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A Taste of Nepal Comes to Queens

A new wave of Asian immigration has changed the demographics of Jackson Heights and other Queens neighborhoods.

JACKSON HEIGHTS, Queens, NY—With three sous chefs at hand and a transparent hairnet on her head, Sharmila Sherchan, 41, prepared a classic Nepalese dish called Ghoken— a buckwheat pancake, staple in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, served with chicken and vegetables. It was a Saturday evening, and Mustang Thakali Kitchen, a restaurant in Jackson Heights offering Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine, was busy.

“Weekends are normally like that,” said Sharmila, a short woman who wore a black shirt with jeans and a traditional red bangle on her left hand. Looking around at her cluttered kitchen, she estimated that she had cooked for nearly 120 customers that day. Sharmila and her husband, Nabin Sherchan, 44, who arrived in the U.S. six years ago, opened the restaurant in 2008. “Nepalese people from all over the city come here to eat,” she said.

The recession has affected most food businesses in Jackson Heights, but Mustang Thakali Kitchen has quickly emerged as a popular destination for “authentic" Nepalese food. The Sherchans attribute the restaurant’s success to the fact that 85 percent of its clientele is Nepalese, a community that has grown rapidly in New York in the last five years owing to a volatile political situation in Nepal and the paucity of educational and economic opportunities there. Adhikaar, a five-year-old Nepalese not-for-profit, estimates there are 40,000 Nepalese in New York City.

Since 2004, six restaurants specializing in Nepalese-Tibetan food have mushroomed in Jackson Heights. Bhim’s Cafe, Lali Guras, and Tsering Momos are the newest to offer a host of Nepalese snack foods, their specialty being the chicken- or beef-filled dumplings called “momos.”

This new wave of Asian immigration has changed the demographics of Jackson Heights and other Queens neighborhoods such as Ridgewood, Sunnyside, Forest Hills, and Woodside. Mingling with the typically South Asian faces of Indians and Bangladeshis are the Nepalese, with their East Asian features and abrupt Himalayan accents.

Fighting Loneliness by Creating a Community 

When Mohan Gyawali, 48, moved to the U.S. in 1996, he was the first Nepalese person to settle in Ridgewood, he said. An active community organizer in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, Gyawali started bringing his countrymen together by calling people with Nepalese surnames from the Yellow Pages. He relocated many of those he called—over a hundred people, he said —to Ridgewood, finding them apartments and helping them move in.

“I would see the Indians, Koreans, and Chinese. They had made their mini-countries in New York,”  Gyawali said. “I felt bad, and I missed Nepal, so I tried everything I could to bring my community together.”

Seven years ago, Gyawali and his wife opened Mt. Everest Nail Salon on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood. They picked the name “Mt. Everes”—the world’s highest peak, located in Nepal— because it reminded them of their homeland.

Since then, several Nepalese entrepreneurs have set up nail salons in Queens and Manhattan. 
Enigma, an upscale Midtown salon, opened its doors two years ago. Its owner is a 25-year-old Nepalese immigrant, Rekha Bhusal, who employs 11 Nepalese young women certified for the job.

“There are so many people from my country who work in nail salons,” Bhusal said. “When I opened Enigma, I knew that I wouldn’t hire people from other countries till Nepalese people needed jobs.”
Forty-four percent of Nepalese immigrants left for the United States in search of economic opportunities, 25.3 percent for university educational opportunities, and 8 percent for political reasons, says a December 2010 report by Adhikaar.

“Everyone wants to come to America, right?” said Phiroj Shyangden, 40, a musician from Nepal who came to New York a year ago and hopes to bring his wife and 15-year-old daughter soon. “You get a chance to have a better job and a better lifestyle here.”

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