The Nepalese expatriate community find themselves in a unique position of calling both Singapore and Nepal home.

South Asian office workers enjoying a hot daal baat (rice and curries) lunchtime set at New Everest Kitchen, under the auspices of the Annapurna Range.
South Asian office workers enjoying a hot daal baat (rice and curries) lunchtime set at New Everest Kitchen, under the auspices of the Annapurna Range.

Chilli Pork Rice & Burger King

In Pokhara, Nepal, is a place called Singapure Tole, home to numerous Nepalese who once worked in Singapore. In this tole, there is a bench where many retirees frequently gather to reminisce about Singapore, their homes filled with framed pictures of the city-state. [1]

Cut to Singapore, Joo Seng food centre, where one encounters the reverse: young Nepalese men gathering for chilli fried rice and lime juice, discussing where to go on their off days, the latest Hindi movie offerings, and travel plans for their breaks home. Between these two locales is the shared experience of Singapore as home away from home, and the creation of transnational connections maintained through informal networks of friends, family, and food.

Currently, there are 7,000 Nepalese residing in Singapore, of whom only about 30 are citizens of the state.

Rajiv, 30, and Ragav, 28, are regulars at Joo Seng food centre and are representative of the typical Nepalese clientele there amid the older Chinese men chit-chatting their evenings away over a cup of the (tea). Having both lived in Singapore for nine years, they’ve had to search out local food spicy enough to satisfy their taste buds (Nepali food is known for being particularly spicy and savoury). “Chilli pork rice at the coffee shop is my favourite,” says Ragav. “It was my first meal in Singapore and my friends recommended it because it is nice and spicy.”

Rajiv, too, agrees that spicy food is essential to his diet. His first meal in Singapore was at Burger King in City Hall – a fast food institution unavailable in Dharan, his home town – but he concludes that he prefers Nepali food and local Singaporean fare over the comparatively bland taste of modernity. “The most important thing is rice, or baat”, he explains. The typical Nepali lunch and dinner consists of daal baat (boiled rice with lentil curry) and a meal with rice is deemed necessary.

 

Nepalese Meals

For all the broadening of their culinary palettes, do the Nepalese prefer one cuisine over the other or have they developed, Singapore-style, the need for cuisine variety at every other meal? “Actually… I would still prefer momos,” says Ragav, referring to the traditional dumplings native to Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and some parts of India. “But not in Singapore,” he adds, laughing. The memories of the juicy, meat-filled fried or steamed dumplings have yet to be replaced by anything they have tried in Singapore, although they think that the seafood here comes a close second.

Traditional Nepalese fare includes momos (steamed chicken or vegetarian dumplings), sukuti (charbroiled and dried mutton or lamb), and khasi ko bhutuwa (mutton gizzard).

Little is known about the Nepalese community in Singapore, which falls into the murky category of “Other” in the State’s CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other) model of ethnic taxonomy – already a step up from being reductively classified as “Indian”, as people from the subcontinent tend to experience when in Singapore. Currently, there are 7,000 Nepalese residing in Singapore, of whom only about 30 are citizens of the state. Adding to this mix is a consistent conflation of the community with Indian passport holders from Sikkim, Shillong, and Darjeeling who also identify as ethnically Nepalese.

A large segment of the Nepalese community in Singapore comprises Nepalese soldiers from the Gurkha contingent, an elite police task force based at Mount Vernon Camp. While the soldiers and their families live under a constant shroud of confidentiality, the younger, newly enlisted Gurkha men are more frequently seen at Nepalese restaurants, coffee shops in the Joo Seng area, as well as in shopping malls such as Bugis Junction, which Rajiv cites as his favourite place in Singapore.

Gurkha Palace Restaurant serves an assortment of mouth fresheners - fennel seeds, chopped betel nut, and sugar crystals - on a traditional bronze plate.
Gurkha Palace Restaurant serves an assortment of mouth fresheners – fennel seeds, chopped betel nut, and sugar crystals – on a traditional bronze plate.

Martin Pun, the 32-year-old owner of New Everest Kitchen, a Nepalese restaurant on Chander Road, explains, “In the first two or three years, they are unmarried bachelors and they will come to the restaurant. After three to 10 years, they marry and bring their families here. After 10 to 17 years, they mainly stay inside the camp for work, because their children have all grown up. So our main clientele are Gurkhas in that first stage where they have been recently recruited, when the men come together to eat and drink.”

The restaurant owner, Martin Pun, makes small talk with customers before the peak lunch crowd arrives. Behind the mirrored sliding door is the kitchen.
The restaurant owner, Martin Pun, makes small talk with customers before the peak lunch crowd arrives. Behind the mirrored sliding door is the kitchen.

He notes that although his customers are quite international (hailing from Singapore, England, Australia and Germany), the weekends and public holidays see the restaurant crowded with Gurkhas and other Nepalese professionals. “If they are missing home they will come here to eat. Now even Nepalese from India, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Guwahati, Meghalaya, they come here. Even the Burmese come here,” he says.  Pun himself comes from Lumbini, a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site in the plains of Nepal.

For an embryonic diaspora still searching for space to grow, the transformation of Nepalese restaurants into community spaces is both startling and logical.

