From Peak to Plate: Tibetan Cuisine in Boston

PHOTO BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

Jampa Ghapontsang, one of the founding members of the oral history and book project Tibetan Resettlement Stories: Voices of Boston, still remembers her first taste of butter tea in Tibet. It was 1993, and she was a recent college graduate, returning to her homeland for the first time to visit Katsel, her father’s village.

“The people were so hospitable,” Jampa recalls. “I remember being served butter tea. It was my first time having yak butter. It was so thick, I actually thought it was soup!”

Jampa was born in India but moved to Boston with her family in 1978, when she was 8 years old. Her family’s journey is one many Tibetans made in the years following 1950, when the Chinese army invaded Tibet, claiming sovereignty. During the Tibetan uprising of 1959, Tenzin Ghyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled across the Himalayas to India. He established the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, a city in the northern Indian state of Himachel Pradesh. With Himachel Pradesh forming part of the western border of Tibet, thousands of Tibetan families escaped to begin a new life where they could preserve a culture that was being oppressed, often violently, back home.

For Tibetans born in exile, Tibet was a place that existed only in stories and in flavors. “The story behind the food was important to me because that’s how I learned about my culture,” says Jampa. “It explained the meaning behind the food.” Her father spoke fondly about helping graze his uncles’ animals, and her mother talked about the lush crops and vegetables of Kham, in eastern Tibet. Encapsulated in these memories is the bulk of the Tibetan diet. The animals, primarily yaks and goats, produced meat and dairy. The crops produced doughs like tsampa—roasted barley flour—perhaps the backbone of the Tibetan diet.

Jampa was not unfamiliar with butter tea. She’d had it many times before in her new American home, but never realized that the recipe had changed along with locale. In the high altitudes of the Himalayan foothills, butter tea, like tsampa, is an important caloric source. At the sea level altitudes of Boston, not so much. “I think people have really cut back on the butter. They’d probably laugh at us over here. It’s really light. But it’s adapted for health reasons,” says Jampa.

As Tibetans have made the long and often arduous journey from the roof of the world to India and on to Boston, they have brought with them a culture rich in tradition, both spiritually and culinarily. Often, the two are intertwined. “All the different cultural occasions we have involve a lot of food,” says Jampa.

Much of this culture has been preserved to a remarkable extent, and yet no cuisine is immune to the influence of its surroundings. This tension between preservation and adaptation is evident in the local Tibetan food scene, where dishes old and new nourish and delight a diverse array of diners.

When Jampa’s family first arrived in Boston there wasn’t a Tibetan food scene to speak of. But in 1989 the late Senator Ted Kennedy, along with Congressmen Barney Frank and Tom Lantos, helped establish the Tibet–U.S. Resettlement project, which paved the way for 1,000 Tibetans to emigrate to the U.S. over the next few years. According to the Tibetan Association of Boston, more than 250 Tibetans came to the city between 1990 and 1997. In order to qualify for visas, applying Tibetans needed a job offer and a sponsor. Local businesses, many of them in the food industry, stepped up.

Bernie and Gail Flynn, the owners of Trident Booksellers and Café, a longstanding Newbury Street institution, had quite a few Tibetans pass through their kitchen. Some stayed. Momos—traditional Tibetan dumplings—were a Trident favorite for decades. They were introduced by Tsering Wangdi in 1992. Momos are customarily filled with yak meat in Tibet, and mutton or beef in India. At high altitude and with limited access to vegetables, meat is a dietary staple, providing essential protein and fat. But Tsering wanted to make his version more agreeable to the local palate. He filled his momos with exotic ingredients like spinach, cheese, basil and jalapeño. They were a hit.

Many Tibetans went on to open their own restaurants. The first of these was House of Tibet Kitchen, in Somerville’s Teele Square, opened by Jampa’s mother, Yeshey. Running the restaurant was difficult, but it also become a home away from home for many Tibetans, and a gateway into the community. “It was a wonderful experience for us because I met so many friends there,” recalls Jampa. “It was like a resource center. People would come and ask about Tibet and we could share culture, politics, and have conversation.”

In 2010, Yeshey sold the restaurant to another Tibetan family, Yeshi and Tashi Lokyitsang. Stepping into the weathered and warm interior, one immediately feels transported to higher climes. The sound system plays traditional Buddhist chants, and the walls are adorned with images of the old country. Yeshi, like many Tibetans, feels a duty to inform people about the plight and customs of her homeland.

“I want [this] to be a Tibetan restaurant that uses Tibetan words. Our business is not just making money, it’s also educating people,” explains Yeshi. “At the same time I’m doing business I’m also supporting my people, my country.” Gesturing to her walls, she describes the images: “This is what Tibet looks like. This is the nomadic lifestyle. We tell a little bit of the history of Tibet.”

That history is also told through her cooking. The menu at House of Tibet Kitchen is divided into “Traditional Tibetan Entrées” and “Tibet-In-Exile Entrées.” The traditional entrées feature classic Tibetan dishes, like thukpa, a hearty noodle soup, and shamdeh, a savory curry with meat, potatoes and peas. The Tibet-In-Exile menu features a decidedly more Indo-Tibetan vibe.

