Posted on | March 15, 2010 | 1 Comment
The Lonely Planet Guide on Tibet authoritatively states that, “Tibet is unlikely to become a hot destination for foodies. Though you won’t starve, Tibetan food will probably not be a highlight of your trip. In Lhasa there are a few restaurants that have elevated a subsistence diet into the beginnings of a cuisine but outside the urban centres, Tibetan food is more about survival than pleasure. On the plus side, fresh vegetables and packaged goods are now widely available and you are never far away from a good Chinese fanguan or canting…”
Interestingly, the restaurant scene in Lhasa is predominantly Chinese, with the flavours of neighbouring Sichuan featuring everywhere, and catering to the very large Chinese community that populates Lhasa. These, and a sprinkling of Muslim Hui eateries providing an alternative to Tibetan food.
The so-called “elevated beyond a subsistence diet” Tibetan Cuisine as mentioned in The Lonely Planet, is featured by a number of mainly Nepali run restaurants, offering dishes that may seem to be Tibetan by virtue of their names, which sometimes include geographical indications. But, once the food arrives at the table, one can sometimes recognise that some of the dishes had influences that could have only come from outside Tibet.
At the Snowlands Restaurant where I had my first lunch, I ordered a Tsamthuk Soup, an order of Yak Momos, and a Sweet Milk Tea.
The Tsamthuk Soup was a rich, almost creamy soup, almost like a velouté, but with a grittier texture. This was made with a yak broth, chunks of yak, shredded radish, spinach leaves, and thickened with tsampa.
The Yak Momos were boiled, and arrived neatly arranged on an oval plate, looking very much like Chinese Guo Tie. These had a rather dominant yak flavour, but the spicy tomato chutney like dip served with them helped to mask a bit of the yakkiness…
The Sweet Milk Tea, also called cha ngamo locally, is very similar to the sweet milk teas served here in Singapore. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly strong, and was in fact quite weak, with the mug arriving with the tea bag still in it…
The next meal was at the New Upper Mandala Restaurant, an open-air type rooftop restaurant overlooking the Johkhang Temple.
Here, I had an Amdo Soup and Fried Lhasa Lamb Ribs with Potatoes.
The Amdo Soup was a deeply coloured, lightly spicy (chilli powder) and sour (vinegar) yak soup garnished with chopped Spring Onions (scallions). It was robust and warming, with a consistency that reminded me of a Hungarian Goulash. It also had a strong resemblance to neighbouring Sichuan’s Hot & Sour Soup, but without all the associated bits of ingredients one would find in a typical Sichuan Hot & Sour Soup…
The Fried Lhasa Lamb Ribs with Potatoes were almost an echo of the soup, with the flavour of chilli powder dominating. Fortunately, they were not very hot (by my standards)… The roughly chopped lamb ribs were marinated in chilli powder, chopped spring onions (again) and mustard oil, and were deep-fried. These were served with roughly cut potato chips that had previously been par-cooked, then deep-fried in fat (possibly the same fat as the lamb, and at the same time too…) till crisp and hard. The dish had a rather bold lamb flavour, and fortunately, I had a nice cold Lhasa Beer to wash it down…
The next meal was in the garden of The Garden Restaurant. I had the “Tibetan Set” which comprised of a few dishes served on a platter, somewhat like an Indian Thali Set Meal. On the metal platter, was served some Osun, what was probably lettuce stem, Tibetan Sausage, stuffed with heavily spiced lamb intestines, and which had a deep, smokey flavour. Shogo Katsa, sliced potatoes with chilli powder and mustard oil with a mild flavour and just a touch of heat. Son Labu, a delicately pink coloured and mildly flavoured shredded pickled radish dish with dried chillies. Kham Salad, a light and refreshing dish of black fungus (woodsear) and vermicelli salad dressed in rapeseed and mustard oil.
All these mostly vegetable dishes, were accompanied with a mantou like steamed bun called Logo Momo, a Tomato Dipping Sauce with the consistency of a pureed soup, and spiced with a hint of chillies, and a serving of Yak Yoghurt for dessert.
Dinner that day was at a restaurant called Lhasa Kitchen, where I tried Chang Soup, a soupy concoction of Barley Beer/Wine, small cubes of Indian Cottage Cheese (Paneer), and spiced with a sprinkling of ground black pepper. The soup smelt mildly alcoholic, and was somewhat thick and robust, with an alcoholic, residual sugar sweetness, and a lightly yeasty, bread-like flavour.
