It’s 10:45 on a Saturday night. The last customers of the day are rushing into Bhims Café in Jackson Heights, Queens, to pick up food orders before the doors close at 11. Hot oil sizzles up from the frying pans that Rekha Shrestha pulls on and off the six burners in front of her. Shrestha is frying up sel roti, Nepalese rice flour doughnuts that are formed into rings resembling angel halos. Just behind her, a display of traditional Nepalese fast food items, including diced goat stomachs and livers called bhuttan, tempts eaters who have come from the far corners of the city and beyond, drawn by her celebrated home cooking.
Bhims Café lies in the heart of one of New York City’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Jackson Heights may be best known for its Indian population, but in recent years, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and now Nepalese businesses have carved out new ethnic enclaves in the neighborhood. Some people are starting to refer to a “Little Nepal,” even though Nepalis themselves say the area is such a multiethnic melting pot that they cannot claim any part of it as “their” enclave.
A customer at Bhims, Manisha Hicks, drove all the way to Jackson Heights from her home in Pennsylvania to savor Shrestha’s Nepalese cooking. “Rekha works very hard, 14 hours a day, to make us her famous momos,” says Hicks, standing beside the counter. “Everyone comes here. Consider this the ‘Nepal hub’ of America,” she says.
As in many ethnic enclaves, restaurants are one of the most visible signs of the culture, feeding immigrants’ longings for home. Jackson Diner, opened in 1980, has been a popular spot to eat authentic Indian and Nepalese food and to hear live music.
Ajaya Chhochoon, an insurance agent in New York, sits at a table in the front of Jackson Diner as his wife Sangita Mukhiya Chhochoon sings a set of traditional Nepali and Indian songs on a small stage. Patrons’ glasses clink and platters of traditional Nepalese and Indian food come out of the kitchen every few minutes. Chhochoon is celebrating his wife’s arrival from Nepal.
“This is a place where we can come to see our culture, speak our language, eat our food. It used to be primarily Indian and Pakistani, but now the Nepalese community has really grown,” Chhochoon says. On Saturday nights, he can travel within minutes to several venues offering live Nepalese music, including the Himalayan Yak, Chautari Restaurant, and Jackson Diner.
The growth of the Nepalese community in New York is a fairly recent phenomenon. Adhikaar, a grassroots group that supports the immigrant Nepali community, surveyed 300 local Nepalis in 2010 and reported that 85 percent had arrived within the previous nine years. Half said they had come within the previous three years. Civil war, ongoing political turmoil after the war’s end, and high unemployment rates are among the factors driving emigration from Nepal.
Further evidence of the growing Nepalese community is a flowering arts scene. One local non-profit organization, Dance Theater of Nepal, is showcasing Nepalese arts culture in New York and beyond. Co-founded in 1995 by an American, Sherry Onna, and a renowned Nepalese musician and dancer, Raj Kapoor, the organization has assembled a community of Nepalese performers in the city.
“Our musicians here are major contributors to the Nepali arts and culture scene on an international scale,” says Onna. She estimates that there are a couple hundred Nepalese musicians in NY now.
Drum beats and guitar melodies fill the upstairs of the Himalayan Yak restaurant on Saturday nights. Since 2005, the Yak has served a modern take on the traditional cuisine of Nepal. Intricate woodcarvings from Bhaktapur, Nepal, line the walls. The lights are low, but the energy is high. The air inside is pleasantly thick with a buttery aroma of Nepalese sauces, garlic and spices. Some diners eat with their hands as others sip on “Himalayan cocktails” infused with ingredients from the region like ginger and chilies.
“This is my favorite place to play,” says Rajendra Karn, a Nepalese percussionist who performs most Saturday nights. “Being here is like living in Nepal – the food and the music. This way, we don’t miss Nepal so much.”
Despite the multiple opportunities to hear Nepali music, musicians are not well paid, meaning most work multiple jobs.
That’s not uncommon for other Nepali immigrants, too, according to Adhikaar, the grassroots group. It’s 2010 report said 10 percent of Nepalis in NYC work more than 60 hours a week, yet more than two-thirds have annual household incomes lower than $30,000.
Despite challenges, Nepalese performing artists continue to share their music and dance traditions with New Yorkers. Karn and his band-mates expressed their feelings with a popular Nepalese phrase, “Zindagi Chhoto Chha.” This is the Nepali way of saying: life is short.