“If you ask me to cook, I’ll cook more Indian, because I grew up in India,” she says. These dishes reflect the wider array of spices in Indian cuisine. The jasha katsa is a chicken breast stir-fried with chili, onions, red and green peppers, ginger and garlic. In contrast to the traditional, milder Tibetan entrées, it is a dish that packs a punch.

Which isn’t to say that Tibetan food isn’t flavorful and hearty. In fact, if Tibet has one thing in common with Boston, it’s the long, cold winters (relatively speaking). “Our food is wintery,” says Yeshi. And for that, she has a solution: thanthuk, a traditional winter soup, with meat, hand-pulled dough, daikon, celery and spinach. “We call it a heating system,” says Yeshi. “You are so cold and it warms you up from your feet to your hat. People love this. They are sweating, they’re, like, ‘You’re right, this is a heating system!’”

At Rangzen, in Harvard Square, Dhikki Palmo has been churning out traditional Tibetan meals for 19 years. Dhikki grew up in a diverse community in Darjeeling, India. Her mother ran a small restaurant, and it was a family affair. Every day after school she’d come to the restaurant to help out, working alongside her mother and grandparents, with whom she was very close. Now, cooking is a way to honor them.

“In our restaurant I always make a [dish with] tomatoes, onion and pickles, and while I’m making it I remember my grandfather,” says Dhikki. “Making rice I always remember my grandmother. My mother comes here every morning with us and helps out.”

In Tibetan, rangzen means “independence.” It is a word, says Dhikki, that is carved into the heart of each and every Tibetan. Like Yeshi, she also views her restaurant not just as a business but as a means for bringing awareness to Tibet and being a positive influence in her community.

“We always try to give people a lot of vegetables, which is really important,“ she says. “You think of what you want and then give it to the customers. You always have to do the right thing. That’s what our mantra is. Because while doing this restaurant business with 35 seats, you’re not going to get very rich, but, at the same time, if the customer is happy, that’s more important.”

Rangzen might be a small establishment, but its lunch buffet has become somewhat legendary. “Lunchtime is very, very crowded,” says Dhikki. “We never spend one dollar for advertisement,” she adds, “it’s all word of mouth.” The momos, made from scratch by her sister, are quite popular, to say the least. She makes 5,000 of them every week.

Momos are a meaningful food for Tibetans, one that Dhikki says carries vivid associations with the past: “Every individual Tibetan family has their own stories. How their grandparents escaped and got to where they had to go. Even my husband, when he escaped from Tibet, it took him 27 days. When I remember back to when I was young, on top of roofs you see prayer flags, and there is firewood burning, and mother is sitting there, right on that corner, making momos. And I think every single Tibetan has some kind of memory for making momos.”

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It is a food that reminds many Tibetans of how far they are from home, and, as is often the case with the flavors we grow up with, one that also makes them feel closer.

The cuisine at Martsa on Elm, in the heart of Somerville’s Davis Square, has Tibetan roots but a wider array of influences. Dechen Martsa grew up in Dharamshala, where her parents ran a restaurant called Rising Moon. She describes it as a fusion restaurant, featuring Tibetan, Indian and Chinese dishes. “I grew up watching them cook with all the Indian spices and everything,” says Dechen.

Dechen came to Boston in 1991. In 1998, she and her husband opened a restaurant in Harvard Square, also called Rising Moon. Though it was doing well, Dechen was pregnant with their daughter and caring for their 11-month-old son, so they sold the business. In 2003, Dechen’s father, Tsering Dongshi (not to be confused with Tsering Wangdi), took over as the resident Trident momo chef. Dechen came into the kitchen a couple of times to help him out.

“I loved his momos that he used to make at the Trident,” she says. “His momos were not even close to Tibetan momos. Tibetans don’t eat vegetable momos. I never thought of adding basil and cheese and all this stuff. He completely changed it.”

In 2004, Dechen and her husband decided to make their comeback. They opened Martsa on Elm, which was then half of its current size. Dechen serves some traditional Tibetan foods, such as momos and shamdeh, but says much of the menu would be considered fusion Indian.

“There are so many spices in India and each spice has a different flavor and I just experiment with them. When we opened in 2004 I added 10 or 15 dishes that I created.” This experimentation has served her well. Martsa on Elm quickly became a local favorite, and in 2007 they were able to expand and renovate. Ten years later, the restaurant continues to thrive—thanks, in part, to her spinach and potato momo.

For the chefs and owners of House of Tibet Kitchen, Rangzen and Martsa on Elm, cooking Tibetan food in Boston is a bittersweet endeavor, one that invokes the sorrows of the past while preserving culture and community in the present. Their history comes alive in their cooking, and it is a history they are fiercely proud of. As Dhikki writes in her menu’s “About” page:

Tibetan food is not Indian or Chinese. It is Tibetan cuisine. Being an isolated country with harsh weather conditions, Tibetans did not have lots of variety to choose from. But we are proud of our distinct cuisine and our distinct language, traditions, culture and peaceful religion.

She concludes by clarifying a key point: “Finally,” Dhikki writes, “yes, we do use chopsticks.”

Alex Tzelnic lives and teaches in Cambridge. While studying abroad in India in 2005 he took a semester of Tibetan, but only remembers how to say, “Hello,” “Thank you” and “Where is the bar?” His writing has appeared in Tricycle, Lineages and Killing the Buddha. Connect with him on Twitter @atz840.