Deconstructing the latest Boston foodie phenomenon: the Tibetan restaurant
With a large student population and famously liberal politics, Boston has become a hub of "free Tibet" activism and a favored stop for the Dalai Lama as he circles the globe. Less well known is that we’re also something of a hot spot for Tibetan food. The recent debut of Tashi Delek—a pretty Brookline Village storefront serving some of the city’s best dumplings—brings our tally of Tibetan restaurants to four (the first, Somerville’s House of Tibet, opened in 1998). A moderate number, perhaps, but not bad for a low-profile cuisine in a city of our size: New York, by comparison, has just two more, despite having 13 times the population.
Why the boomlet? It can’t be strictly demographic, as current estimates put Boston’s Tibetan community at just 500 residents. Maybe it’s the wide vegetarian streak in Tibetan menus, a legacy of the country’s Buddhist heritage. Rangzen in Central Square, for instance, is a magnet for techies, vegetarians, and, by the look of a recent dinner crowd, techie vegetarians.There’s also the influence of books and films such as Lost Horizon, Seven Years in Tibet, and Kundun, which have kept Tibet on the U.S. cultural radar.
But really, the simple answer is that Tibetan food is just so tasty. It’s lighter and more mildly spiced than Indian, less oily than Chinese, but a close cousin of both. It’s exotic, but still comforting and familiar. Chilies, peppercorns, mustard, and ginger figure prominently on the ingredients list; carrots and cabbage are the standby vegetables; and momos, stuffed breads, and noodles are staples. Who doesn’t like dumplings, noodles, and bread?
"When my Tibetan friends dine here, they always bring some Americans with them," says Dechen Martsa, co-owner of Davis Square’s Martsa on Elm, where the meat and vegetarian curries pack a bit more kick than those at its fellow Tibetan eateries. "The Americans keep coming back on their own."
New to Tibetan? Try these classic dishes.
1. Momos: The ubiquitous Tibetan dumplings come filled with meat or vegetables, and, like the Chinese version, can be ordered steamed or pan-fried. Either way, they’re served with zesty tomato-chili sauce for dipping. Tashi Delek, 236 Washington St., Brookline, 617-232-4200.
2. Shamday: This yellow curry of beef (or, more traditionally, yak meat), potatoes, carrots, spinach, and onions shows how Tibetan cooks have incorporated local flavors during their long exile in India. Martsa on Elm Tibetan Cuisine, 233A Elm St., Somerville, 617-666-0660.
3. Tena thukpa: Five kinds of lentils go into this hearty soup, with each variety representing an element of nature: fire, earth, water, wind, and sky. House of Tibet Kitchen, 235 Holland St., Somerville, 617-629-7567.
4. Chhassa chow: A savory stir-fry of rice noodles, chicken, egg, and vegetables, this dish reflects a number of Chinese culinary influences. Rangzen Tibetan Restaurant, 24 Pearl St., Cambridge, 617-354-8881.