Masala Restaurant

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 restaurants in the the entire Boston region serving Nepali food. Founded in 2011 by Binoj Pradhan, an entrepreneur active in Boston, the restaurant now serves both Indian and Nepali food. Its popularity has only gone up since its establishment 6 years ago and today draws alike both connoisseurs looking for a dip into exotic Nepali food and amateurs just looking for a hearty meal.

Masala Restaurant Interior
General Seating Area
Bar at Masala Restaurant

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!

Owner of Masala Restaurant
Dammar B. Thapa (Head Chef, Masala Restaurant)

Early Potential for Cooking Nepali Food

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, however his path there was anything but straightforward. He was denied a US employment visa not once but twice. 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 food, 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 Nepali Restaurant

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.

Masala lunch buffet
Lunch Buffet Section
Masala Margarita
$3 Margarita

The Food 

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.

Nepali Food - Goat Curry
Curry made with Goat Meat
Nepali Food
A “Thali” Meal with Multiple Indian and Nepali Items Represented

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.

Nepali Food - Chicken Sekuwa
Chicken Sekuwa

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.

Nepali Food
Bamboo-based Tama (Left), Spicy Tofu (Right)
Nepali Food - Fried Fish
Fried Fish Surrounded by Nepali “Sel”

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.

Traditionally Cooked Nepali Food
Traditionally Cooked Nepali Chicken (Left), Steamed lettuce (Right)

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 food 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 Dammar, Nepali food 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.

Visit Masala Restaurant
1127 Broadway
Sommerville, MA 02144
(617) 718-0703

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’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