Kishor Nepal has a soft spot for the chicken momo on the menu at his Indian restaurant in north St. Catharines.
The pillowy dumplings he prepares and serves at The Kolkata Club are an homage to his birth country Nepal, and he knows they aren’t easy to find elsewhere in Niagara.
But neither is his Masala Coke, an amped up version of the popular soft drink staring aromatic cumin and black salt. Ditto for his pani puri, a popular Indian street food snack. Or the made-to-order Indo-Hakka dishes, which are a nod to the marriage of Indian and Han-Chinese flavours originating from the Hakka communities in Kolkata and Mumbai.
“No Indian restaurant serves this food here,” Nepal said. “Momo is very popular in India and Nepal. In every restaurant there, it’s always available. It’s mouth-watering and mouth-melting.”
Whatever dish one orders at The Kolkata Club, however, it’s like retracing Nepal’s own travels in life, including stops in Dubai, war-torn Iraq, and British Columbia.
None of those trips were taken because of wanderlust. They were to support his family facing economic hardship in his South Asian homeland.
The work he did to earn a living was often in restaurants, forcing him to cut his teeth as a chef rather than pursue his dream career.
“When I think about my career, I didn’t think about becoming a chef. But the time, the situations, all made me a chef,” Nepal recalled. “I thought I’d be a teacher or work in a government job. But in the situation, I realized I had to enjoy it. This was my work. I started to enjoy it and this is the career I built.”
Turning back the clock, work was hard to find in his small Nepali village. So in 2006, Nepal headed to Dubai to work in construction. He put in two hard years, contending with the oppressive climate of the desert city before returning home.
The situation there hadn’t improved, however.
“I didn’t have money for food,” Nepal said.
Opportunity arose in Iraq when the country was in the midst of war with the U.S. Still, risking his life for a stable income seemed a better option than staying home.
“It was only for the money. I could only stay for one year. It was so dangerous. Every day there were bombs over head.”
In 2010, he tried Dubai again, this time working in a hamburger restaurant, Subway and an Indian restaurant. He spent four years there as a stop gap, knowing all along he’d need a longer range plan for economic stability.
Canada seemed a safe option. Nepal applied for a visa and arrived in Vancouver in 2014 where he worked in another burger chain for two years before heading east to Ontario.
In 2018, Nepal became a permanent resident and brought his family, including two teenage children and his wife to live with him. He clocked time in Indian restaurant kitchens in Brampton and Mississauga before deciding to open a place of his own.
He found a breakfast spot for sale in St. Catharines and it was an ideal match.
“I looked for a place and found it here in Grantham Plaza. St. Catharines, I found it’s a nice city — peaceful and beautiful.”
And hungry for the years of experience and Indian and Nepali food knowledge Nepal had gleaned. He vowed when he opened The Kolkata Club in April 2019 that he would offer something different alongside the more common Mughlai cuisine that includes korma, biryani and tikka masala.
He would offer those point-of-pride momo, Coke dressed up with Indian flavours, Hakka noodles, Bengali fare and breads baked daily in a clay oven to make The Kolkata Club a dining destination.
“Indian and Nepali food are similar. When I was in Nepal, I had to cook for my family every day. I was aware of the spices, I was aware of the food products I’d need and I had the work experience,” he said. “If I bring the same things that already exist in the city, it’s not new. People won’t be interested.”
Two years since opening The Kolkata Club diners remain interested in all Nepal does. Takeout hasn’t been without its challenges during the pandemic but the restaurant is as much a staple in the community as those momo are on Nepal’s menu.
“People are helping me and my business and supporting me a lot, he said. “People are still loving me, still loving the restaurant, still loving my food.”