Bottom Line: Too often living in the shadows of Indian and Chinese food, Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese dishes are making their mark in Queens. Restauranteurs, community leaders and Himalayan grub experts met at the Sherpa Kyidug House near Jackson Heights, Queens to discuss the uniqueness and regionality of this underrated cuisine.
Review: In a land called Jackson Heights, you can eat the most amazing Mexican tacos, golden crispy, Indian samosas, halal cart lamb on rice, and of course, steamy, soup filled momos. Those lovely Tibetan dumplings covered in chili sauce that warms the heart on rainy days. As of resident of Jackson Heights, Queens, momos are among my street food staples. Comforting and delicious after a night of serious drinking. But Himalayan cuisine is so much more according to Beyond Momos: Himalayan Food in Jackson Heights presented by the Museum of Food and Drink and Rubin Museum of Art.
Part of the Museum of Food and Drink’s traveling talk series on unique cuisines in New York, MOFAD collaborated with the Rubin Museum of Art and panelists who included: Himalayan culinary expert Sandy Garson, Tenzing Ukyab, owner of Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights, Tashi Chodron from the Rubin. The gist is that Tibetan cuisine is probably as complex as its history.
The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1958 created a Tibetan diaspora that spread throughout South Asia. Tashi Chodron, like many Tibetans, was born in a refugee camp. Far from the migrant tents along the English Channel you might see in the news, these camps in India are more like villages with monasteries, buildings and infrastructure, according to Chodron. And although much of authentic Tibetan culture has been preserved outside Chinese-occupied Tibet, its food has taken on a more regional tone adhering to local diets and ingredients.
As the food traveled from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India and Burma, it was absorbed by the local population and subsequently took different forms. For example, momos from India and Nepal generally are usually vegetarian, while the Bhutanese fill them with meat and spicy cheese. While I am familiar with the geography of South Asia, some in the audience were not. To understand these cultures better, it would have been better if they had put up a map of region during the panel discussion.
For a fellow who doesn’t go out for Nepali, Tibetan nor Bhutanese food, I was pleasantly surprised by many of the dishes that seemed healthier and less oily than your average Indian take-away. The potato and cauliflower (served separately) had all the familiar flavors of a classic Indian aloo gobi but packed a serious punch of chili.
I particularly liked the jackfruit, which Indians often simmer. This was lightly fried and had an unusual delicate crunch, giving a slightly meaty, fritter texture. The barley beans were really wonderful too with a welcomed freshness and acidity.
There were, however, errors. The absence of burners meant cold food including the momos. What a terrible shame because the joy of eating them is that hot liquid explosion in your mouth while fragrant steam fills your nostrils.
Some of the other items just didn’t cut it for me. The chicken, although spicy, was dry and strangely lacking in seasoning. The black pudding or boudin noir, normally a personal favorite, was a bit mushy and bland. I personally thought it needed a kick of chilli. And for me, I would have liked to have sampled the Bhutanese chilli, cheese curry or ema datshi. Finally, it would have been better to serve the food after the panel discussion, for instance like at the Japan Society.
In spite of minor shortcomings during the tasting, there is a lot to learn about Himalayan cuisine, and rather than compare it to Indian or Chinese, we should enjoy its own uniqueness.