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Flavors of Tibet, minus the yak

January 8, 2008

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Boston Globe Staff  |  January 3, 2008

In Tibet, where the mountaintop geography has earned the country the 
nickname "roof of the world," food is fuel. To stay warm in the high 
altitude, Tibetans have historically eaten energy-rich mutton, yak 
meat, dried beef, barley flour, high-fat yak milk, and tea blended 
with salted butter. Root vegetables like turnips and potatoes were 
staples, since few veggies or fruits grew on the arid plateaus.

So are yak and buttered tea on the menu at Tashi Delek, a four-month-
old Tibetan restaurant in Brookline Village where Café Samovar used 
to be? Yak, no. Buttered tea, yes - as well as soups, simple salads, 
noodle dishes, the famous Tibetan dumplings called momos, and entrees 
of beef, chicken, shrimp, or greens.

Tibetan cooking is similar to Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Nepali 
cuisines. But it's not as oily as Chinese food can be, nor as heavy 
with thick curries, fiery chiles, and clarified butter as many Indian 
dishes are. It doesn't revolve around the Nepalese mainstays of 
lentils and rice, and it's not as tropical and seafood-oriented as 
some Thai menus tend to be. That makes Tibetan a good choice for 
lighter, mildly spiced Asian foods.

At Tashi Delek (the name is a Tibetan greeting meaning hello and good 
luck), the food is prepared by chef-owner Lobsang Thargay, who opened 
the restaurant in September with his wife, Phurbu. The couple came to 
Boston in the 1990s through a resettlement program for Tibetans 
living in India and Nepal. They were both born in India, but their 
parents fled Tibet after it was occupied by China in the 1950s.

Their restaurant is pretty and peaceful. A photo of the Dalai Lama 
smiles over the dining room, and a panoramic picture of Lhasa, 
Tibet's ancient capital, graces one wall. A back counter is decorated 
with the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism, including a lotus 
blossom and golden fish. "We are doing our best to preserve our 
culture," said Phurbu, "and tell that world that Tibet is still a 
country and we are keeping it alive."

Lobsang, who studied at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, is a 
talent in the kitchen. His warming soups ($4-$5) are perfect for this 
time of year: shen dal, a thin curried lentil; jhasha thang, a sweet 
corn soup flecked with whole kernels; tsel thang, miso-like broth 
with tiny tofu cubes, torn spinach, and mushroom slivers; and, best 
of all, drothuk, oatmeal porridge speckled with ground beef.

I also love his momos (appetizer $6.50, entrée $14-$17), fat 
dumplings stuffed with pureed broccoli, cauliflower, and shiitakes; 
spinach and ricotta sweetened with sugar; tofu; or ground beef. The 
pasta wrappers are overly thick, but the fillings are richly 
flavorful and pair nicely with tomato chutney spiked with mint and 

Potato patties called sho-go numtak ($4.50) have a thin deep-fried 
exterior but are perfectly smooth inside. In many of the poultry and 
shrimp dishes, the meat is battered and lightly fried, which makes 
the chicken in the jha-sha mango salsa ($15) off-puttingly bready, 
despite its pleasantly fruity sauce. So we asked for sauteed shrimp 
in chu bu kha tsa ($16), a mix of yellow and green squash with zippy 
red curry, and the end result was delicious.

Even better is lhasa shapta ($15), lean slices of tender beef in a 
light tomato sauce with ginger and scallions. Tofu tsel ne zom ($14), 
a stir-fry of tofu and mixed vegetables in tomato-garlic sauce, is 
also excellent. Yellow-tinted sho go khatsa ($13), curried boiled 
potatoes, taste traditionally Indian. One weak spot: The blanched 
green beans in shin bi nolpa ($13), a veggie dish, are underdone.

As for that buttered tea, known as bhod jha ($2), it's an acquired 
taste I've yet to acquire. "It tastes like drinking melted butter," a 
friend said. I prefer a sweet ending such as deysee ($3.50), sugared 
basmati rice with raisins, almonds, and a dollop of yogurt for lively 
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