Momo Love: Bini’s Kitchen Shares the Warmth of Nepal
November 3, 2017
When you bite into Binita “Bini” Pradhan’s steaming dumplings known as a momos, you taste not only the flavors of her homeland in Nepal, but also the many years of craft, care, and love that have gone into them.
“When my son can eat my food, that means anybody in the world can eat that food,” says the founder of Bini’s Kitchen. “I joke with my employees, ‘If you are angry, then don’t touch my food, because that food is going to get angry at you. Just go around the block or in a bathroom and yell.”
She continues, “But if you smile and cook my food, then it becomes vibrant and delicious.”
Healing through Food
Trained as a chef with a bachelor’s degree in hotel management catering from Mumbai, India, Bini prides herself in being the only Nepalese caterer in San Francisco. Born to a mother who was a chef for the Nepalese royal family, she is not exaggerating when she says, “I cook from my soul, and it’s in my blood.”
Originally from Kathmandu, Bini immigrated to the United States in 2004 and began consulting for restaurants. She met her (now former) husband, got married, and moved to Mississippi. But her husband became abusive, and she found herself cut off from her family and isolated in a damaging relationship.
Nine years into her marriage, they moved to California, and she found the courage to leave her husband. With support from her friends, she fled with her son, Ayush, to a women’s shelter. She then moved in with her sister and began to rebuild her life, returning to her culinary craft. She made brown-bag meals for local daycare centers, and as word-of-mouth spread, she started to build a customer base, delivering her food in her car with her young son in tow.
A friend of her sister’s referred her to La Cocina, a food business incubator program for low-income women entrepreneurs. “That’s how Bini’s Kitchen started,” she says. “When I did the interview, they tasted my momos, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, this is so amazing.’ And I got in.’”
Himalayan Soul Food
Situated between China and India, “Nepal has lots of cultures, and they all revolve around the food,” according to Bini. A popular snack akin to Chinese bao or Japanese gyoza, momos are savory Nepalese dumplings filled with meat and spices, wrapped in white flour dough, and steamed.
Bini’s signature momos are stuffed with turkey, lamb, chicken, vegetables, or even bison, and mixed with her special blend of freshly roasted and ground spices, including bay leaves, cumin seeds, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and black cardamom. The momos are served with a spicy tomato-cilantro sauce called Golveda Ko Achar, flecked with timur (similar to Sichuan) pepper and green chiles.
Through her momos, Bini recalls not only the foods of her upbringing, but also the feeling of community and celebration during countless gatherings with her parents, siblings, and friends. Making momos was always a family affair, with all hands on deck: “One person is grinding meat, another person is preparing the spices, another person is rolling the dough, another person is stuffing the dough, and another person is steaming.” When eating time came, competition ran high, with her brothers scarfing upwards of 65 momos.
“It’s a community kind of thing, where it starts with the food and ends with the food,” she remembers. “I’m trying to trying to capture that feeling, and bring it to people here.”
Farmers Market Momos
Four-and-a-half-years since she started Bini’s Kitchen, she now has a diversified business selling hot momos at her kiosk on Market Street, farmers markets, and street food festivals, as well as catering for events and corporate offices and supplying to Whole Foods. By next summer, she’s hoping to open a sit-down restaurant with a full menu.
Joining the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has brought broader exposure to Bini’s Kitchen, as she takes her business to the next level. “It generates good revenue, which is important for a small business like us. It helps my team sustain themselves as they look after their families. My employees are my extended family, and they have to be taken care of.”
At the farmers market, she’s able to recreate those memories of meals back home—like making momos around the kitchen table, but for a much bigger family. “I love the farmers market, because the regular customers who come here are very loyal and very San Franciscan, and they love to try different foods,” says Bini.
“There are people who have never had this kind of food before, and now they come for breakfast ever week,” she continues. “Except for in Nepal or India, who’s going to eat rice and chicken at 7:30 in the morning?”
Visit Bini’s Kitchen at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.
Top and bottom farmers market photos by Amanda Lynn Photography. Momo photo from Bini’s Kitchen. Cooking demo photo by CUESA.