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Himalayan cuisine: Yak it up

July 28, 2008

By Peg Rahn, Correspondent
Pasadena Star News (Ca, USA)
July 26, 2008

Most of us have gone to a restaurant with a friend not only to share
a good meal but to yak: to catch up with each other. But how many
have gone for yak, the animal?

The Tibet Nepal House in Old Pasadena offers the a fine yak stew
prepared from this exotic animal that has been part of the scenery
and tradition of the Himalayan steeps for centuries. You'll be able
to yak - and have yak, at the same time.

Before you even ask: No, it doesn't taste like chicken! Yak is a
low-fat red meat that tastes like a mild beef, and it is not gamey.
The yak served here comes from Colorado, where some Nepalese folks
breed them for meat, butter, yogurt, cheese and milk for the American market.

But the yak is not the only reason to go to the Tibet Nepal House,
while curiosity will likely dictate that the adventurous diner will
try it. And if you do, you'll like it.

Yak on the menu serves as an exotic come-on to get you hooked. But
make sure to sample a variety of the dishes that represent the two
countries in the Himalayans.

Although an ancient culture, this remote corner of the earth remained
isolated from the rest world until the last century when trekking got
to be big business and quickly moved Nepal and Tibet out of the 11th
century and into to relatively modern times.

Eight of the highest peaks in the world lead up to Mount Everest in
the Himalayan range, which is referred to as the "roof of the world".
Mountaineering tourism plays

a large role in the economy. In fact, all of the people associated
with the Tibet Nepal House, from the owners to the chef, were
certified guides before coming to Pasadena in 2001 to open the first
Himalayan restaurant in the Los Angeles area.

I don't see myself taking up trekking in the near future so I will
never see the real thing, but a visit to this Himalayan transplant
for lunch or dinner is a terrific vicarious trip in itself.

It begins as you walk through the door into the narrow room. Owners
Karma Bhotia and Yishu Ghale decorated with authentic artifacts. Off
to the side is a giant head of Buddha presiding over a watery shrine
complete with female deities and live flowers. Resist the urge to
check out the room until you've been seated and decided what you want
to order from the menu.

Nepalese manager Bikram Ghale is happy to guide the novice through
the choices. It is best to come with a couple of friends who like to
share. You'll enjoy learning about Himalayan food and the customs
from Bikram, so arrive at an off-hour in order to have an unhurried
discussion with him. He is proud of both the fare and the culture and
can go on forever.

But first things first.

"Try the Daal Bhat Maasu" from the Nepalese menu, he suggested to me
on my first visit. It is a terrific choice for novices. Nepalese love
spicy food but the chef has tamed most dishes for the American
palate. If you like chilies, request that a little heat be added.
Guaranteed, you will love the tastes, textures and colors of the food.

The colorful meal arrives on a individual round stainless steel tray
with a slight lip designed to keep the bowls filled with various
dishes steady on the tray. There are yellow daal (lentils), perfectly
steamed basmati rice seasoned with mountain herbs, an achar or
chutney, a colorful mixed vegetable (I recommend the okra) and the
main dish, which is a curry stew - either chicken or lamb,
falling-off-the-bone- tender buried under a rich sauce. Dessert is
included and is not to be missed: a killer rice pudding fragrant with
cinnamon, cardamom and cloves as well as bits of with pistachios throughout.

Don't forget an order of roti "bread" to sop up the last bit of sauce
from the stew. The typical flatbread roti is made from whole wheat
and baked in a clay oven similar to an Indian tandoori. I like the
chyamtange dhopzi roti.

As you work your way through the meal, you will begin to see how much
is borrowed from the traditions of Nepal's biggest neighbor, India.

Moving on to Tibet, the cuisine tends to be simpler, more delicate
and uses fewer seasonings. Although never highly spiced, the dishes
are wonderfully savory. Some say that the difference is due to the
fact that not as many ingredients are available at the higher
elevations. Also, Tibetans tend to eat a lot of protein to protect
themselves from the long, cold winters. They take their culinary cue
from Chinese kitchen traditions, serving more stirfry and soup.

Bikram told me the perfect example of a Tibetan dish needed to be one
that had tsamp, traditional rough-cut noodles made from roasted wheat
or barley flour. As in China, they are thought to bring the eater
long life. Lhasa thukpa (hearty noodle soup) not only includes the
noodles but also mixed vegetables, chicken or lamb, egg and is
delicately seasoned with Himalayan spices.

Chef Damber Jurung, a Nepali of Tibetan descent, agreed that the two
chosen dishes were good for novices as the use many of the seasonings
common to both fares, such as black and white cardamom, garlic,
ginger, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise, chili,
turmeric, saffron, sesame seed and mustard seed as well as three
exotic herbs imported from the Himalayas: timboor, jijmbu, and ajwain.

Owner Bhotia, the original chef, designed the menu to highlight the
authentic flavors of his homeland with a contemporary twist. He
developed his love of regional foods and cooking as he guided folks
all over the Himalayas during his stint as a photographer/ certified
mountaineer.

One order each of thukpa and the Nepalese set menu is plenty for two
people to share, but don't let that hold you back! If you are in the
mood for appetizers, momos (both the vegetable and meat varieties -
even yak) are one of the most popular dishes with both Nepalese and
Tibetans. First cousin to a steamed potsticker, momos are served with
homemade achar (chutney) as well as a red chili dipping sauce and a
cilantro-based green sauce. You probably should share an order along
with a bowl of the snack of roasted soy beans called bhatamaas saadheko.

We haven't yet gotten into drinks, but I prefer a savory lassi
(yogurt drink). Many opt for one of the distinctive teas or yeti, a
high-alcohol beer made from barley.

Speaking of Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, he is here,
too. The rear half the ceiling is full of giant cutouts of white
footprints personalized with sayings and art done by customers. The
front half of the room's ceiling sports prayer flags to protect those
in the restaurant from evil spirits.

The decor includes antique cookware, shrines, and even temple
turners, unusual looking bell-shaped objects connected to vertical
axels. The devout are supposed to give them a twirl with their
handles as the walk by.

At the back of the restaurant, a large American flag hangs, flanked
by Tibetan and Nepale flags. Photos showing the old ways and posters
of the new "roof of the world" complete the scene.

I've been back to learn more about the "roof of the world" cuisine
and culture beyond Nepalese daal-bhaat (the lentil and rice staple
eaten in Nepal twice a day) and Tibetan thukpa soup.

The more I learn about these countries, the more I realize that what
locals eat at home depends on their religious beliefs, where they
live, distinctive ethnic customs and their social status. Happily, we
don't have any of those limits. We can go to the Tibet Nepal House to
enjoy the full range of fare from this most interesting corner of the
earth. Another order of yak momos, please!

* * * * * * * * *
TIBET NEPAL HOUSE
Cuisine of the Himalayas
36 E. Holly St.
Pasadena, CA
Between Fair Oaks and Raymond
(626) 585-0955
www.tibetnepalhouse.com

Open daily except Mondays for lunch and dinner. There is a daily
all-you-can-eat buffet lunch and an extensive champagne brunch on weekends.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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