The shabaley, which doesn’t seem to exist on the Internets at all, although all of the Tibetan restaurants in Toronto’s Parkdale have their own version, is a heftier cousin to the traditional Tibetan momo.
The momo, Tibet’s version of the dumpling, can be steamed or fried, and comes with a variety of fillings, usually vegetable or beef. Momos are approximately 2 inches in diameter and are typically made from one round of dough, expertly crimped in the centre. Shabaley, on the other hand, are closer to 4 inches across, are made from two rounds of dough crimped around the circumference, are always filled with a beef, onion and spice mixture, and are always deep-fried. In terms of appearance, they vaguely resemble an empanada.
Shabaley filling (like most Tibetan food) isn’t spicy but is a unique layering of flavours that is enhanced at the table with soy and hot sauces. The pastry is thicker than the delicate momo wrapper, crisp on the outside while slightly airy inside, and vaguely, but not overwhelmingly, sweet.
Shabaley are usually served as an appetizer, four to an order, but they are extremely filling and reheat nicely the next day if you (ahem) can’t finish them all.
The shabaley pictured above come from Norling Tibetan and Hakka Cuisine (1512 Queen Street West), but most of the Tibetan restaurants in Parkdale include a version on their menus.
“Fuck, that’s amazing!” Jacob Wharton-Shukster laughs out loud at my exclamation upon my first mouthful of Chantecler’s polenta and calls over Chef Jonathan Poon and repeats what I’ve said. Poon smiles widely, but shyly, and doesn’t miss a beat as he continues to plate dishes at Chantecler’s pass on a busy Wednesday night, their third day in business.
These guys had a fight with the city to even open their doors – the former Mangez sandwich shop didn’t have an existing liquor license and by default, in an effort to keep out clubs and bars, local councillor Gord Perks tries to block any new liquor license in his Parkdale riding. Perks has the theoretical best interest of the neighbourhood at heart, but you can’t block progress, and new restaurants and businesses, if they are small and community-minded, actually help a place like Parkdale thrive.
Three days in and Chantecler (1320 Queen Street West) is obviously thriving. The 26-seat restaurant quickly fills, with Wharton-Shukster running front of house and mixing up some killer cocktails – Chantecler even has a twist for old cranks like me who aren’t into the cocktail craze – house-made tonic to go with my gin. I like this place already. And the husband is over the moon because they’re serving cask ale.
Parkdale, my neighbourhood since 1993, is known for its many characters. People who make the place unique and colourful, people who definitely dance to their own drummer. For 90 some-odd years, one of those characters was Annie Ross. Born in the building that stands on the south-west corner of Queen and Dunn in 1913, she lived there her entire life until her death in 2004. Miss Ross never married, instead running her family’s flower shop at the front of the building, and spending her retirement years in a small apartment at the back where she was known for feeding the local pigeons; thus her nickname, The Bird Lady.
Miss Ross could tell you stories of how Parkdale had changed and grown. She could remember when the lot directly across the street from her on Dunn was a field for horses. She could tell about how the buildings went up along Queen, or how the mansions along Jameson came down to make way for apartment buildings. And she could tell you about books. In a 4-minute short documentary filmed before her death, she talks about how she began keeping track of all the books she read in her lifetime, some 8,600 different titles.
There was a piece in the Post a few weeks back about the condo development going in on the south-west corner of Queen and Dufferin. It was lots of the usual fluff about shops and restaurants, plus some whacked out idea about how the park across the street where the skateboarders hang out is being turned into a cinema. The most amusing part of the story though was what it didn’t include; like the fact that the train route to the airport (with all those additions diesel trains) runs about 50 meters from what would be the building’s front door. Or that the next door neighbour to the west is a huge community health centre with a meth clinic.
The Parkdale Community Health Centre is a large building with a small park adjacent to it. It serves the community well with a number of programs for lower income people (no health card is needed to obtain the free services offered) and they have everything from primary care doctors to chiropodists and nutritionists to mental health workers. Being such a community hub, it would make a perfect place for some food-related services. Especially because the 7,000 square foot basement space has been sitting empty since the building was erected a few years back.
Which is why it was so awesome to hear that the Westend Food Co-op has partnered with the PCHC to install their food store in the lower level by the end of the year.
