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Cakes and Community

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As more Nepalis develop an appetite for breads and sweets, bakers are rising to their communities’ challenges

The first thing you notice when approaching one of Kathmandu’s many bakeries is the delicious smell of pastries and freshly-baked breads. It is almost impossible not to be drawn inside.

One of the city’s first and most famous bakeries is Hermann Helmers German Bakery in Jawalakhel. It was founded by Ashok KC in 1982, after he learned the art of German baking in Bremen, Northern Germany. Ashok was so fascinated by German bakery culture that he decided to open his own place in Kathmandu.

Ashok’s son Nirmal KC (pic, left) now runs the bakery. He has been working there since he was 16, when the bakery’s clientele was mainly tourists. “About 95 per cent of our customers used to be foreigners,” he remembers. “But now about 60 per cent of the people who come into our shop are Nepali.”

Kathmandu’s bakery culture has been rising among locals in recent years, coinciding with a change in food habits among Nepalis, who are starting to eat more western-style food. While many people in the West no longer eat gluten, a major component of wheat products, Asian societies are starting to discover the world of breads and pastries. Consumption of wheat in Asia has gone up about 15 per cent in the last 3 years.

The change is due mainly to growing urbanisation and exposure to the West. The Valley’s population is increasing at four per cent a year, making it one of the fastest-growing urban areas in South Asia. The hectic life in big cities doesn’t leave much time for preparing meals, so the average Nepali worker is starting to buy food that is easy to prepare. Before work, younger people get breakfast and coffee at their local bakeries.

As the bakery business booms, bakery culture is also evolving and having an impact on communities in Kathmandu. There are bakeries that run cafés, offer spaces to meet people, showcase local art and even host events. Some bakeries are creating jobs for people in need. Higher Grounds Café and Bakery trains women and men who have been unemployed for years to become bakers. Higher Grounds founder Bimala Shrestha Pokharel says: “With our bakery we want to create a home for people who have a complicated background and never had a job before. We train and encourage them to open up their own place.”

Pokharel focuses on giving a voice to the voiceless. The money she makes in the bakery funds her other projects, including workshops on raising awareness about abuse and Higher Grounds Crafts, where women learn how to make jewellery. For Pokharel, her bakery serves a bigger purpose: creating a community and helping those who need it most.

Likewise, Rasmita Baniya (pic top) opened an Austrian bakery in Jhawalakhel after customers in her husband’s restaurant praised the bread she served there. After the bakery became a quick success, she began hiring help. But instead of getting trained and educated staff members, Baniya, who was trained by a German master baker, focused on hiring girls threatened by exploitation.

The growth in Kathmandu’s bakeries is not only a sign of a growing middle-class, but of a desire for people to create a sense of community. Bakeries are becoming platforms for people who want to make something of their own and have an impact beyond the cash register. The pastries and breads are a delicious side-effect of that effort.


Bagels on Saturdays

Every Saturday morning, Namgyal T. Lama (pictured) sets up his small booth at the Le Sherpa farmers market. Alongside people selling cheeses, coffee and bread, he is the only one offering homemade bagels.

Lama started his small business because of his own appetite for bagels. When he came back from studying and working in New York, he missed eating fresh bagels for breakfast. “Having learned to make bagels while in New York, I decided to sell them to people who miss bagels as much as I did,” he says.

Lama established Bagels Kathmandu as a side-business: his main income-earner is carpets. His clients are mostly foreigners but also young Nepalis home after studying abroad: all of them miss the American practice of bagels for breakfast.

Lama’s booth at the farmers market has become so popular that he is going to open a bagel shop in Thamel in May. “It’s going to be Kathmandu’s first bagel shop,” he says proudly.

Interested in tasting a bagel? Lama recommends the Everything Bagel, which is flavoured with sesame seeds, garlic and salt.

By Clara Bullock