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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Redemption at the Lhasa Café

Before my first meal at Northampton’s Lhasa Café in 2004, I had never tasted Tibetan food. In all fairness, the café—Western Massachusetts’ only Tibetan restaurant—was but two months old—still working things out. Following flavor-challenged portions of stir-fried vegetables, rice, and two types of Tibetan breads, one of them a wraith-like doughy dumpling called a momo, I finally encountered something with personality. It was butter tea and, for a neophyte, it was nasty--an infusion dominated by ghee (clarified butter) and goosed up with salt, not sugar (statins not compulsory but recommended).

This then was eating-out to live, not living to eat out. And one final touch: Piped-in dinner music was a cathartic lower-register drone-athon by a full complement of Tibetan monks.

Homage to Tibet. Let me underscore my admiration for Tibet and its special planetary role and legacy. Tibetan Buddhism really does offer a cultural and pragmatic hot line to at least the prospect of the Great Beyond-o (and more). Granted, the Tibetan Book of the Dead –a sort of between-incarnations Fodor’s—offers more than its share of challenging prose. But, in truth, it’s no more inscrutable than other instruction guides of Asian provenance. It has nothing, for instance, over the operating manuals that came with my Taiwanese TV and my Korean DVD player.

Given my bullishness for Tibetan Buddhism and the small sample size (ONE) of my exposure to Tibetan cuisine, I resolved to give the Lhasa Café (and myself) a second chance—nearly six years after my visit. This time I did some research. My respondents fell into two categories. The first—drawing on experiences at Tibetan restaurants in Brookline, New York, and Northampton--echoed my previous impression of Tibetan cuisine. But the second offered kudos with the following advisory: Be sure to order meat dishes. Tibetans are a pastoral, meat-eating people. Think of them as Texans of the Tibetan Plateau. (Tara, forgive me.)

Hail to the Yak
 Showdown at the Lhasa Café.  So earlier this week I rounded up two foodie friends and my son and mosied on down to the Lhasa Café. We went straight for the yak, Tibet’s beloved all-purpose quadruped. (According to the owner, the café’s yak supply chain begins on a farm in Nebraska.) We ordered three different yak cum-vegetable stir fries, including one with jalepenos. All brimmed with flavor and were perfectly seasoned with ginger, emma (Tibetan black peppercorns) and other spices. A bit of the yak was stringy, but all of it had a disarming, delicate sweetness and lightness. (Yak, the menu noted, has far fewer calories, and less fat and cholesterol than beef, pork, and even chicken.) The four of us agreed that the meat in my son’s beef dish was less flavorful than the yak, but that the potatoes in his mélange were cooked and seasoned to perfection.

Yaksha Juma Khasta

With these revelations, my doughy momo dumpling acquired new meaning. Its invisible flavor and limp plasticity were now virtues in mopping up and absorbing terrific entries. And the Lhasa Café got the dinner music right. It was an unobtrusive Tibetan-New Age hybrid of lilting vocals and flute.

A final disclaimer and more.  I know that the Tibetan diaspora offers its share of Buddhist vegetarian cuisines, some of which dovetail with Tibetan health/medicine. And I would bet this incarnation that any number of Tibetan cooks bring subtlety and panache to their vegetarian creations. Still, there’s no denying Tibet’s meat-eating ways. In the early 1980s a friend served on a security team that traveled with the Dalai Lama throughout the northeast United States. One of my friend’s reminiscences was of a visit by the Dali Lama and his red- and saffron-robed retinue to a McDonalds. This post ends with two recollections from that story: the Tibetans were received with great hospitality and many in the group ventured higher on the food chain than the Filet-O-Fish.

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Anonymous said...

Love the Yak! Looks like a thoughtful, contemplative being. Good to have one around.

CatDiva said...