Friday, May 6, 2011

If you were a hamburger in Kathmandu, where would you hide?

Maybe it plays into stereotypes but if there is one food item I have really come to miss in this city it's a really good hamburger. Yes I'm American, yes I like hamburgers, and no you can't get one really worth eating here. Maybe that's how Nepali's in the U.S. feel about hunting down momos or dahl baht. When I've mentioned the lack of good burgers I'm often met with a curious response, as plenty of places claim to make them, and if that's the only type of burger you've ever had I suppose you think the claim a bit odd. But to use the former analogy it would be like me showing a Nepali a pile of plain over-cooked rice and some dryish lentils and saying, "What do you mean this isn't dahl baht?" Yes it would be rice and lentils, but no that isn't how you enjoy it.

One of the things that conspires against the creation of a good burger in this country is that it has several parts, none of which are popular or even in South Asian cuisine. Beef for example is not to be eaten as the cow in Hinduism is sacred. This leaves you with a few options, which is import the beef from India (also a Hindu country but apparently with less qualms about killing cows) or places like Australia. This inevitably means less fresh meat, and requires freezing which often reduces the quality in my opinion. That said, I've had some really good steaks here, so getting good cuts of beef is not impossible. Another option is to use an alternative  but similar animal such as water buffalo or yak. Now buff (as water buffalo is referred to) is OK, but it has a slightly different taste, different enough that I'm not a fan. Yak on the other hand is quite tough, but when ground up as burger it actually is quite good. Thing is that most places in Nepal that advertise yak are actually selling buff, and most of the actual yak meat I've eaten was in Tibet and not Nepal. So really just trying to find decent whole steaks and then grinding them locally would most likely be the best option. Most places though seem to settle for frozen buff which is the worst of both worlds.

Another problem is bread. It's hard to understand how important the bun of a burger is until you've gone a year and a half without finding one that didn't just fall apart in your hands. What I wouldn't give for a good old bulkie roll. Nepal was never officially occupied by a foreign power, and the closest thing to it was the British via India. Thus Nepal unlike places like Vietnam and Cambodia who were French occupied, never was really introduced to bread culture. Sure over the yeas many bakeries have sprung up to serve tourists and the small expat community, but even the good ones are still not quite right. Add to the cultural unfamiliarity of baking the fact that we sit at an elevation that affects the baking process and the general lack of quality ingredients and you can see why finding good rolls for a burger might be a problem.

Cheese is also something that Asian cultures have really just never been into. To find good cheese here often means tracking down some adventurous expat who has taken it upon themselves to supply Nepal with some kind of cheese. Cheeses such as Monterey Jack, Colby, sharp cheddars, blue, and Swiss are almost unheard of here. There are some decent cheeses to be had at the Farmer's markets, but even these are more often cheeses that you would have with bread, crackers and wine, or on a salad, not so much ones that you would use on a burger. Most often if you do get cheese served on your burger it's a cheap Indian mozzarella that has far too much oil in its manufacture or another common substitute is yak cheese which is something I  personally have never developed a taste for, and find the texture kind of plastic like.

Cold meals are also something that is just not done in Asian cultures and so even finding toppings done properly has been a bit of an issue. Lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions are often not served along side the burgers and when they are there is often something odd about the way they are prepped, which sounds crazy but it's true. Another toppings dilemma is that the condiments here are quite different and there is a general non-familiarity with common western condiments such as pickles, mustard, and even the ketchup isn't the same. Instead you often get "tomato sauce" which is kind of like ketchup but just a little thinner and sweeter and chili sauce which is kind of like a chili based ketchup- neither of which are things I'm really wanting to put on my burger. Finding offerings of something more engaging than a plain hamburger or cheese burger are almost non-existent, so as one would expect getting something like a mushroom-swiss burger, or a chili-bacon burger is just about out of the question.

The conclusion that I have to come to when considering all these things is that the Cheeseburger is perhaps the most non-Nepali food that exists, as every single component of it is something either culturally alien or religiously prohibited. So it should be no surprise that tracking one down in this city is something of a difficult task. Hopefully in the not too distant future there will be a good option for real honest to goodness burgers though, as I'm in the early stages of planning a restaurant somewhere in the central Kathmandu area. While I'm excited about possibly doing wings, sandwiches,  and Mexican that surpasses anything else in the area, it is the pursuit of a damn fine burger that I really want to nail. It's a bit of a challenge, but if no one else is going to make them, might as well try and do it yourself.


  1. So Nepal needs a Hard Rock Cafe!

  2. Brian, I teared up as I read your post. Never before has such an affectionate love letter to the Burger been blogged. If you get your project up I'll be one of your best customers when I'm in town.

  3. Lauren- I think you penned my favorite comment on this blog to date, Thanks!

    Also it is looking more and more likely that this project will become reality, so stay tuned!


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