My neighbourhood is an interesting place. Run down rooming houses full of run down people sit side-by-side beautifully renovated Victorian and Edwardian homes with $15,000 stoves in the kitchen. We have a high end toy/gift shop but the swankest coffee chain is Coffee Time – we don’t even rate a Tim’s. A seasonal, local, nose-to-tail restaurant looks out across Queen West at a community drop-in centre and soup kitchen. Rich ladies with sweaters over their shoulders emerge from vintage Jaguars to cruise the junque shops while trying to avoid used condoms and syringes on the sidewalk.
Sitting in the front window of Rhino, our local watering hole, it’s interesting to watch this diversity wander by.
Across the street at Public Butter, a vintage clothing shop, a rack of plaid jackets sits on the sidewalk. Priced as much as a new one from somewhere like Mark’s Work Wearhouse, they’re meant for the hipsters putting together outfits featuring the latest flavour of ironic. They’re less ironic when a pair of rocker guys, complete with mullets, walk past the rack, wearing those same jackets with utter seriousness.
Remember how in high school, there was always one guy whose house you’d all flock to? The kid with the cool basement rec room, and the Mom who always made everyone snacks, and who didn’t mind if you were there until three in the morning listening to Floyd, or The Sex Pistols, or Nirvana (depending on your particular era). It maybe wasn’t the slickest place, maybe the furniture didn’t match, or the walls were covered in peeling rock posters, but it was so comfortable, and so welcoming, that it’s where you naturally gravitated every day.
Fabio Bondi and Michael Sangregorio are (collectively) those guys, and their new restaurant, Local Kitchen and Wine Bar, is the hip grown-up equivalent to the basement rec room. It might be the collection of old news articles and photos of the neighbourhood on the walls, the handmade bar, or the mismatched chairs. It might also be that Sangregorio, who runs the front of house, is the modern equivalent of your friend’s Mom, proffering samples from the restaurant’s piattini (small plates) menu, and encouraging regulars to flip through the boxes of vinyl records by the kitchen door to spin on the restaurant’s turntable-based sound system. This is the only restaurant in town where you could actually hear someone ask, “Mike, man, let’s hear some Zeppelin…” and actually have it happen.
1185 King Street West
Dinner for two with all taxes, tip, wine and coffee: $110
I’ve walked past Caffino a hundred times – literally – without ever going in. When I worked in Liberty Village I would consider grabbing my morning coffee from there, but the Roastery was closer to work and on cold winter mornings, travel time really did count.
Even living 5 minutes away wasn’t compelling enough, especially when hot new places started popping up nearby. Their website didn’t help – the menu page never worked at all and the only thing I could find was a list of celebrities who had eaten there, which is more of a reason to stay away than make a beeline for the place in my book. (Their current website is no better – it’s just a splash page with a note about it re-launching in December ’08.)
This neighbourhood is an odd blend of rich and poor. Gorgeous Victorian homes on one block, crumbling low-income apartment buildings on another. It’s a struggle between the NIMBY dreaming of idylic times and high property values and the down and out cruising for a fix of something – sex, drugs, lotto tickets – to dull the pain for a few brief moments.
There is always a sad collection of lost souls on King just west of Dufferin every morning. It’s worse in the summer when tiny apartments or rooming house rooms become stifling in the heat. Then they sprawl across the doorsteps of shops, take over stoops and sometimes just situate themselves in the middle of the sidewalk – drinking, smoking, puking, turning tricks and getting high, as necessary, lather, rinse, repeat. Garbage seems to collect around them, like they’re magnetized; paper coffee cups, cigarette butts, broken beer bottles and fast food wrappers gathering at their feet as they sit through the night, getting high or coming down.
It’s better in the winter, when it’s too cold for them to spend the night on the side of the road. Then they all disappear, leaving the streets empty and nonthreatening, only crawling out of bed in the late afternoon to gather in front of the usual haunts, bleary-eyed and hoping to score.
There’s a new guy, lives on the corner. He spends a lot of time outdoors. He’s pretty quiet, and has this aura of peacefulness that everyone in the neighbourhood is remarking upon.
The big Buddha is located at the corner of Dufferin and Melbourne, outside a high-end furniture store called Kuda. Kuda sells a lot of imported stuff from Thailand, Morocco, etc, and they’re big on Buddha as an icon, if not as a philosophy/spiritual path (they might well be Buddhists, for all I know, not making judgements one way or the other).
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.