For mains, I had Shabaleb Bread stuffed with Yak Meat, an unleavened bread, which was basically two round pieces of unleavened bread, one on top of the other, with a stuffing of shredded yak meat seasoned with spring onions (scallions), and with the sides folded at the edges like a curry puff, and (possibly) shallow fried. This was served in quarter cuts and stacked, and were quite mild in flavour.
The next meal was at Tibet Steak House, where lunch was something called a Bobi Set. In concept, this was very similar to something available in many Chinese provinces called the Bao Bing, and also similar to something which we call Popiah in Singapore. The idea of the Bobi, is that you have soft, thin rounds of unleavened wheat bread, and you put in an assortment of ingredients, roll the bread, and eat it as a roll. To compare this with something Western, think of the Tex-Mex Fajitas, but without the usual hot-plate…
The stuffing in the case of this Bobi were, shredded green and red chilli peppers sautéed like a vegetable. These were sweet, and only mildly spicy. There was also Osun, or lettuce stems, which were shredded, and sautéed with sliced onions, chilli powder and ground black pepper. Chinese Celery Stems sautéed with shallots and ginger, enhanced with a whisper of light soya sauce, and the delicately pink Pickled Radish shreds, with dried chillies, and with shreds of yak meat.
This was served with a bowl of hearty Yak broth, with cubes of flavourful yak meat, radish, spring onions (scallions), and whole dried chillies.
Eventually, I made my way to the famous Dunya Restaurant and popped in for dinner. Operated by Western expatriates, this was the only restaurant I visited with a proper bar. Dinner was an order of Fried Cheese Momos, which the Dunya was famous for. These were crescent shaped, and were filled with cheese and deep-fried. Served with a cold curried dipping sauce, which was a little fiery despite its rather pale colour. Interestingly, the consistency of the cheese was rather like that of melted Swiss Raclette, whilst the flavour was somewhat like Dutch Gouda.
This was washed down with a mug of Hot Ginger Tea, which helped to cut the somewhat stodgy greasiness of the deep-fried Cheese Momos, and, reduced the nausea of being at such a high altitude.
When I later met the owner of the establishment at his bar, I discovered over a couple of drinks, that the cheese used in his Cheese Momos, was specially made and aged for him in Nepal, before delivery to Tibet.
The fame of Dunya’s Cheese Momos, was due to their acceptable eating qualities to western travellers, and, not to their notoriety, as I had originally thought, as these were not made with Yaks Cheese…
Lhasa Namaste Restaurant was where the next lunch took place, and it is here that I had a Yak and Potato Stew with Pa. The Yak and Potato Stew, also called shamjay, is a traditional Tibetan stew. It was somewhat like a thick curry, and was quite mild, tasting somewhat like an Indian Dhal, but with meat. This was served with Pa, which is tsampa mixed with yak butter tea, and hand-rolled until a solid mass is formed. Pa, is very dense, and heavy, with a mild flavour, somewhat like rye bread or Indian chapattis, and is very filling.
My final dinner in Tibet brought me back to the Dunya, which was the only restaurant that seemed to have space that day, the others being quite full, and not willing to take in a single diner.
This time, I had a Meat (yak) Thukpa, which was basically egg noodles in a yak broth. The soft, flat egg noodles were served in a moderately robust but quite intensely tasty broth, with red peppers, haricots verts, cucumbers, spring onions, carrots, lettuce stems and boiled yak meat, all shredded, or cut shred cuts, except for the haricots, which were in a horse ear cut. The influence here, was definitely Chinese…
In my time spent in Lhasa exploring not only the sights, but also the restaurant scene, it became quite clear that Tibetan cuisine as featured in the restaurants in Lhasa, was something created to cater to foreign travellers. The restaurants that catered to these international travellers, tended to offer not only what they called Tibetan cuisine, but cuisines like Indian, Nepali, Chinese, and Western dishes, all in the same menu as well.
These restaurants will soon face an interesting challenge from the new International Chain Hotels that are due to open in Lhasa. Who knows what creations the likes of the St Regis, and Banyan Tree Resorts will bring, when these open in 2010 and beyond?
So, frankly speaking, did I happen to enjoy the food at all? Well, my experience with this interpretation of Tibetan cuisine in Lhasa, was generally positive. The dishes were mostly tasty, and, for one who has eaten widely and has tried many cuisines, I found that the flavours were not too alien.
The drinks, however, were a different story…
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