A Nepalese haven in Jordan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 5:04pm

The first Nepalis came to Hong Kong as Gurkhas with the British Army. Today, they make up just under 1 per cent of the population. One-third live on the strip of land that borders Yau Ma Tei and Jordan.

Their martial history is still apparent, as many work in security. But younger Nepalis are often employed in hospitality, especially nightlife. That's true of Kishor Rai, an assistant manager at Castro's, a bar in Tsim Sha Tsui.

It is commonly said that Nepalis settled in Jordan because of its proximity to a Gurkha barracks. But Rai says the truth is more practical; unlike other minorities in Hong Kong, most Nepalis are not trying to settle permanently but work hard, save their money and live cheaply so they can return to Nepal. Jordan is considered cheap and convenient.

Many Nepalis eat and pass time in small unlicensed restaurants run out of people's homes. Rai believes there are more than 30 unofficial Nepalese restaurants in Jordan alone, many on upper floors behind the market stalls of Temple Street.

The big advantage is that they are open 24 hours a day. Since many young Nepalis work in nightlife, they often eat dinner at sunrise.

If you lack access to these underground establishments, there are sensational Nepalese meals to be had at more established restaurants in the area. A good place to start is Manakamana Restaurant in Temple Street (G/F, 165 Temple Street, tel: 23852070). For those unfamiliar with Nepalese cuisine, the food at Manakamana will be an eye-opener: richly seasoned, heavily spiced, with a slow-burning heat.

Start with gundruk (HK$35), a salad comprising fermented greens, with crunchy soya beans and hot chillies. It is a pungent, fiery starter, a good prequel to the main meal.

Don't miss the sukuti (HK$65), a staple made from smoked and dried buffalo meat, served with a sweet, savoury and smoky sauce. For a vegetable, the aloo dum is worth a try. Seemingly a simple dish of stir-fried potatoes, it is actually much more than that, and boasts a sweet and hearty taste.

If eating alone, try the thali khana, a Nepalese take on the traditional Indian meal; HK$50 gets you a tray heaped with greens, gundruk, rice and curry, served with a side of smoky black lentils. Another notable find is pangra (HK$58) - fried sweet and spicy chicken kidneys.

While Manakamana is great for a casual meal, Nepalis looking to celebrate head to the charmingly named Yak & Yeti Restaurant and Bar (54D Jordan Road, tel: 2311 1415). This serves up the same basic dishes as Manakamana. But it's a tad more upscale and suitable for groups. It's the perfect venue to try Nepalese beers. Three brands prevail: Mustang, Nepal Ice and Gurkha.

Finding authentic Nepalese cuisine in many cities is challenging because the ingredients are specialised and custom regulations are strict. However, this is not the case in Hong Kong, where Nepalese foodstuffs can be imported.

Nepalese minimarts in Jordan are another world. Spices of all types sit next to Nepalese staples such as dry-pounded rice, dried strips of buffalo meat and bags of fermented greens. It's even possible to import flowers directly from Nepal.

One shop, Sayapatree (163 Shanghai Street, tel: 2314 2146) is named for a Nepalese flower that sisters are supposed to present to their brothers during a festival.

Worthy of a detour is The New Fishtail Store at 342 Canton Road. It stocks a selection of hard-to-find ingredients if you want to replicate some of these dishes at home.