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Dinner on the Roof of the World

August 4, 2008

Sheryl Kirby in asian, restaurant review
Taste T.O.
August 1, 2008 at 4:15 pm

Tibet Kitchen
Toronto, Ontario
1544 Queen Street West
416-913-8726

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 centered 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.
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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