Monday, May 7, 2007

Tibet or not Tibet?

(Apologies about the bad pun in the title of this post)
Had dinner at Wild Yak Tibetan Restaurant (350 High St, Northcote) the other night. Interesting...
Let me state from the outset that no, I have never been to Tibet, so I am hardly the world's greatest authority on what they do and don't eat there. But I have a fair idea. So you can imagine my surprise when we noticed calamari on the menu at a Tibetan restaurant. CALAMARI! Now, my knowledge of marine fauna is rudimentary at best, but where does one get squid in the snow-covered slopes of landlocked Tibet? That was the first clue that the food served here is not an accurate representation of Tibetan cuisine.
But does that matter? Maybe not. Much of the food here seems like the kind of cuisine the Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala in Northern India might eat - a selection of Indian-influenced curries, which were good, and Chinese-inflected fare which was more bland. And besides, from what I do know about Tibetan cuisine, perhaps inauthenticity is not a bad idea. Tibet's staple food, tsampa, is a gruel made from roasted barley mixed with a bit of tea, while hardened chewy yak cheese is a common snack. (Neither of these featured on the menu.) And as for the national drink, bo cha... well, more on that later...

Momos are usually decent value. Imagine a cross between a dim sum and a curry puff and you have your momo. The vegetarian ones here are spicy and more interesting than the bland beef ones (so I'm told). Another unique dish was the tingmo, a coiled steamed bun similar to the Chinese bao. Stick to the curries here - the "honey and lemon" sauce that flavours some of the other dishes is too close to commercial sweet-and-sour sauce for comfort.

But the Tibetan tea (bo cha) is the most noteworthy thing on the menu. It is one of the most challenging dishes to appear in any Melbourne restaurant. There is black tea in there somewhere, but it's mixed with milk and butter. Yes, butter. It is incredibly rich, and slightly oily and salty. A popular drink in the cold and mountainous regions of central Asia, its appeal is yet to spread beyond there, and its not hard to see why.

To be honest, it's not too bad. You just need to adjust your notion of what tea is. After all, the ancient Ethiopians who discovered coffee used to eat the beans with butter and salt. Think of butter tea as a kind of rich mild savoury soup, and it's ok. I didn't say its great, but it's ok.

One more thing about Wild Yak: the Tibetan lady serving us (who seems to run the place) is so nice and has such an affecting aura of warmth and inner peace, that I feel really bad saying anything less than wonderful about this place. Maybe she gets that inner peace from drinking lots of bo cha, I don't know.
Anyway, in summary: Pretty good if you order the right stuff. Could do better.

Bo cha (Tibetan butter tea): notice the oil floating on top!

1 comment:

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