friend’s restaurant in Port Huron, Michigan.

SAN FRANCISCO

In July 2011, the owner of a struggling Yemeni food restaurant in San Francisco heard about Al Rammah and called him in Port Huron to come help with his restaurant. “I didn’t know him, but he offered to pay my flight,” says Al Rammah. “So I said sure, I’ll check it out. I came straight from the airport to his restaurant and never went back.”

The good weather and the mix of friendly people from everywhere appealed to Al Rammah. He became a chef at Yemeni restaurant. “After six months, the owner insisted I become a partner. He needed my experience and wanted to keep me, so he made me a ¼ partner. But after two years, I found I was doing most of the work and sold my share.” Then he worked for two years as a chef at Café Med in the Financial District.

“I have a bad habit,” Al Rammah says with a laugh, “I always want to open another restaurant, so I looked around for a space.” He found his present space, a former Brooklyn Pizza spot, on Jones Street (which also spent time as a Mexican Yucatan eatery).

It still sports the red and white Brooklyn Sign outside. “I haven’t had time to change it but I painted over where it said  “Pizza” it now says “Halal” with my name in Arabic writing,” explains Alrammah. (It also sports the ever-meaningful image of a soccer ball.)

Yemen Kitchen’s cozy space has three tables and three stools. The walls are sparsely decorated with an oud (a pear-shaped lute), a sword, traditional Arabic cloth, plus framed photos of his old soccer teams in Yemen. “Some people come in and recognize me,” Al Rammah admits, “we were that well known.”

The afternoons can find a mix of regular customers (from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan as well as Yemen) who appreciate the homemade Yemeni food and sweet, cinnamon spiced tea. They catch up and chat about news, politics and life. When it first opened, Yemen Kitchen had 80% Yemeni customers, some, who in their excitement, came several times a day. But nowadays, thanks to good reviews on Yelp and a small article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the balance of American customers outweighs the Yemenis. Take-out orders are popular too.

Yemen Kitchen is open 10am-10pm, and Al Rammah cooks all the meals himself. Besides the regular lunch and dinner customers, two to three times a week, he cooks extra servings for catering gigs. Customers pick up food for 30-50 people in schools, offices or social gatherings and once in a while Al Rammah prepares enough for several hundred guests at a Yemeni wedding.

The dishes are listed on two menus: his original faded blackboard with only Arabic lettering, flowers and of course, a soccer ball and a typical folding menu with English.  Al Rammah confides that both menus contain the same “inside jokes.” A handful of dishes are named after famous Yemeni personalities, actors and comedians. For example, Dihbashy (beans and eggs) is actually the name of a famous Yemeni actor. “My Yemeni customers see that and laugh,” adds Al Rammah.

EAT WITH HANDS

In Yemen, like many neighboring countries, food is eaten with the hands (specifically the right hand), by tearing off a piece of bread and using it to scoop up the meat and sauce. “Here is like a little Yemen, and it feels like home, so of course customers eat with the hands here too.” He points to the back. “We have a hand-washing sink, with soap and paper towels. ” Sometimes Americans see other diners eating with their hands and they want to see what it’s like.  “Sure, Al Rammah says, “I encourage them. You’ll taste more with your hands than a spoon and fork. Try it, you will like it.”

THE CUISINE

Yemeni food is unique, and although there are influences from Turkish and Indian cultures, I was unprepared for how distinct it would be from the Middle Eastern cuisine of its neighbors.  Going into the restaurant, my pre-conceived expectation was that it would be very similar to what I call generic Arabic cuisine: simple and flavorful, but bland compared to Indian or Thai food.  Wrong!

We ordered chicken kabsah, roast lamb, hummus and tawah bread.  The hummus was extremely creamy and was amazing with the tawah, a griddled whole-wheat flatbread, similar to the Indian paratha.  The roast lamb featured succulent chunks of marinated lamb, roasted to perfection and served with basmati rice and a vegetable stew. The accompanying sahawiq, tomatoes, green chili peppers, garlic and cilantro blended together to a salsa-like consistency, allowed one to ‘kick it up a notch’, should they prefer a little more heat.  No such augmentation was called for with the kabsah, a meat and rice dish similar to an Indian biryani or Arab mandi, but distinct from both.  It was a spicy blend of chicken and basmati rice, redolent with chopped Serrano peppers and delicious.

