The first thing we notice is a khaja set, a collection of snacks, 10 in total, arranged in neat little piles on one dish. The khaja looks like a thali, (literally “platter” in India and Southeast Asia, but often used to described a meal made up of small bowls), but because Sambandha serves Nepalese food, it’s a whole different experience.
Take the rice for example. Instead of a pile, it's steamed, beaten and dried and then turned into a wafer-thin flake. It has a surprising brittle crunch. It’s at the centre of the khaja, and on top of it is bara, a doughy and savoury chickpea pancake, and a single spiced boiled egg. The waiter then brings over more dishes: there are fried soybeans tossed in vinegar; potatoes coated in pickle sauce; fried goat organs with crisped onion shards and buffalo hunks fried in a spicy gravy. Finally, there are two kinds of fried beans; sautéed spinach and, to the side, a tart bamboo shoot and potato soup.
David Bragg, who co-owns it along with Manoj Gurung and Suroj Shrestha, instructs us to mix these 10 dishes together, so we mash the egg, break the bara and messily stir everything into and on top of each other. The result? The most texturally complex thing we’ve ever eaten; in almost every mouthful you can feel the chew of the goat, the snap of the flattened rice and the crunch of the soybeans. The potatoes add softness and the beans some bite.
While Bragg now talks about it with great enthusiasm, just eight years ago he didn’t even know what khaja was, or the other nuances of Nepalese food. Back then both he and Gurung were working at Olympic Park; Bragg was working in staging (building stages) and Gurung was working as a chef. They both finished their shifts late at night and ended up in a nearby pub where their friendship started. Eventually Gurung told Bragg of his dream to open a restaurant and invited Bragg to his home to taste his cooking. “That’s how it slowly came together,” Bragg says.
They opened Sambandha in Auburn in Sydney’s west in 2013 to little fanfare. “The only other Nepalese restaurant in the area burnt down a few months after we opened – that got our foot in the door. The joke at the time was that we started the fire,” laughs Bragg.
Today it’s recognised as one of the best Nepalese eateries in Sydney.
The khaja set is the most elaborate option, the dish Nepalese people order when they’re feeling a bit nostalgic or they have something to celebrate. The usual lunch trade is simpler: fried or steamed momos (dumplings with spiced chicken centres); smoky chow mein with buffalo, chicken, egg or all the above (most locals will splash tomato sauce or sriracha on top); or thukpa, a basic and hearty Tibetan-influenced chicken noodle soup.
The back-street cafe, which is no wider than a suburban swimming pool, has a short menu of booze and drinking foods. If you want to replicate a Kathmandu-bar experience, ask for a bottle of Nepalese Ice or a Mustang Lager and progressively snack on bhatmas sadeko (the crunchy soybeans served in the khaja), or sukuti-style goat (dried and spiced, it’s a bit like jerky).
“When I first went to a Nepalese restaurant, I had no idea what to order. I see the same thing when western people come here. They don't know what to order, they just get curry and rice because that's what they know. I now try to push them to try different options,” says Bragg.
That doesn’t happen too much though, as almost everyone who eats at Sambandha is Nepalese – something its three owners are very proud of.
57 Queen Street, Auburn
(02) 8283 5602