According to legend, Bungadya, the Buddhist incarnation of compassion who has for centuries helped the people of Kathmandu Valley, was born to the demon king and queen in a land entirely populated by evil spirits. When drought struck Kathmandu, a priest and his entourage went to the land of evil spirits to ask Bungadya’s help. But the compassionate bodhisattva’s parents did not want to part with him, and so it was necessary for the priest to offer animal sacrifice. This, to my understanding, is one reason Newar Buddhist priests, who would be expected to frown on any violence toward animals, today regularly oversee the slaughter of sacrificial animals in Kathmandu. Whatever the legends say, the task of reconciling animal sacrifice with Buddhist philosophy seems to me a daunting one.
But Kathmandu has always struck me as a place where uneasily contrasting ideas and habits are rarely kept separate, as if consistency were an offensive form of prejudice. In Kathmandu, tea shops blast Tom Waits around the corner from ancient temples, and streams clotted with severed water buffalo hoofs lie just past a road where holy cattle roam unmolested. It may not be so surprising that the Newar Buddhists sacrifice animals, or even that they prescribe a caste system.
It should also not be surprising then that the Newars had the idea of combining Italian food with momos. This is the great contribution of Woodside Cafe to Queens. Lest you should think that this is the influence of Queens on Newar cuisine, it has been reported that the owner of the shop first combined Italian food with momos at his restaurant in Kathmandu, and then brought it with him when he moved to the United States.
Woodside Cafe sits on the corner, with windows on two sides and a bar with a large television dominating the space. Small, elaborate wood carvings adorn the walls, demonstrating traditional Newar craftsmanship, and a few religious masks hang over the door and windows. When I arrived, the volume on the television was fairly high, and Jimmy Kimmel nearly overwhelmed my experience of the restaurant. Fortunately, the TV was soon turned off and replaced with Nepali rock songs.
I ordered chula baji and momos in pink cream sauce.
The chula baji consisted of beef sautéed in mustard oil with onions, fenugreek, and spices, with a healthy serving of beaten rice. The result was juicy and savory.
I ordered chicken momos, which perhaps gave the pink cream sauce more room than beef would have. Momos usually have strong garlic and onion flavors, but these were dominated by tomato and basil and Mediterranean flavors. The shells were thick and went nicely with the sauce, much like penne pasta.
Woodside Cafe advertises its fusion of Italian, American, and Nepali food, but they have a more extensive list of authentic Newar dishes than you are likely to find at many other Nepali restaurants. If you are interested in Newar food, this is a good place to start. But do learn a little about the different dishes before you go. I’ve noticed that Woodside Cafe has a number of negative reviews on Yelp from people who were disappointed with Samaybaji, not because it was prepared badly, but simply because they had no idea what they were ordering (this consists entirely of very dry, spicy food served cold).
Woodside, NY 11377