A short eating tour of Patan—from Patan Dhoka to Chyasal

- Thomas Heaton, Kathmandu

Feb 19, 2019-

If coming from Kathmandu, take a right at Patan Dhoka and follow the road until you arrive at another smaller gate, where you take a left and follow the winding claustrophobic alleys until you arrive at a large, resplendent pond. This is the Pim Bahal Pokhari, a quiet pond where the community congregates under the gaze of an adjacent Buddhist stupa. Locals sip tea while a cheery man in a sooty plaid shirt sells fresh roasted makai out of a four-wheeled table that also doubles as his barbecue.

As he furiously fans the coals, a line of people is coming for his corn. Simple fare, the corn steams in its husk before being roasted directly on the coals. The result is a smokey, chewy, cob where the only complaint is that the kernels seem to always find their way into the crannies of your teeth. The flavour is reminiscent of the dregs of popped corn, only that won’t result in a visit to the dentist.

“Achar?” the man inevitably asks. Fresh husk in hand, he scoops a macerated mix of salt, garlic and chilli to dredge your cob. With this lip-stingingly salty-spicy mix, you should be ready to take on the many delights of Patan’s street fare.

Corn on the cob, roasted over coals.

The pim Bahal Pokhari. Post Photo: Thomas Heaton

Ambling south from Pim Bahal, scenes become quieter with each step. The lanes, roads, and alleyways become both narrower and clearer; life slows and becomes serene. Old folk take pews on the doorsteps of their houses, watching the world pass by, slowly, nonchalantly chatting with friends, gazing into the distance cross-legged. The honks and whirrs of buses, cars and motorcycles become more distant. Temples and shrines pop up on every corner. Along with traffic, the momo spots, laphing joints and coffee houses become harder to find. Men with fruit and vegetable-laden bicycles call out over the faint echoes of concrete saws and power tools.

Step by step, kernel by kernel, one can follow the heritage trail’s brass placards, but take a wrong turn and you might find yourself in the right place—hopefully one of Patan’s many spots slinging wonderfully fried foods.

In one such happy accident, in front of her karai, a lady methodically dips fish into nuclear orange batter and drops it into simmering oil. One by one, the fish take an oily plunge. “The best cooking girl in Patan,” a man says, perched at the communal table in front of the cook. Not a girl, rather a saree-wearing woman with sindoor on her forehead, the lady laughs while popping another sprat into the frier. There are bricks of tofu too, off-white and pocked like Swiss cheese, and rows of potatoes fried in the same bright-orange concoction.

Called Om Store, this Imukhel spot is one of the many perched around the cockles of Patan’s heart. These are the places where local fare can be trialed, away from the tourist-ridden cafes and restaurants that are slowly proliferating this ancient city.

Fish fried in nuclear batter, served with a side of tomato achar.

Fish fried in nuclear batter, served with a side of tomato achar. 

The fish, freshly gutted, dipped and fried, is later drenched with a pungent mixture of spices. Served with a small cup of tomato achar—momo’s best friend—the flesh is sweet and crispy while the spices taste predominantly of sulphurous black salt. Best consumed straight out of the karai, they are typically eaten headfirst, skull, spine, bones and all.

Not many of Patan’s authentic spots cater to the risk-averse germaphobe, but they’re arguably tastier than their cleaner counterparts. Some spots specialise in sweet-fried treats, such as the ceremonial laakhamari, fried bread or the breakfast staple gwaramari—if you’re early enough for this doughnut-like morsel.

As you weave your way through Patan’s labyrinth of streets and alleys, dropping crumbs like Hansel and Gretel, you will inevitably stumble across hawkers selling pani-puri or chatpate, newspaper cones of mixed roasted legumes. Served with a piece of ripped cardboard for a spoon, the crunchy chatpate mix can be a perfect substitute for maize, if one is needed. The pani-puri too is the perfect container for the savoury mix of succulent potato and chickpea, drowning in a herby green water, to be eaten in one single bite.

The jelly-like sanyaakhuna, a special treat. Photo courtesy: anup kaphle

The jelly-like sanyaakhuna, a special treat. Photo: Anup Kaphle

But it is time to find a proper Newari restaurant to sample the city’s specialties. Momo, laphing and coffee can be found all around the Valley, but Newar cuisine is, arguably, at its best in Patan (though Kathmandu and Bhaktapur might beg to differ).

Tucked in a building near Chyasal, seemingly worlds away from Patan Durbar, is Kwacha. Plates of sapu-mhicha (fried intestines filled with glutinous bone marrow), dyaka: la (buffalo meat simmered in a thick, spicy  curry), chickpeas in several forms, blackened buff, and fried innards are slung about this humble shop. Unlike the famous Honacha, situated smack-dab in Durbar Square, Kwacha does not have a prime location. It makes up for it in flavour, however, rewarding people in the know.

At the end of the counter, and almost running out, sit two bowls of a winter’s treat: sanyaakhuna. Spooned out like cake, the dish has a clear layer of chilli-tinted claret fat, while the base layer is as dark as the restaurant’s pans. A seemingly ominous dish, typically reserved for special occasions, and winter time, it’s soul-warmingly spicy and unctuous in every sense of the word. It’s the result of bones being simmered for hours, with the reserved tincture coagulating as it is cooled.

Cut into tranches and served with beaten rice, it melts and coats the mouth. With a hellish amount of spice, it is perfectly paired with a tall metal glass of sweet, funky tho: (chyang)—the perfect end to an aimless tour of Patan. If it feels as though you’re completely lost in the nooks of Patan, follow the crumbs back to the ancient city’s pearly gates.

The line-up at Kwacha with sukuti sandeko, chicken curry and chickpea curry.

The line-up at Kwacha with sukuti sandeko, chicken curry and chickpea curry. 

Published: 19-02-2019 11:06

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