Little did Ishwari Rajak, Himalayan foods cooking instructor and chocolatier, know when she was a young child, that she would eventually move across the world from Nepal to sell chocolates and other Nepalese-inspired items, and teach cooking classes from her kitchen.
“Ish,” who operates a small business with a cottage food license out of her yard on the 2900 block of McKinley Street NE in the Audubon neighborhood, sells chocolates, soup mixes, samosas, truffles, and chutneys inspired by spices and recipes related to her upbringing in Nepal. Ish also sells a skin care product called Tallow Balm, inspired by her upbringing and made from beef fat that she purchases from a farm in Wisconsin.
“Back home, an animal used to be slaughtered and the whole village would know,” said Ish. “On Saturdays once a month, a big animal would be slaughtered and we [the village] would know. We would order one kilogram of meat. You get bits and pieces of everything and we do not throw anything away. You also get fat. I remember my grandparents would rub the fat in winter cleaning their hands. We used to eat fat, especially in the winter. We would grill it over the stove. Fat used to be a big part of healthy living. I learned you could clean it up, render it and make a longer-lasting version.”
Ish’s chocolates and other food items express a variety of spices that are reminiscent of Nepal, and span from adding milk, ginger, chai, and cayenne pepper to her chocolates, to adding notes of coriander, cumin and lemon grass to her chutneys and soup mixes.
When Ish moved to Minnesota to pursue her now two completed master’s degrees in nonprofit leadership and women’s gender studies at Mankato State University, she visited a library and expressed disappointment that Nepalese cooking was not represented. Ish also began to notice a lack of culturally appropriate representation in those focusing on Asian-Indian and Nepalese fare.
“First I thought I would get my master’s degree and get involved with policy making to make changes for women and other marginalized groups, but after I worked for a while, I realized there were not many Nepali people doing any kind of work like cooking,” said Ish. “Nepali and Indian food are so popular, but there are not a lot of Nepali people doing that kind of work. I wanted to do something that speaks to my heart and something about my culture. As we know, many people who teach yoga, which is from the India and Nepali side, are not from there [Nepal/India]. I thought I would do something from there and be me doing the job. That is how it started.”
Her desire to start cooking and baking Nepalese inspired foods came from memories of her grandfather and grandmother while growing up in Nepal. Ish expressed that wasting food when she was younger was not a typical practice for families.
“I come from a culture where when you slaughter an animal, you say, ‘We killed a being so you have to eat all of it out of respect,’ said Ish. “You use the skin for bells. We used to use the bones to make buttons, and the lungs, tongue, head and everything is eaten. We would make soup out of the feet.”
Born in a region called Lalitpur, a valley area close to Kathmandu, Ish took the cooking knowledge that she knew and started a cooking class in May 2019. Ish contracted with Eastside Food Co-op (2551 Central Ave NE) and Mississippi Market in St. Paul. She also used her cultural upbringing and knowledge of spice, and values of not wasting any food, and began making chutney with the tomatoes and peppers from her garden that she had no immediate use for.
“At every meal we would make chutney in a mortar and grinder,” said Ish. “I remember my grandma used to make a long-lasting chutney called “achar” for the whole year in the winter. You would dry the vegetables in the sun and then put them in the containers. You would then put them out in the sun with lots of mustard oil. You would then temper and leave them out early in the morning and then bring them back [in]. It’s a process, and every day you are involved and have to move it around.”
Ish has more self-insight and understanding about her desire to connect her culture with different communities now that she is not physically living in the country she was raised in long ago. Growing up as an “untouchable” in a still-existing caste system, Ish also used her voice and motivation to take steps to accomplish her cooking goals. One of a few from her village to get a master’s degree, Ish says that social justice issues are very important to her and relevant no matter where you are in the world.
“I hear people say, the caste system does not happen here, but the racism is very similar as well as the things that happen here,” Ishu said. “It has a name there, it is a caste system and things are categorized. I have been very fascinated about the caste system and why it is so discriminatory.”
Beyond cooking and aspirations to empower others, Ish has a social justice-oriented goal and has even made her own short documentary, The Invisible War on Blood. “It’s about why menstruation is a human rights issue,” Ish said. “My master’s thesis was about menstruation and what men thought about the understanding and knowledge of this.” Ish’s goal is to someday have young girls and women learn through her how to start a business and work with her so she can teach entrepreneurship and empower them at the same time.
Ish plans to try to expand her business in the coming year by experimenting with more spices, foods and recipes from Nepal. She said she is empowered; she has paved her own path and believes she has the tools to bridge the community with foods from her culture. “Having this business is very important, because I get to do what I want to do,” said Ish. “Financially, I say it can do better and hopefully it will get better. It [her business] is a big part of women’s empowerment, my empowerment, and choosing to do what I want to do and how I want to do it.”
Ish operates her food and chocolate business every weekend from 10am-3pm on the 2900 block of McKinley Street NE. Ish also has cooking classes available on-line via Zoom and teaches a variety of courses that include how to cook different curries, make samosa and pakora, even grinding your own spices. She plans to have backyard classes this summer to promote COVID distance-friendly learning.
Find out more on Instagram at: himalayan_chef or contact her directly for more information on upcoming classes at: http://www.ishushimalayan.com/404.php.
Below: Ish’s front yard business in the Audubon neighborhood and Chutneys and Tallow Balm inspired by Nepalese culture. (Photos by Marla Khan-Schwartz)