Dhaulagiri Kitchen, a tiny Nepalese outfit that’s the latest eatery to take up residence inside roti bakery Tawa Foods, is easily my favorite place in Jackson Heights these days. It’s named for the third highest mountain peak in the world, but as far as I’m concerned the flavors here—fiery pickles; sukuti, an air-dried beef jerky; and spicy chicken choila—are the tops. Lately I have been partaking of this eight-seater’s thalis. Thali literally means plate and it consists of a mound of rice ringed by various accoutrements, including pickles, daal, fried bitter melon, mustard greens, and a center of the plate item like chicken beef, or goat. The rice and the sides are refillable.
One day I was eating a fish thali ($11) whose main attraction was two crisp fried hunks of fish, a nattily dressed gent entered. As I ate my fish and rice while picking at the gudruk, a Nepalese kimchi of sorts, and other pickles arrayed around the circumference of the thali he rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands. And then he got down to business. That is to say he began eating his thali with his right hand, pouring daal over the rice and mixing in the other savory pickled items. What impressed me most was the speed and utter abandon with which he dispatched his thali. I don’t remember if he got a refill on his rice, but I remember him licking index, middle, and ring finger clean just as if they were the tines of a fork. As I forked bites of crunchy fried bitter melon, rice, and dried sardines in a fiery sauce into my mouth I couldn’t help but think I was missing out.
So the following week I ordered a fish thali and resolved to eat it with my hands. As I poured the daal over the rice and mixed in the various items surrounding the hillock of rice I had an aha moment. These bursts of flavor—tart, spicy,bitter, fiery—aren’t meant to be enjoyed separately but mixed into the rice to flavor it. Yes I was self-conscious and felt like I was playing with my food, but this proper, multisensory thali experience was so enjoyable I had two servings of rice, a first for me.
As I was a drinking a post-meal chai a Nepalese customer was presented with an off-menu thali I’d never seen and proceeded to eat it with silverware. On my next visit I ordered the off-menu egg thali ($10), a specialty cooked up by the owner’s daughter, Rojina. The star of the show is a fluffy omelet studded with onions and chilies. I ate it with a spoon, mixing it in with the rice and other items. When I left some food on the plate and didn’t ask for seconds Rojina noticed immediately. Perhaps there is something about eating with one’s hands that makes the thali tastier. One thing’s for sure it leaves my fingers stained with curry for the rest of the day. On the day I ate the egg thali they were hanging a new batch of sukuti to dry. I have a feeling there’s a sukuti thali in the very near future for me. I might even eat it with my hands.
Dhaulagiri Kitchen, 37-38 72nd St., Jackson Heights