Back in 2011, on the day Ramesh Bishwokarma opened his restaurant in the packed tourist quarter of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, his very first Chinese customer walked in, saw Nepalese workers inside, then turned around and left.
“I ran up to him and asked him, Why? Was it the cost? Was it the menu? Was it the fact that Nepalese were cooking Chinese food?” he recalls.
Ramesh, who everyone calls San-Dai, a term of endearment in Nepal for someone who is like an older brother, is speaking at his restaurant, New Chong Qing Wei, where he is cook and owner.
Speaking in Mandarin, the customer asked him whether he could cook Chinese food. San-Dai, who by then had been cooking Sichuan food for four years, replied in Mandarin, and asked him to order something.
“After he ate, he messaged his other friends about a Nepalese man cooking Sichuan food – and all of them walked in,” recalls 31-year-old San-Dai with a hint of pride.
The modest interior of the restaurant, with its benches covered in imitation leather, is a stark contrast to the glorious flavours of the dishes San-Dai serves.
In the outdoor area under an awning of zinc sheets, four Chinese men smoke incessantly and dig into cold buffalo in mala sauce, the numbing flavour of which comes from Sichuan peppercorn (or timur, as it is known in Nepal). Indoors, in the private dining section, a group of six customers from Beijing dig into Dou Ban Yu – whole fish in spicy bean sauce. This is their first time in Nepal, and they learned about San-Dai’s restaurant from friends who had eaten there before.
On Jyatha, the lane where New Chong Qing Wei is located, Chinese tourists stretch out their selfie sticks. Jyatha is in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district. It hums with life, but Thamel is no longer the realm of the mountaineers and trekkers who once popularised it. Now, it is the Chinese who travel to Nepal the most, after Indians, for whom the open border offers convenient access.
In 2002, Nepal was the first South Asian country to become an “approved destination” for Chinese visitors. As the number of tourists began to increase, totalling more than 100,000 Chinese visitors for the first time in 2013, restaurants like New Chong Qing Wei started to emerge.
Even so, New Chong Qing Wei is an outlier in the midst of nearly 150 Chinese-owned restaurants that operate in Thamel today – not just because it is Nepalese-owned, but because San-Dai excels at cooking Sichuan cuisine and speaks Mandarin despite never having set foot in China. His restaurant is a microcosm of the larger tourism boom associated with the arrival of Chinese people in Nepal and the need for local entrepreneurs to adapt to this new reality by learning new skills.