What’s the story?
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What’s the story?

Annapurna
Triq Santu Wistin
Paceville
Tel: 7768 4974

Food: 6/10
Service: 8/10
Ambience: 5/10
Value: 6/10
Overall: 6/10

I often refer to us humans as monkeys that have the ability to tell stories. It is a rather simplistic view of thousands of years of civilisation. Surely, from Plato to Play-Doh and everything in between, we’ve achieved more as a species. I’m reminded almost every day that we haven’t. This is not a bad thing. Monkeys are fun.

I pitch us humans as simple creatures that need stories because it makes it much easier for everyone to understand everyone else. Rather than bang my head against the ineffability of a divine plan, I choose to see us as animals that respond to a carrot, a stick, or a clever combination of both.

Without the ability to tell stories, to ourselves and to others, we are unable to plan ahead. We’re monkeys. With the ability to tell each other stories, we gain the ability to change each other’s minds. Next thing you know, we’re trying to populate Mars.

Some of us are motivated by food. We dedicate an unusually large portion of our thinking time to it. We’re eating the first half of any meal to stave off hunger and the second half to have enough energy to plan our next meal. I’m guessing that all four readers of this column fall into this category.

We’re constantly on the lookout for a new and exciting form of food that will not only fill our stomachs but excite that part of our brain that elevates us from monkeys – the bit that is motivated by story.

If you’re thinking that story is a fickle part of food, that food is all about flavour and visual stimulus, I ask if you’ve ever read a book about food or watched a food-related TV programme. No matter how good the food looks on your phone or TV screen, you cannot taste it or smell it. You’re salivating over a dish that could very well taste of cardboard and old socks yet you’re prepared to believe that it tastes as good as it looks.

Because this story-telling ape will always be guided and motivated by a good story and is prepared to fill in sensory blanks if necessary to complete it. But once the seed of a story has been planted, we will endeavour to see it play out.

Today’s story started with a message with a link to a Facebook post about a restaurant that claimed to be our only possibility of tasting food from Nepal in Malta. My mind started to fill in the blanks. I have never been to Nepal but I’m a bit like that kid who knows his geography and capital cities from his obsession with football. Only in my case it’s food. So, while Nepal has been on my to-visit list for a long time, I have only read about the food in the area.

I picture buffalo and yak, I imagine the wonderful melting pot of Tibetan and Indian and Thai cuisines that’s been adapted to available ingredients and seasonality. The country even borders China so there ought to be Far Eastern influence. As a mountainous and land-locked country, I imagine the food to be as different from our own as one can possibly get.

Then there is momo, the pervasive steamed dumplings that one associates with Nepalese cooking. They’re found, in some form or another, across the vastness of the Asian continent but seem to be the dish you’d inevitably bump into when eating Nepalese food outside Nepal. I was all fired up about the prospect and made my way as soon as I could make it.

The restaurant is tucked away, half below street level, on the very edge of Paceville as you enter from the Swieqi side so while it’s central, it’s away from the actual mayhem. My hopes for a restaurant that looked the part were dashed when I arrived. They’ve done up the place to look quite soul-less on the outside and, while neatly done up on the inside, there is really nothing special about the interior.

The dining area is huge and I’m guessing it could easily gobble up a hundred hungry diners at once. We dropped by on a Sunday evening and, apart from another couple of occupied tables, the restaurant was vacant.

I’d been sucked in by the story that claimed that I’d be in for a Nepalese experience

The service is all you’d expect of an Indian restaurant. We were greeted by the man who runs the place, an eager man in a suit whose desire to show us that we were appreciated bordered on the obsequious.

He explained that they have a similar restaurant in the UK and they’re trying it out here, willing to adapt their food to the dictates of a Maltese palate.

Inside, I groaned. I understand why one would be motivated to do this in an attempt to please an audience but does this not dilute the offering? If every form of international cuisine is Westernised and then further adapted to suit the specific whims of a tiny nation like ours, what’s left of the original kitchen?

Nepalese cooking has already been adapted by the people behind Annapurna for an English audience. What will a second round of dilution do?

The menus are what you’d expect of an Indian restaurant. The British influence seemed to have favoured the curries they’re used to so the typical curry restaurant fare is all there. There are three ways to momo – stuffed with vegetables, chicken or lamb – and a couple of other dishes that claim to be specialities of Nepal but other than that I could have been looking through the menu of any number of generic Indian restaurants.

A really polite and rather expert young lady took our orders and she knew her way around the food. I asked what I thought would be an obvious question – since momo are the way to go, would they serve a mixed momo dish as a starter? Apparently not and there was no budging on this one so we picked the ones stuffed with vegetables.

The only other starter that claimed Nepalese origins was a marinated lamb dish called Sadheko Kasi and I ordered it almost automatically. I was here forthe story.

Main courses weren’t so easy so I just asked our waitress for her opinion and she suggested the Rogan Josh. It happens to be a favourite of mine so that was an easy choice. The better half curiously went with a mixed seafood masala. I’d have loved to try something from the Tandoor because it is such an interesting way of cooking but I didn’t want to order more than we could eat.

Just as soon as we’d placed our orders, our lovely waitress was back with Poppadoms and three sauces to dip in. You know the drill – mint, a tomato and garlic based sauce and a mango chutney.

Our starters were served quite quickly as well. The momo dumplings are what you’d expect steamed dumplings to look like. Inside, they’re filled with a deliciously spiced, aromatic and salty vegetable concoction that I just loved but that the better half found a little too hot. There’s Szechuan pepper in there so the heat lingers for a while.

My starter was unexpected. There’s plenty of raw, red onion, chopped tomato, tender strips of marinated lamb, fresh herbs and a slightly sweet and spicy sauce. It’s like the freshness of a salad had collided with the spiced heat of a curry and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Main courses are what you’d expect of an Indian restaurant that’s worth talking about. The sauces are properly made with fresh ingredients so the Masala is mildly spiced yet richly flavoured and the Rogan Josh is one of the best I’ve had at this price point. There’s more sweetness from the onion and tomato than there is heat but it does the trick.

I was there for the story and, alas, this was lacking. If I want decent Indian, Annapurna is a good contender. I felt I’d been sucked in by the story that claimed that I’d be in for a Nepalese experience. I’m guessing I have to travel there and tick it off my list unless Annapurna really takes a close look at what it’s promising and decides to back up the story with an authentic experience from Nepal.

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