On a chilly December morning, there is quite a buzz near Anamnagar bus station, east of Singhadarbar. A crowd has gathered around a stall, which is selling a popular dish of eastern Nepal, bhakka.
“We come to this didi’s place every morning for this. This food reminds us of our teen years when we used to eat bhakka every day while going to high school,” shares Rabin Khatiwada, a native of Birtamod in Jhapa district.
Made famous by members of the ethnic group called Rajbanshi, who live in Jhapa and Morang districts, bhakka is a popular dish made from fresh rice flour. It is normally eaten during winter in the areas.
However, this dish has recently travelled to Kathmandu. Whereas other street foods are popular among roadside crowds during afternoons and evenings, bhakka has been a favourite for morning folks.
The indigenous taste
“It’s a dish of one of Nepal’s indigenous peoples. Rajbanshis, who were based in the Gangetic plains of the Terai developed a lot of dishes with the help of rice. Bhakka is just one of them,” informs Dipak Rajbanshi, an anthropology teacher from Jhapa, currently based in the capital.
He shares that back in the day, the dish was only made in winter after the harvest season, mostly by women. “Women would cook these bhakkas early mornings and evenings for their family members and serve them with tea. It was much later that they started to go out and sell it as a breakfast item.”
The dish then started to gain popularity and quickly spread around eastern Terai. “Rice is something that is easily available around the region, which is why this dish quickly spread.”
The quickness that Rajbanshi mentions is reflected in the crowds that gather around bhakka stalls in Kathmandu these days.
Earlier this year, Biwash Kafle and a few of his friends in a bid to do something new decided to open Bhakka House in Kathmandu. “We were looking for things to do in the country itself. We didn’t want to go abroad and decided to open a business here and create employment opportunities for others,” shares Kafle, who is also a native of Jhapa.
“We decided to go with bhakka because the dish was popular in Jhapa. As a child, I and other friends used to eat it too. And not wanting to open the same momo/chowmin joint, we decided to bring something new, something that all our brothers and sisters from the east could enjoy,” he continues.
Bhakka House, located in Purano Baneshwar of Kathmandu, has been open for nine months now.
Kafle shares that even though the beginning was hard, it is now doing good business. The owners have also tried to add their own touch to bhakka, by creating two of their own dishes. “We just improvised in the already good dish by making one a bit sweet and the other chocolaty.”
Ever increasing popularity
Rajbanshi believes the reason bhakka is doing well in Kathmandu is due to the climatic conditions in the capital.
“Apart from the afternoons, it’s quite chilly here in Kathmandu in almost every season and that is why the dish is doing well here. Growing up in Jhapa, we were always told that the dish keeps your body warm, which is why it was made only during winters.”
He also adds that it is quite fulfilling as well. “You have two bhakkas for breakfast and you’ll be good enough till lunchtime. As it is oil-free, it’s quite healthy too.”
Rajbanshi feels that a cuisine traditional to the Rajbanshi community living in eastern Nepal has lost its charms over the years due to the change in people’s tastes and preferences.
“Like bhuja (rice crispies), which is also a Rajbanshi dish, this too is changing with commercialisation. Earlier, it used to be made in earthen clay pots, but now it is not the case,” he adds.
Nevertheless, Rajbanshi is happy that other people, including those living in urban Kathmandu, have loved the dish of his ethnic group. Such interactions would help people strengthen cultural and emotional bonds, according to him.
The 500 km journey was worth it.