In 1972, when Krishna Pradhan, owner of Himal Chuli, came from Nepal to Wisconsin, owning and operating a restaurant in Madison was not a part of his plan. “I was 33 years old with my Master of Arts degree and working as a professor in Nepal teaching English as a foreign language. I came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to be a lecturer, work on my PhD, earn tons of money, and return to my wife and family waiting for me in my home country.” Instead, he found the journey to wealth to be as challenging as climbing Mt. Everest of the Nepal Himalayas. The reality was that his position with the University didn't pay well enough for Krishna to become wealthy in a couple of years. He finished his PhD in 1982 but didn’t retire from the University until 2001. His wife, Bishnu, and their children joined him in Madison at the end of 1973.
University housing became the first place the family called home. Krishna was in the Southeast Asian Studies department at UW–Madison, where he taught Nepali language during the academic year and an intensive Nepali course for the abroad program in summer. The couple enjoyed entertaining, so for those first seven years in Madison, Bishnu cooked for Krishna’s students and colleagues, former students who served in the Peace Corp in Nepal, and their neighbors. Everyone loved her delicious cooking and Nepali food, which prompted them to encourage the couple to pursue opening a restaurant.
The couple liked the idea of being business owners and got to work. “I looked at three potential restaurant locations and found the rent to be too expensive for us. When the banker asked if I had any experience or capital, I truthfully answered no. Then I decided it would be easier to do a food cart, which came together in 1981.”
Choosing the name for the food cart was easy enough. “As a linguist, I had several reasons why I named the business Himal Chuli. The Nepalese call the Himalayas just Himal. Chuli means any peak of a mountain. There is also a specific Himalayan mountain called Hiu Chuli directly north of my hometown of Bandipur. In Nepali, the kitchen is called chula or chulo or, more significantly, the kitchen of the Himalayas.”
The Himal Chuli food cart was approved to set up on the University Library Mall to sell the food of Nepal at a time when there were very few food carts. For the first time, Madisonians were able to enjoy the authentic cuisine enjoyed by Nepali families for centuries. Customers embraced the food cart’s simple, yet delicious, menu. Dal bhat tarkari is a foundational rice dish served with dal, a dry-bean soup, and tarkari, a curried vegetable dish of green beans and cauliflower. The dishes are not spicy, although the heat can be adjusted and hot salsa is available.
The opportunity to move from the food cart to operating a restaurant presented itself in 1985. “A friend found a business that was closing at 318 State Street whose owner was willing to negotiate the lease and allow us to take over occupancy. I refinanced my high-interest home loan and put the financials together to open Himal Chuli in a brick-and-mortar restaurant in March 1986. As time went on, we appreciated the location more and more. As shopping trends shifted and business on the Square started to die, being in the 300 block of State Street between Johnson and Gorham Streets kept us in business due to better foot traffic.”
In 1996, Bishnu’s sister Jamuna came to help her cook and manage the restaurant. Himal Chuli features home-style cooking and a locally sourced menu primarily featuring vegetarian and gluten-free selections. Chicken, beef, and lamb dishes are also on the menu, but since the family and many customers are strict vegetarians, the utensils used in cooking the vegetable and meat dishes are carefully separated. The menu is created to infuse harmony through yin and yang foods. Some foods are considered primarily yin, or cooling, while others are primarily yang, or warming, while still others are composed of a harmonious balance of yin and yang. It’s thought that food shouldn’t just taste good, it should be good for you. Mustard, sesame, and olive oils are used for their heart-healthy attributes. Jimbu, imported from Nepal, has a distinct flavor similar to garlic and shallots. Fresh garlic and ginger and a variety of other herbs and spices not only contribute to good flavor in the food, they’re renowned for specific medicinal benefits.
“I’m proud, but humble, that Himal Chuli was the first Nepali restaurant in this country. There were not very many people from Nepal living in the U.S. in the 1980s. Currently, I think that there are roughly 1,000 immigrants from Nepal living in and around Madison.”
Most of the restaurant’s customers are a mix of people living all over Madison as well as tourists. It’s particularly a popular destination for European and Japanese tourists who are in town for University conferences. Sporting events also draw increased dinner traffic.
You know you’re in a Nepali restaurant when you smell the traditional and distinctive aroma of the fenugreek herb when walking through the door. The restaurant is decorated with Nepali pots and pans; trinkets, such as bells and statues of Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses; and photos of the Dalai Lama. People feel comfortable in the small restaurant with a view into the kitchen, returning again and again.
Krishna and Bishnu have been retired for many years, so Jamuna and employees now operate the restaurant. The indoor seating capacity is 24, which expands when outdoor seating is added in the summer. Takeout is popular, and diners also utilize curbside pickup and third-party delivery to enjoy this cuisine.
Lauri Lee is a culinary herb guru and food writer living in Madison.
318 State Street
Madison, WI 53703