These male bonding sessions often feature traditional Nepalese snacks such as momos (Nepalese dumplings), sukuti (marinated dried meat), choyla (diced roast chicken with lime, masala, tomato and chillies, served with beaten rice on the side), and bhatmas sadeko (dried soya bean fried with ginger, coriander, and peppers), topped with hard liquor. Grace Rivera, 36, the senior supervisor of Gurkha Palace, affirms that these meetings are the highlight of payday.

Beyond being just a business, these restaurants are also little shrines to Nepal, meant to evoke nostalgia and memories of home. Pun explains that the bricks on the walls of New Everest Kitchen are reminiscent of Kathmandu with its red brick houses. Maroon, the colour which the restaurant has been painted, references the red soil that Nepalese traditionally mix into a paste to paint their houses. The blue above that is equally considered. “The blue is part of the flag, it represents the blue sky on top of the mountains after the rain. After the rain stops you can see a very clear blue sky,” says Pun.

New Everest Kitchen's cashier counter is decorated with a shrine to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and a garlanded painting of the Kathmandu range.
New Everest Kitchen’s cashier counter is decorated with a shrine to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and a garlanded painting of the Kathmandu range.

 

Second Homes

But for many like Ragav and Rajiv, the concept of home has been divided. As ex-Gurkhas in Nepal reminisce about their training in Mount Vernon camp or watching Malay classics and Hindustani films in Geylang Serai, their recollections of local food inadvertently crop up. Jagat Bahadur Gurung, a retired 57-year-old staff sergeant now residing in Nepal, recalls his favourite Hokkien Mee at Joo Seng, and how hawker stalls and shops provided chances to interact with Singaporeans. “Our wives would learn the different languages from the stallholders and they would try to learn Nepali too,” he said in an interview with Zakaria Zainal, a Singapore-based photographer.

Although local hawker centres and shops provide spaces for interaction between the Nepalese community and their local counterparts, it is the Nepalese restaurants that provide informal spaces for communal gatherings. Traditional Hindu festivals such as Naya Barsa and Dasai are observed in April and October respectively, and more recent celebrations have centered on events such as Valentine’s Day, where New Everest Kitchen was booked and tables cleared out to hold a dance party. Pun plays a video of a recent Dasai event sponsored by DrukAir and held above Kantipur Tandoori Restaurant in Little India in Singapore. It was a dance party set to Hindi and Nepali music, attended by about 80 women, including the ethnically Nepalese from both India and Nepal. For an embryonic diaspora still searching for space to grow, the transformation of Nepalese restaurants into community spaces is both startling and logical.

An image of the old Durbar Square at sunset in Kathmandu occupies a large wall in the Gurkha Palace Restaurant.
An image of the old Durbar Square at sunset in Kathmandu occupies a large wall in the Gurkha Palace Restaurant.

It is not just the Nepalese who have found a second home of sorts in the restaurants. Pauline, a 59-year-old Chinese Singaporean, occasionally goes to Gurkha Palace for a warm meal of daal baat with her other Singaporean friends Elena and Lim. They usually accompany Buddhist Nepalese monks from upper Mustang, who come to Singapore to visit the Sakya Temphel Ling Temple in Pasir Ris. While Yon Yang, 29, talks about the spicy potatoes and daal from Nepal that he misses, Pauline points to the picture of Durbar Square in Old Kathmandu, mounted on the restaurant wall across from her table, relating fond memories of a country where her religious guru resides. She has been visiting Nepal since the 1990s. It is the cult of memory more than nationality or place that unite both Nepalese and Singaporeans here.

After lunch hour, Pun shares with me his homemade music video Timile Malai (You Make Me Cry), which features a Nepalese couple experiencing love and heartbreak in Singapore amid orchids and skyscrapers; homegrown hopes and dreams transposed onto a landscape of a new home. I think about Ragav, trying traditional hot pot fish soup at Joo Seng for the first time, and liking it, and Rajiv, making his way to Shish Mahal restaurant at Albert Court for “the very good food”, and I understand for a moment how the idea of home, for them, will never be understood in the singular again.

Words and photographs by Wei Fen Lee
Published by the Singapore Memory Project and Studio Wong Huzir


[1] Hema Kiruppalini, Travelling Dwellers: Nepalese Lahure in Singapore, National University of Singapore 2011. Pg. 10.

3 Comments

  1. My nepalese friend referred me to this site and I am disappointed. It is not well researched. The photos ugly. It is a disappointment to my country.

    • Kellynn Wee Reply

      Dear Piyush,

      Thank you for your honest feedback! Could you share with us why you feel like this article was not well-researched? We would appreciate your suggestions in view of future articles on this blog!

      We’d also like to note that this post is not meant to be an academically rigorous article on the Nepalese diaspora in Singapore, but is rather a personal opinion piece, written with the purpose of observing and discovering how individuals create a sense of home while ‘away’ in Singapore.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Best regards,
      Kellynn

  2. Wonderful insight and analysis! The writer has captured the spirit of the place and the perspective of the insider as well as the ‘outsider’.
    Perhaps she’d like to explore other minority communities that make up the diverse ‘non-resident’ population of Singapore?
    We look forward!

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