The Foodish Boy: Off The Grid in San Francisco
In his introduction to A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain asks "you're getting the electric chair tomorrow...What are you having for dinner?". Without hesitation I know what I would request: A huge mound of potato and cream cheese vareniki (a Ukrainian crescent shaped dumpling), drowning in a pool of butter fried onions. So fantastic is this dish that our family only dares eat them on Ukrainian Christmas Eve for fear of ending up like Ivan Mendel. If you ever want to find a way to my heart it's most certainly with a dumpling. With that in mind, how could I possibly turn down an offer from Binita 'Bini' Pradhan, of Bini's Kitchen, to spend time learning the intricacies of Nepali momo dumplings.
Bini learnt the secrets of Nepali cooking from her mother: a chef for Nepali royalty in the 1960s. From Kathmandu in the Himalayan foothills Bini arrived in America hoping to share a cuisine hitherto unknown in San Francisco. However, with the many barriers faced by low-income immigrant women in the US, Bini's plans to launch a food business sadly seemed far away. Bini, however, is an incredibly driven woman. So it is of no great surprise Bini beat thousands of applicants to win a place at La Cocina an kitchen incubator charity that give women like Bini an opportunity to do what they love. Months later Bini's Kitchen was born.
Although Bini offers a range of Nepali food, such as Ghurkha chicken and kwati (a nine bean stew), it is her momo dumplings that sing to the San Francisco masses. A round shaped pastry made from wholewheat flour and water, momos are filled with spiced meat and/or vegetables, delicately folded, and then steamed. They are served with her famous tomato and coriander sauce with fresh timur (a Neapli type of Sichuan pepper). Bini tells me the secret to a good momo is in the spicing. She imports her spices from Nepal, sun dries and hand grinds them to deliver a flavour like nothing else on the US market. Getting to work on the thousands of momos required, my momos were a far cry from Bini's champion momo maker, Soepa's.
Our efforts in the kitchen were in preparation for Bini's spot at San Francisco's weekly Off the Grid food truck market. The recession, social media and tightening of health laws have all contributed to the dramatic rise of US food truck culture. Loading the van up in preparation for the event, I couldn't believe how much food we were taking. Surely the rest of the city can't love dumpling as much as I do?
Arriving at the Bini's spot, I was introduced to Nitish and Avash, two chaps who went out of their way to recommend food places for my world tour. Bini huddled the team together for a pre game talk. Ready, steady, MOMO! Click to view a slideshow of our shift and the awesome food we cooked.
Like many of my jobs to date, Bini insisted on feeding me the entire menu throughout service. At the end of my shift I felt like I do every year at Ukrainian Christmas - half man, half dumpling. I paused to reflect on Bourdain's question. That last meal on death row? Put a few of those Nepali dumplings on the side will you?