MOORHEAD - Americans love ethnic food. Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Bosnian, Thai - it really doesn't matter.
Ethnic food is an easy way to explore the world through taste, and it's politely exotic. But we sometimes wonder: Is it authentic? Where do the Chinese go in Fargo-Moorhead when they want Chinese food? Or the Vietnamese? Is the served food what customers would get in the homeland?
Food is a personal matter. I am from Nepal, now a junior studying English at Concordia College in Moorhead, and I recently craved home food. There are stories behind food and stories created by food, and there are memories.
Because I live in a dormitory and do not have a full kitchen, I first thought to choose between the two restaurants in town that offer Nepali food. Then I decided to try them both last month and see if either place brought the familiarity that home food does.
Everest Tikka House
420 Center Ave., Moorhead
"Sanchai?" I said.
"Sanchai. Timi?" the server replied.
I stood at the entrance of Everest Tikka House, located in the Moorhead Center Mall, with my friends Grace and Justin, who had never tasted Nepali food before. Everest Tikka House advertises that they specialize in Nepali and Indian food, which are not the same.
Grace and Justin wanted to have Nepali food and not Indian, but it was hard to distinguish between the two on the menu. Even I had to look at the fine print on the menu to confirm. I came in knowing what I wanted - the Nepali thali, which translates to "Nepali plate," the everyday dinner served in every Nepali household.
As we waited for the food, we were served some papad, a thin, crisp chip-like food made with soaked and dried lentils. It tasted exactly how I remembered it when I was younger and had them at parties where I was unsupervised and filled up on anything that wasn't healthy. Memory, I thought, is one way we enjoy what we eat.
After a short wait, the food arrived: white rice, daal (lentils), Aaloo jimbu (fried potatoes), chicken curry, Aaloo achaar (potato salad), mixed achaar (pickled and spiced vegetables) on a plate with each item separated in small porcelain bowls for me. Justin got momos (steamed dumplings), while Grace got garlic naan (flatbread) and Aaloo bodi tama (potatoes, black-eyed peas and bamboo shoots). We dove right in.
The food was good. The rice was fluffy, the chicken curry was well-spiced and had just the right amount of heat. The Aaloo jimbu was great, with lots of herbs and spices and fried just to the point where the outside was crisp, but still soft on the inside. The Aaloo achaar was the highlight for me mainly because they reminded me of the way my mother makes them at home and the great balance of the sour to the spice was spot-on.
So much of food is emotion, I thought.
The mixed achaar was exactly like what you'd expect from something pickled - a little oily, crunchy and tangy. My favorite part of a thali, daal, was unfortunately a letdown. Back home, daal is almost soup like, but what I was served was thick and creamy like a curry. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't like home.
However, from having eaten at their buffet in the past, I know that they make the soupy style daal and I would ask them to have it prepared that way during my next visit.
Justin and Grace agreed the food was "very flavorful." I smiled at this introduction to Nepal. I wished I could've shown them the luscious green forests that adorn hills and the temples with the doors, windows, sculptures and structures with intricate detailing that show true craftsmanship. For now, the food would have to do.
1450 25th St. S., Fargo
"Namaste," I said.
"Namaste," the server replied.
The first thing I noticed as soon as I entered Fargo's Himalayan Yak was that it was busy. Almost half the tables were taken, and there were a couple delivery service people sitting around. Justin and Grace came with me again and we had to wait a couple minutes until we were seated and handed menus.
Ordering was easier this time around. The Himalayan Yak serves Indian food as well, but the menu had a section for Nepali entrees my friends perused, while I knew I wanted the Nepali thali again.
The thali arrived exactly the way I'd have it back home in Nepal on a stainless steel plate with sections divided for the rice, daal, achaar, spinach, Aaloo jimbu and the chicken curry in a brass side dish.
For a moment, I forgot I was in a restaurant in Fargo and almost ate with my hands instead of using cutlery. The food in front of me could easily have been mistaken for what I normally ate in my grandparents' house in Kathmandu.
It wasn't just the visual appeal of the food that was home-like; so was the taste. The spinach was sauteed to perfection, the chicken curry had depth, the daal was really flavorful, and the Aaloo jimbu was delicious. The only thing missing was my aunt coaxing me to take seconds of everything.
Grace loved her mango lassi and chicken with bone curry, while Justin devoured his garlic naan while taking spoonfuls of my chicken curry. Both agreed the food tasted amazing and had no complaints. Grace went as far as to call the place her "new favorite restaurant". It made my heart happy to hear all the positive feedback because it didn't just mean they liked the restaurant - it meant that they'd gotten a taste of where I'm from.
Is it authentic?
Are both restaurants true? Absolutely, in different ways.
I enjoyed both places, but for different reasons. Everest Tikka House is the place I would go to if I were in Nepal and my family or friends wanted to eat out at a place that served Nepali food. The presentation is fancy, and so is the decor. You might want to take a couple pictures for your Instagram there.
Himalayan Yak is where I'd go to cure my homesickness with food resembling my grandparents' kitchen and true-to-heart stories.