1544 Queen Street West
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip and beer: $50
A week from today, the eyes of the world will be on China. Some people will watch with fingers crossed, cheering on their country’s athletes, while others will direct their attention toward the potential political protests that may occur as groups advocating for a free Tibet attempt to catch the attention of the world’s media.
I generally advise TasteTO writers to avoid discussing politics when writing restaurant reviews, but when it comes to Toronto’s Tibetan community and the businesses they’ve created in their new home, that’s a difficult task. Without the political upheaval that has brought over 3000 ex-pat Tibetans to the Toronto area (most of them to the Parkdale neighbourhood), the restaurants and shops that delight us simply wouldn’t exist.
Our reason for dropping by Tibet Kitchen had no political connotations at all, however. It was simply that a good friend had never eaten there and was intrigued by our descriptions of the Tibetan shae mo (dumplings).
First up, and usually surprising to most people is that Tibetans, despite being Buddhist, are not vegetarians. In fact, meat plays a role in most of the dishes here. Given that the climate in Tibet is similar to that of the Yukon, particularly in winter, and the terrain is dry and rocky, the Tibetan diet is centred more around meat than vegetables. In Tibet, yak meat would likely be the main meat eaten, but Tibetan restaurateurs make do with beef in their dishes and cow’s milk in their butter tea.
The shae mo tak-wa, a pan fried beef dumpling ($6.99 for 6) win our guest over immediately with a crisp and golden exterior and a spicy blend of ground beef on the inside. This is what we came for, above everything else that makes it to the table, and they don’t disappoint. A plate of tsel shae mo ($5.99) or steamed vegetable dumplings, offer a different take on Tibet’s national dish, and while they’re good, we prefer the spiciness of the fried beef version.
For mains we order a variety of dishes from various categories including a jasha (chicken) curry, phingsha, and tsey tofu (all $8.99), which come accompanied by a massive bowl of white rice. An order of steamed dumplings known as ting mo ($3.99) seems like it will be the tipping point into ‘too much’, but we end up using the lovely light knots of bread to sop up the sauces in the bowls.
Since our guest is not a fan of super-spicy food, all of our choices are milder in flavour. Tibetan food is known to be laced with some killer hot sauce, a container of which is prominent on each table and is used frequently by the Tibetan diners in the room. The jasha curry, a dish with obvious Indian influences is not marked as spicy, but is warmly redolent of a traditional Indian masala with large tender chunks of chicken under the creamy broth and sliced spring onions. Given the geography, Tibetan food is most often described as being a cross between Chinese and Indian cuisine, and the influences of both are easy to see.
The tsey tofu is one of only four vegetarian mains on the menu and is a blend of carrots, baby corn, broccoli, onions and tofu. The broth is mild, and to my palate could use a bit of a kick, but the vegetables are bright and crisp and we finish this off.
Phingsha demonstrates the Tibetan and Chinese tendency to think of potatoes as a general root vegetable, as opposed to a starch as we do in the west. Hunks of boiled potatoes sit atop bean thread noodles with black mushrooms and sautéed beef, and while it’s odd to us to have noodles, potatoes, bread and rice all on one plate, the combination in conjunction with the broths and sauces of the various dishes works well.
Having tried the traditional Tibetan butter tea before, I’m not keen to have it again, but our guest loves the bhod-jha ($1.50), likening the flavour of the salted, buttery milk tea to raw cookie batter. Restaurant owner Tenzin Valunbisitsang explains to us that the butter tea is consumed frequently throughout the day in Tibet to promote strength and endurance against the harsh climate. Here in Toronto, it replaces the ubiquitous pot of coffee during Tibet Kitchen’s weekend brunch, where Tibetan customers often drink half a dozen refills in one sitting.
Brunch itself is a prix fixe deal where $4.99 scores two eggs any style, a couple of sausages and a big bowl of chickpeas and potatoes in a curry sauce similar to that of the chicken we have at dinner. Add a couple of rounds of balep korkun, a puffy flatbread similar to naan or poori that comes either fried or steamed, as well as unlimited Tibetan tea, regular tea or coffee, and it’s probably the best brunch deal in the neighbourhood.
Decorated in a traditional colourful Tibetan style evoking colours and patterns used in Tibetan temples, the room has an easy, peaceful calm. His Holiness the Dalai Lama looks on benevolently from the wall near the counter, and there’s a lovely patio out back. Valunbisitsang and his wife are smiling and friendly and the service is comfortable yet professional. Like so many family-run places, customers feel almost like guests in a private home and even after a couple of years in business, staff always seem delighted when non-Tibetans stop by to try out the food, particularly at a recent “Eat For Tibet” buffet to raise money for the group Students For a Free Tibet.
It’s unlikely that protests during the Olympics will change the situation for the people of Tibet. But it’s reassuring to know that through restaurants like Tibet Kitchen, the Tibetan community in Toronto can not only keep their unique culture alive, but can teach the rest of us about how they live – and what they eat.