Yemeni food drink

Yemeni food rice dish

Yemeni food hummus and tawah

Yemeni food lamb rice carrots

Yemeni food sahawiqOur second visit we decided to begin with the national dish of Yemen, saltah.  The base is a stew of meat and vegetables or maraq to which is added sahawiq, and the piece the resistance, holba or whipped fenugreek puree.  The stew is served piping hot in a stone bowl and is best eaten with one’s fingers using pieces of tawah or pita as utensils.  This was my favorite dish by far, with the holba providing an herbaceous counterpoint to the unctuous lamb. We also ordered zanbakah, a fragrant stew of ground beef and pureed fava beans topped with chopped onions, chili peppers and cilantro, again eaten with pieces of tawah. The roast chicken platter comes with a generous portion of bone-in marinated chicken roasted till the skin is browned and crispy and served with turmeric scented basmati rice and vegetables.

Yemeni food saltah

zanbakah - Yemeni food

Yemeni food chicken rice

Unfortunately, we did not get to try any of the breakfast dishes or desserts.  That is for next time – and, yes, I am more than willing to repeatedly venture forth into the nether recesses of the Tenderloin for more.  Go ahead, don’t let the rather colorful neighborhood put you off – I promise you the Yemeni food, and Al Rammah’s hospitality will be well worth the effort!

SITUATION NOW IN YEMEN

One can’t talk about Yemeni food without acknowledging the famine, malnutrition, lack of clean water and cholera epidemic that has hit the country hard since the political crisis that began in 2011 and civil war that started in 2015. It is presently the poorest country in the Middle East.

Although, some of his siblings are still in Yemen, he has not been able to visit since 2010 “it’s not safe to go there anymore.” He is thankful that his family members are all right for now, and explains, “It’s worse for the poor people who don’t live in big cities and have no relatives to turn to. There is basically no government, no social system in place to help them. The government is just corrupt and doesn’t take care of its people.”

Yemen is an ancient land in the Middle East with settlements in its green hills and mountains, going back at least 5,000 years, to before King Solomon’s time. It is the land where the Queen of Sheba is said to have lived. Its long seacoast borders The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Several centuries before Islam, Yemen was renowned for its painting, temples, palaces and irrigation system.

Al Rammah describes one of its most beautiful spots, the famous mud brick “skyscrapers” in Shibam, Hadramaut. Most of the buildings in this walled city, with seven-story tower dwellings rising dramatically out of a cliff, date back to the 16th century, some even hundreds of years earlier. It is recognized on the UN World Heritage list.

Al Rammah would like to employ Yemeni cooks to help out in the kitchen since they know the cuisine well, but they are not that easy to find, so he takes on and trains others, at present, one cook is from India, the other from Tennessee. Both of them are eager to learn to cook the delicious, classic Yemeni dishes Al Rammah seemingly effortlessly turns out. Meanwhile they chop endless onions, plate and serve the meals, bus and wash dishes. For now, Al Rammah cooks his special dishes everyday for whoever comes in his restaurant, enjoying feeding friends and strangers alike. “I can’t take a vacation, “he says. “It’s good I only live a block away; this restaurant is like my second home.” Then he adds thoughtfully, “But I am thinking that I might just open another restaurant too.”

Yemen Kitchen thank you notes

Visit Abdul Al Rammah:

Yemen Kitchen

219 Jones Street • San Francisco, CA 94102

415.214.3575

Bini’s Kitchen

Nepal, home to Bini's amazing Nepalese food

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 food. It seems to be working, as Bini’s Kitchen 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 - Nepalese food

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 showing her Nepalese food

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 crew making Nepalese food

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 food

Spice blends are an essential element to create the unique flavors of Nepalese food. 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 Kitchen - authentic Nepalese food

Bini’s colorful kiosk on Market Street, San Francisco

Bini's Kitchen - Mango Lassi

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.

Life journey

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 Nepalese food 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

Bini’s new digs, South of Market district, San Francisco. Photo: Geetika Agrawal

The Food

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, resplendant 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 - Nepalese food

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 - Nepalese food

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 - Nepalese food

Lamb momos, in all their splendor

Kwati: Nepalese food 'chili'

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 incredible Nepalese 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.”

Bini making Nepalese food

Encore: Bini and her Nepalese food creations

Visit Bini at Bini’s Kitchen 

McKesson Plaza, 1 Post Street

San Francisco, CA 94104

(415) 590-3087

Bini’s Kitchen Website