Based on NYC Media’s new food TV series, “Native Dish: United Flavors of NYC,” Culinary Backstreets brings you a behind-the-scenes look at some of the New Yorkers featured in these short videos. The series, which aims to celebrate New York City immigrants from all over the world, focuses on one individual and one dish at a time as a means through which to explore the myriad cuisines represented in the city and the people who make them.
While each episode features a general overview of the participant’s life story, particularly as it relates to food, we are expanding that narrative by providing a portion of the interview, condensed and lightly edited. It’s their story, in their own words. This month we are spotlighting Jamyang “Jimmy” Gurung, a Nepalese immigrant from the Himalayas, who manages the Himalayan Yak, a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant, and Raksha Thapa, a waitress and former teacher from Kathmandu Valley. The Himalayan Yak team delve into their still-deep connection to Nepal and their love in sharing their cuisine and yak momos with New York.
My original name, given by my father, is Jamyang Gurung. My co-workers, my customers, they know me as Jimmy. Since my uncle took over this restaurant, it’s been almost 10 years now, and it’s a family restaurant so…I’ve been managing this restaurant since we bought it.
I’m from Nepal. The place name is called Mustang, which is a border side of Tibet and Nepal. A very high-altitude place; it’s a cold desert area. Mustang, like a car, yeah. I came here 12 years ago. If you go to Nepal, you see all hill…hill, mountains; it’s a landlocked country. We don’t have oceans [or] big, big cities like here. It’s very natural. Our main agriculture is barley flours, buckwheats. …It’s very hard to grow rice in places like Mustang, ‘cause of altitude and climates, of course.
New York City – I came here with my dad. Actually, I came here to study and, of course for all the immigrants like me, for a better opportunity, better future, you know. [For] South Asian countries, the situation is very low economics. You come here for a better opportunity.
In Nepal, most of the ingredients we grow in our own gardens, or you go to the farmers. Over here, the momo tastes a little bit different because we don’t get the original ingredients [from] back home in Nepal. Like, even those kind of cilantro you grow in high altitude, and you grow here—it’s different taste…the onions…those basic ingredients. The Yak meat we get here is different Yak meat than [in] Nepal. Here, I order from Colorado, Denver. They have a big farm, and they [raise] Tibetan Yak over there. In Tibet, Yak [are] free range, you know.
We have a different kind of momo here [in Nepal], so it’s easy to recognize. From beginning to end, it takes maybe 25 minutes. Steaming is our – the – real way to cook yak meat. [It’s] more healthy, also. With the Yak meat, most of the people they prefer Balep – it’s a big Tibetan bread. It’s whole-wheat flour. [With] momo, they prefer the dipping [and] chili sauces. Ok, Yak butter tea (po-cha) is a tea, but it’s not sweet like our regular tea because we add salt on it. So, it’s a little bit weird tast[ing] than a regular tea, but it’s our tea in the Himalayans. The original yak butter tea, we [drink] with yak butter and tea leaves, and we add some Himalayan salt. We drink [it] the whole day, actually, because the Himalayan region is a very cold place. To keep your body warm, we drink a lot.
A taste of home
I think this is one of the oldest Nepalese restaurants in New York City, so everyone knows about Himalayan Yak. When people come out of state also, they always come over here because [we’ve] become a trademark Nepalese place. This is a place where all the Nepalese/Tibetan communities come over for gatherings, for holy days, weekends. [The] Jackson Heights area used to be known only for [its] Indian people, mostly, and now we have a lot of Himalayan people, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Tibetans. They have their own local employment agencies, local grocery stores, a lot of Indian markets. A lot of South Asian peoples here, basically.
I always feel proud to introduce our Himalayan food to different people, like New Yorkers. Since New York is like a very versatile society … it’s like we are bringing all the Himalayans to New York City and they should try it, you know? Of course, it’s the new thing—always good to try the new thing. I’m most proud of our food, because our food has [a] very authentic, different taste than other restaurants’ foods. It reminds [immigrants] of back home, you know. When you go to our restaurant, you feel like you’re in a different place. … We try to keep our originality…without sacrificing the taste. You see the same environment in Nepal. Some of the ingredients [are] very hard to find over here but… those are secret ingredients.
It’s always good to learn about different societies and culture, right? And, of course, the food [is] one big part. Everyone should come here and try our food, and experience the different culture, different environment. We follow our generation paths – even though I’m in a new generational era – always learn our culture to keep our culture alive. Which is very important. You have to keep your own identity; [it] is very important in this generation.
Help Wanted: Introducing Raksha
I’m Raksha Thapa. I’m from Nepal … from Kathmandu Valley. I [had been] homesick because there was this earthquake going on in Nepal, and my family are there, and there was nobody here. I was all alone, and then I had to like…I had to find a job. Obviously, I had to find a job; without a job you cannot survive here in New York City! I was walking by and I came here to dine. … I was just listening to the music and I was enjoying my food and everything.
A lot of the customers, they’re really new to Tibetan and Nepali food. Really new. There’s a lot of cultures in Nepal, and a lot of cultures have lot of different food, different style[s]. And even me being a Nepali, I have not tasted all the traditional food from all the cultures. A lot of different cultures eat all these kind of foods, so all the things are mixed here at Himalayan Yak. Every item has got different culture, different kind of tastes. But when I come in here, I feel like this is my home. Because the taste, the smell of the food, the people here, everything here – I feel like this is Nepal. It’s not that we’re only here in the United States [and] we only have to have burgers and hamburgers or French fries, no?
Food from the heart
My mother thinks that in the United States, there’s no food from Nepal. “My daughter’s missing the food!” But I tell her, I get to eat each and every thing I had back in my country. When I’m eating, sometimes I snap it and send it to my mother.
In our culture, Nepali food is cooked with love in it. They want to serve people with open hearts. All the warmth, all the love is there in Nepali food – in spite of the spices in it. [Customers] are not going to forget it for a week or a month, because the taste is so good in. And every food’s got a different taste. So, I always want them to come and taste the food.
Most of the spices are homemade. They grind it, they dry it in the sun and then they blend it. You don’t have to go and buy them. These spices that are made in the home, they are sold in the market in Nepal. The love, the warmth is already there in the spices in Nepali food, so when you make the Nepali food, always see the love is there. You’re not going to say “I don’t like it.” You’re going to love it.
We are happy that people really like our culture and everything, but a lot of things in Nepal – also because of Western civilization – a lot of cultures are about to collapse, you know. So, we do not want the cultures and traditions to [leave] our [home] country. …These kind of traditional things … we do not want to lose this. We want to promote our traditional culture here in the United States – that’s why we celebrate Desai, we celebrate Losar, we celebrate teas – lots of different things here in our community, even though I’m here in America. Working here in the Himalayan Yak – this is not going to let me forget, because the food, the people around, the traditions that goes on here, the music – this is not going to let me go down.
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