Restaurants in urban Nepal are growing in number, and in Kathmandu today many world-class establishments vie for favour and seek to fill an empty niche. But most still cater to the Nepali palate for momos, sekuwa, pizza, chow mein, or the mandatory dal-bhat-tarkari.
Bibhusan Raj Joshi is one of a growing set of entrepreneurs that want to do something different, and his contribution is a Spanish restaurant called El Mediterraneo in Jhamsikhel. Joshi has always believed that restaurateurs should take the risk and introduce Nepalis to cuisines from around the world.
A fluent speaker of Spanish who started out guiding Spanish tourists in Nepal, it was natural that as a restaurateur he would go for Iberian cuisine. But in between, Joshi spent ten years in Spain working as a chef and finishing his hospitality management studies. Joshi thus returned to Nepal with a wealth of knowledge about the diversity of Spanish fare.
El Mediterraneo has been a fixture of the Jhamsikhel neighbourhood for the past eight years, a favourite with local expatriates, tourists, and increasingly, young and upwardly mobile Nepalis.
Joshi has trained several of his staff not just in the preparation of Mediterranean dishes, but in how to share their knowledge with guests while serving.
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“Most Nepali guests are still not used to European cuisine, and part of our job is to describe the items and how they are prepared,” explains Joshi, who can often be seen chatting with his guests, most of them regulars who keep coming back.
Running a restaurant like this is still financially challenging, and there are customers who come to El Mediterraneo and ask for momos, rice and curry. Joshi’s staff tells them to try out the paella, instead, describing it as “a Spanish biryani”.
There may actually be a correlation because north Indian Mughlai cuisine shares the West Asian roots of the Muslim culture that helped shape the development of Spain’s culture, architecture, and food culture during the middle ages.
The basic ingredient of running a restaurant is passion, Joshi believes, and owners have to give it all they have got. Then there is the knowledge and specialisation that translates into the unique selling point of an establishment. Decor and ambience help, but customers mostly look for authenticity and a unique dining experience.
“I don’t want us to be like other restaurants. But even when restaurants are still not keen to introduce specific western cuisines to target the tourists, they can still make the effort of doing more research on Nepal’s diverse cuisines,” Joshi says.
In fact, several restaurants in the Patan area have already started to experiment with Gurung, Newa, Tharu, and Madhesi cuisine, and even fusing elements of these with western dishes.
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Although not highly profitable, El Mediterraneo has earned a reputation among visitors to Nepal thanks to customers who have written positive reviews on popular online platforms including the TripAdvisor.
But Joshi believes his best promotion is still word of mouth, which is why he has so many repeat customers. Nepal has no grading system for restaurants, and there is no go-to food website that aggregates restaurants with information and menu.
Joshi has no regrets about coming back to Nepal, and says the satisfaction of being in one’s own city and the fulfillment one feels by working here more than compensates for the lower income compared to working in Europe. Just like he latched on to the niche of Spanish cuisine, he feels there is a market for unexplored European, African and Asian food in Kathmandu and Pokhara.
Journalist-turned-farmer Naresh Newar contributes this fortnightly multimedia column in Nepali Times, profiling successful young entrepreneurs.
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