Finding food from Nepal in Kentucky just got a little easier.
Methodically, Babita Shrestha filled dumplings with a bright yellow blend of squash, tofu and onions. She folds cumin, coriander and cardamom into her dishes, skipping the store-bought spices and crafting her own blends. Plain sautéed vegetables? Not an option, she said.
“I don’t think I can really cook bland food,” she added.
For the past several months, Shrestha has been hosting pop-up events for her independent food brand, Vegan Nepal. The name is a nod to both her dieting lifestyle and home country.
Vegan food doesn’t have to be salad, she said, and she wants people in Lexington to know that.
“Vegan food is so good,” Shrestha said. “You just need to know how to cook it right.”
To a visitor stopping by her table at a Gardenside farmers market recently she said, “How can you tell it’s not good if you haven’t tried it yet, right?”
Studies on veganism and vegetarianism are limited, but trends have suggested that more people are opting out of eating meat than several decades ago. Some Lexington cafes offer vegetarian and vegan options. There’s even a Facebook group for Central Kentucky vegans and it has hundreds of members.
Shrestha, who says cooking is her first love, said the majority of her customers aren’t vegan and some are just looking to try something new.
Renee Fatemi eats meat, but Vegan Nepal still peaked her interest. She stopped by a recent pop-up to try dumplings and pakora, a seasoned vegetable fritter. Fatemi had tried Nepalese food once, but, she added, “this was better.” Her husband was already reaching for seconds.
Before munching on pakora from Vegan Nepal, Fatemi hasn’t been able to find Nepalese cuisine in Lexington. She thinks it’s a step in the right direction for the city’s food scene.
“Every other new restaurant is sort of the same kind of menu, and I think people want other things, but they’re not sure what they want,” Fatemi said.
Traditionally, Nepali food can include animal products like goat or buffalo meat. Back home, its price can make meat a rarity for families, Shrestha said. Growing up, her family cooked it on special occasions.
“I think meat and cheese was more like a treat. Not like dessert, but something like that,” she said.
A native of Nepal, she moved to Minnesota to attend college and came to Lexington to join her sister who was living here. When first in the United States, she was shocked by how cheap meat was and how much of it many grocery shoppers bought at once. Despite that, she began shifting to a vegan diet in 2016. It wasn’t easy to transition, she said.
“I just want to become the healthy version of myself every day,” Shrestha said.
Another way she shares her love of food and cooking is by offering cooking classes at The Food Connection at the University of Kentucky and she has a class scheduled on Aug. 29 at the Good Food Co-op.
Vegan Nepal first started out as a blogging site, where Shrestha shared recipes and beauty tips. Now, in addition, she’s deciding to share her food directly through her pop-up food tent, recently stopping by West Sixth Brewing to flip veggie burgers, and Louisville’s Forecastle Festival with dumpling platters. For Shrestha, it’s more satisfying than posting videos online.
“YouTube is more like, you cook, you do your video, it’s just for you,” she said. “I enjoy cooking, and treating people, rather than eating.”