Nepal’s indigenous Newa community uses all parts of the buffalo in their cuisine. This treat of tripe and bone marrow might be the most delicious.
In the ancient city of Patan—known in the local Nepal Bhasa language as Yala—morning begins with the ringing of temple bells and the cooing of pigeons echoing across its brick courtyards. Down the street north of the city’s medieval palace and past a series of brick houses, Bhinmaya Maharjan, who runs Nandini Food Court, opens a set of three wooden doors and lays out the straw knitted carpets—and brooms for sweeping. This is how the popular eating joint, located in the Swotha neighborhood, bids good morning to locals and visitors. The restaurant, which serves Newa cuisine, starts to draw crowds as the sun climbs higher.
The Newa—also referred to as Newar—people were the Kathmandu Valley’s first inhabitants. The former Newa kingdom stretched over the valley and surrounding territories, creating the blueprint for Nepal’s historic culture and traditions. Patan, located in the south-central part of the valley, has a rich cultural heritage and distinctive architecture, and it’s also a stronghold of Newa cuisine. There are many spots for Newa delicacies, such as chhwela (spiced grilled meat), kachila (minced raw buffalo meat), and daaykula (buffalo meat boiled with fried spices). But Nandini Food Court is one of the few places here that still offers sapoo mhicha.
Sapoo mhicha, sapoo mheychā, or even syapu mhicha: much like the variety of local flavors, the Newa language, too, is a blend of dialects. Each of Patan’s family-owned canteens, stalls, or restaurants have their own take on sapoo mhicha, but it is always a humble dish.
First-timers might be wary of this bundle of offal: a pouch of buffalo leaf tripe—so named for its shape—filled with bone marrow. To make it, layers of buffalo tripe are separated from one another and cut into small pieces, which are formed into small bags into which cubes of bone marrow are stuffed. The bag is then bunched together on one end and tied with a piece of thread to close it up, before the whole thing is boiled and fried. Sapoo mhicha is particularly popular in winter, accompanied by Ey-laa Thon, a mixture of the local alcohol, Ey-laa (made from fruits, rice, or wheat) and the local rice beer, Thon.
The doors of most of the older Newa buildings are built small so people need to bow down to pass through. As I bow my head down to enter Nandini Food Court, Maharjan, the owner, welcomes me with a smile, and I order a round of sapoo mhicha, served in a bwoota, a bowl made of leaves.
To eat sapoo mhicha, you have to hold the tied-off end of the bundle with your thumb and forefinger, and put the whole thing in your mouth. Biting down through the crispy outer layer releases the rich, melted bone marrow. The first bite, combining the crispy outer layer with the juicy, melted marrow inside—served with a spicy pickle on the side—always leaves me wanting more.
As I eat, I gaze out of the wood-carved windows and reminisce about how I used to play Tela Kasa—a local version of hide-and-seek—with my friends. Growing up in the city’s streets, my cousins and I would run from one narrow alley to another, sneak into courtyards, and jump from temples’ steps.
Leaving the restaurant, I walk along the appealing pattern of settlements, passing Kulimha Street towards Bhélchhén, and stop at Kwacha—a bustling restaurant where young and old alike gather to feast. Surendra Byanjankar, who inherited Kwacha from his father, has been running the place for three decades. Every evening, people swarm into Kwacha for his take on sapoo mhicha.
Byanjankar holds a round flat metal pan and warms up the sapoo mhicha by shallow-frying it. He serves the dish on a brass plate, along with a topping of tomatoes crushed into sauce in a stone hand-grinder and a coulis of mint leaves.
Buffalo is a traditional food staple. Over the centuries, the Newa people built a sophisticated civilization, with thriving traditions of art and trade, as well as a diverse and celebrated cuisine built from the bounty of the Kathmandu Valley—including highly fertile soil, and the indigenous water buffalo. Buffalo meat plays a starring role in Newa cuisine for all occasions—from snacks to elaborate feasts—and no part of the animal is wasted: other delicacies include fried buffalo tongue, fried buffalo lungs, fried liver, and buffalo eyes.
Sapoo mhicha traditionally features as the main course in a Bhoye—an elaborate Newa feast. While other Newa delicacies like chhwela and momo often feature in restaurant menus across and outside Kathmandu, sapoo mhicha is an increasingly rare sight, in part because the dish has an intricate recipe and takes a long time to prepare.
As I leave Kwacha back into the streets of Bhélchhén, it’s disheartening to see the crumbling Newa architecture. Patan is renowned for its historic architecture, but for me, it evokes a sense of loss as I pass the remnants of traditional houses in the shadow of the new, encroaching concrete edifices. Many historic buildings in my community have been demolished to make way for road expansion, and public spaces have been choked off. Today, like sapoo mhicha, the ancient structures in my city are slowly disappearing.