When Tanka Sapkota, originally from Nepal, arrived in Portugal 25 years ago, Lisbon was a very different city. There were no Nepalese restaurants and the only momo people knew of at that time was the King of Carnival (Rei Momo). Tanka says there were only four people from Nepal in the country, including him. “And now there are around 20,000,” he says, smiling.
He first came to Lisbon for two weeks before deciding to move in 1996. Three years later, he opened his first restaurant. However, he didn’t start with a Nepalese restaurant, but with an Italian one. “Back then, the Italian cuisine in Lisbon was very simple,” he said. In 1999, he opened Come Prima in the Pampulha area, which offered a more authentic take on Italian cooking than what was available at that time. In 2014, he opened a specialized pizza restaurant, Forno de Oro, and in 2016, Il Mercato, with a grocery shop and a focus on fresh pastas.
This love for Italian food comes, surprisingly, from Germany, where Tanka had initially moved after leaving Nepal in 1992. Once there, his first job was in an Italian restaurant, washing dishes. “I didn’t speak any other language, I just knew I didn’t want to stay in Nepal as my family had plans for me to marry and I didn’t want to – at least until I was 25,” he says. “At 18, I stopped my law studies and I went to Germany, as a friend of my brother was living there.”
Working in an Italian restaurant in Stuttgart, he learned Italian, among other things. “I was able to learn everything in that restaurant, working from the kitchen to the dining room, service to tables, pizza making. I got to be the head chef and the head of service,” Tanka says. He learned the secrets of Italian cuisine and studied in a program offered through Gambero Rosso, a well-known Italian culinary publisher. Once he moved to Lisbon, he knew his own project had to be Italian – and Come Prima is now one of the most-awarded Italian restaurants in the city. It has even been certified by La Verace Pizza Napoletana (The True Neapolitan Pizza Association).
But clients kept asking Tanka: Why not open his own Nepalese restaurant? Finally, he did, breaking new ground with Casa Nepalesa in 2010. “That was my first experience with my culture and gastronomic background and, at that time, Lisbon didn’t have Nepalese restaurants like we have today, so people were very curious and we started to have many regular clients,” he said.
In the 10 years since Tanka had opened his restaurant, the Nepalese community was one of the fastest-growing in Portugal. Tanka himself helped many, through putting on solidarity events or even hiring them – almost all the staff at his restaurants are Nepalese. The community is mostly dispersed across Lisbon (where they are quick to find work at restaurants, hotels or shops) and in the town of Odemira in the farming region of Alentejo. Many move to other European countries once they get their legal status sorted out. Many others, like Tanka, stay – not just working in Portuguese restaurants, but founding their own places too. Now, the scent of momos or samosas can be found drifting from neighborhoods like Alcântara, Anjos and beyond.
Originally, Tanka offered dishes he knew would please the Portuguese palate, but at the end of 2021, he redid the whole menu at Casa Nepalesa, making it more traditional and incorporating recipes from his grandmother and mother. “These are the genuine flavors I remember, and I wanted to share them,” he tells us. The new menu introduced a lamb tartare and several goat dishes with DOP kid from Trás-os-Montes (northeast Portugal), using the best produce he can source. He is also starting an organic farm north of Lisbon, which includes the Nepalese karela, a bitter melon that looks like a spiky cucumber.
From his childhood memories, he recreated a dish called Bakhra Ko John Ra Momo Sanga, a kid soup served with momos (Nepalese dumplings) filled with black pig from Alentejo. This, says the chef, was the equivalent of the European curative chicken soup, and made specially for him by his mother when he was sick. At his restaurant, he adds a bit of “Nepalese diamond,” the yarchagumba – the most expensive fungus in the world (around €45,000 per kg), which comes from the Himalayas and grows only within caterpillars. It’s actually the super expensive caterpillar itself that is shaved into the kid soup. This not-so-good-looking fungus is also known in Nepal for other purposes, such as a male aphrodisiac. On the menu, you can choose dishes with or without yarchagumba, as the price is also quite different.
One recipe from his grandmother is the Khasi Ko Bhutan, kid offal with fresh mushrooms and spices, a dish that she used to cook for special occasions. Another interesting flavor is the curry made with wild boar from Évora (Alentejo) cooked slowly for nine hours.
While Tanka’s brother Togesh and sister-in-law Rama run Casa Nepalesa, it’s Tanka who is behind the project and menu. He is so concerned about the quality and authenticity that he spends all day in and out of his restaurants. “I’m supervising Casa Nepalesa, but my brother and sister-in-law are doing a great job. This restaurant was where I have worked the most – I was the architect, designer and chef!” He likes to see satisfied customers, and high-quality and fresh ingredients – from spices to meat – are some of his daily concerns. Tanka is happy that so many Nepalese restaurants and momos can now be found in the different neighborhoods of Lisbon, but he thinks they need more “purity, to serve genuine Nepalese food.”
He has helped a number of his countrymen – “it was my obligation” – and also started a fund to help Nepalese immigrants. But the majority of his solidarity actions have been to help Portugal as well. He not only has contributed money and food to food banks, but also donated pizzas across Lisbon neighborhoods during the first lockdown in 2020, cooking around 10,500 pizzas with a mobile oven.
We are already dreaming of being back at Casa Nepalesa, feasting on momo, kid soup and a finale of spicy Nepalese rice pudding called khira, made with rice from the Himalayan fields. “Welcome to my family’s kitchen,” Tanka beckons. There, we travel to the mountain ranges and valleys of Nepal, a happy place – made even happier with a fine list of Portuguese wines.
This article was originally published on March 10, 2022.
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