For whatever reason, Nepalese food has become a thing this year. To be sure, Chicago has been home to nominally Nepalese restaurants for years. Nepal House, Cumin, Himshikar, Chicago Curry House, and Curry Hut are well established, but their menus often rely heavily on the not insignificant Indian influence on Nepalese cuisine and largely ignore the regional and ethnic differences within Nepal.
This is true even among the brand-new crop of legitimately exciting Nepalese restaurants, such as Vajra, a fine-dining newcomer that offers interesting takes on a few Nepalese standards (duck chhoila in particular), but still spans the subcontinent with diffusely inspired dishes like Goan fish curry, butter chicken, and tandoori venison. Places like Chiya Chai and the Momo World focus on the country’s famous dumplings but don’t go much deeper than that.
Enter Bhim Rai, an eight-year veteran of Highwood’s Curry Hut, who along with three partners opened Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen in Lincoln Square with a menu that goes deeper into Nepalese regional and multiethnic foods than anywhere else in town.
Rai grew up cooking next to his mother in the Khoathaong District of northeastern Nepal, and at an early age was exposed to the cooking of friends in the Sherpa community, the group most closely associated with momo, but also a handful of less common Tibetan dishes that have found their way onto his menu too. As Rai began cooking professionally he was exposed to the food of other ethnic groups ranging from the midland-dwelling Thakali minority—famous for a multidish set similar to an Indian thali—to the urban Newari, who inhabit the capital and the Kathmandu Valley at large.
It wasn’t until Rai left Nepal that he even learned to cook common Indian dishes, and though a section of his menu is devoted to familiar menu mainstays like vindaloo and chicken tikka masala, it’s dominated by truly Nepalese dishes.
Start with sephaley (commonly spelled shabaley), a kind of Tibetan empanada stuffed with minced chicken and peas, lacquered with ghee, and served with a thick, mustardy dipping sauce.
Mustard—greens and oil—plays a prominent role across the menu, adding pungency and appealing bitterness. Fresh sauteed mustard greens steal the show from another Tibetan dumpling known as ting-mo, spongy, bland twists of warm dough enlivened by the chiled greens and the roasted tomato and garlic relish, called golbheda ko achaar, they’re meant to be dipped in. Mustard oil announces itself in the mainstay chhoila, combining with the tingle of Sichuan peppercorn (in Nepal they use a close cousin) that distinguishes this dish of chopped boneless chicken sprinkled with crunchy beaten rice (baji) from the others that have begun appearing around town. The seasoning leaches into a bed of iceberg lettuce, taking that normally useless garnish to a new level. Rai applies the same profile to an appetizer version of this Newari festival staple: “base camp potatoes,” crinkle-cut french fries, offered to bring vegetarians to the party.
Of course there are momo, here vegetable- or chicken-stuffed momo in three varieties—steamed, stained with chile sauce and fried, or bathing in the curried tomato soup known as jhol. These are in fact a good place on which to set up a base camp before moving on to Rai’s more uncommon dishes, such as thenthuk, a large bowl of chicken soup thick with fat, hand-shaved noodles. There’s an uncommon pumpkin curry, built on thin slices of gourd, rich with ghee; and kwati, a seven-legume stew that Rai steeps and cooks for nearly 24 hours in order to sprout the beans (for maximum digestibility).
Meaty bone-in-curries of goat, beef, or lamb laced with fenugreek and cinnamon balance out such wholesomeness, along with a surprising number (for a landlocked nation) of seafood dishes, most notably a salmon curry almost electric in its bright, acidic profile. Rai concedes this is a dish of his own invention, inspired by the freshwater river fish he catches on visits back home.
All or most of these can be eaten together in a set, noted on the menu as the Thakali Vojan or the Sherpa Special Vojan, aka khana, a kind of riff on the common thali that the famously business-oriented ethnic group adopted as their own, this one with a side of ghundruk ko achaar, a dense, crunchy, but somewhat less mild version of the fermented mustard leaf grown and sun-dried by Nepalese refugees from Bhutan less than a half mile west on Lawrence at the Global Garden Refugee Training Program.
Rai and his partners offer a lot more specifically Nepalese dishes, enough to keep novices in exploratory mode for some time. Dishes like grilled Sichuan-kissed grilled goat sekuwa, bitter melon in tomato sauce, and the particularly Nepali love letter to chow mein all show that Rai and his partners did their research. “We visited a lot of places in Chicago, and we haven’t seen those,” he says. v