Thukpa from Yangling
A few years back, I spent a night in Di Qing, a Tibetan County in the Yunnan Province, China. It's also known locally as the shangri-la, which I thought was quite befitting. There, the air was crisp and clear, the plains in shades of green and gold, and the lakes were pristine. Time basically stood still there, in 2006. It was still cold towards summer and we kept warm drinking butter tea, served with bowls of ground roasted barley. Before leaving, we had an enjoyable local lunch but the cooking seemed rather Chinese than Tibetan.
Momos from Yangling
This time, I promised myself to make time for some real Tibetan food in Kathmandu. And that's not easy, considering that I haven't had a good gauge of what's really real and also, when distraction was the many different, fascinating cuisines to choose from in this melting pot. A few general observations of the Tibetan food I had in Kathmandu - the menu goes way beyond the wide range of momos, which are indiscriminately served in all restaurants here, and between Nepali and Tibetan cuisines, the most obvious distinction is the subtler, more natural taste in the latter.
Tungba from Yak
At Yangling, I had my first of many thukpas, a noodle soup. It was cooked a la minute, and I'd discovered this while nibbling the finely chopped garlic, which must have been sauteed with the assorted vegetables before the pouring of chicken stock. Pre-cooking (or constant simmering) would have dissolved both the vegetables and garlic. I liked the slight tang from the tomatoes in the stock, which was appetising. The noodles reminded me of our la mian, only smoother and, for the lack of a better word, al dente. And it's never a one-dish meal because, like everyone else, I'd want a plate of momo or kothey (fried momo) as on the side. It's only right, I think. Yangling's version had a clean, minimally seasoned taste with the savouriness coming right from the meat.
Fermented millet for the tungba
There are many good restaurants in Kathmandu, especially in the Thamel district, yet I'd decided to return to Yak Restaurant on my last night, to reminisce a fantastic dinner I had there previously. It's an aged, cosy restaurant with dim lights and where tables are partitioned like in those old cafes. Yak exudes a rustic charm that lets the imagination runs wild. At one point, I'd imagined this being a place where trekkers and hunters would dine and share their close encounters with the yeti. Here, it's a full house come dinner time and on my last night, I had shared my table with a French couple in dreadlocks. They were vegetarians.
Buff kotheys from Yak
I started both nights with the tungba, an alcoholic beverage that tasted like beer, served hot and gasless. Hot water is poured into the fermented millet and a straw is used to suck into the simple mixture. The straw is heat-sealed at the tip to ensure that only liquid is permitted to flow through. A simple and smart idea, I must say. Mildly intoxicating and sweet, it's an interesting change from hot ciders...and beers. With a drink like that, some fried food is almost compulsory. The choice of kothey (fried momo) was good. I went for the buffalo meat filling that was juicy, with the dumpling skin nicely browned with a crunch. The chilli dip was fiery hot, but not at all sour. And it had a faint, familiar scent that reminded me of nutmeg. It's a good feeling when you see both locals and visitors packing a restaurant because you know that the food will be good, usually affordable and that you've successfully avoided a tourist trap. Back to the buffalo, I had the buff tsampa as well, which was basically barley porridge with buffalo meat and some greens. Except for the sprinkling of salt, I failed to detect the usage of other seasonings. On the last visit, when most of the favourites were sold out (even the suja tea), I resorted to the pakhora to go with my tungba. Although this is essentially a sub-continental dish, Yak's version was still very much satisfying. Not to be deceived by the burnt colour of the shell, the vegetable patties were sufficiently moist. With food so good, it's no wonder that I finished a plate each of kothey and pakhora, a bowl of thukpa and a tub of tungba within an hour. I must have impressed the French vegetarian couple. Or traumatised them.
Pakhoras from Yak
I don't see myself landing in Tibet in the next few years for there are still a few places on my list that I've yet to visit. So, until I have an opportunity to understand what is real, Yak Restaurant and Yangling Tibetan Restaurant will remain as my gauge for delicious, authentic and affordable Tibetan food. For all I know, this might just be as close as it gets outside Tibet.