The Boston Phoenix
January 28 - February 4, 1999

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The momo report

Adventures and misadventures in Tibetan cooking

Dining Out by Robert Nadeau

House of Tibet Kitchen
(617) 629-7567
235 Holland Street (Teele Square), Somerville
Open Sun-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m.
No liquor
CB, DC, MC, Visa
Up three steps from sidewalk level

Rising Moon Tibetan Restaurant
(617) 868-9560
24 Holyoke Street (Harvard Square), Cambridge
Open Tues-Thurs, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; and Sun, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
No liquor
Cash only
Sidewalk-level access

We're going to have to live with the fact that not every oppressed people has a grand cuisine. Sometimes there's a war or a famine or a reign of terror, and the refugees turn up in America with Ethiopian food, or Cuban food, or Vietnamese food, and everyone feels good: the newcomers get some culinary respect, and the welcomers feel a little political pride. Or go back to the French Revolution: London got vinaigrette dressing and Boston got the first French restaurant in America, a gourmet concept so exciting they didn't even have a word for it yet, and so it was called Julien's Restorator.

But sometimes oppressed people come from a place where the food isn't so hot. This seems to have been the case with 19th-century Ireland, and I'm afraid today's immigrants from Haiti and the Russian cities of the former Soviet Union aren't cooking up a storm in America either. One could start rooting for more human-rights violations in Tuscany, or a major drought affecting Sichuan, or an outbreak of civil strife in southwestern France. But that wouldn't be right.

So now we have two Tibetan restaurants in Greater Boston. It may be premature to judge, but the initial indications are that Tibetan culture is perhaps stronger in the spiritual dimension than in the culinary dimension. Hard to say why. Altitude is a problem for Tibetan farmers, but this never stopped the Swiss or the Peruvians. It's not easy to get the basic yak products of the Tibetan larder in exile, but Ethiopian immigrants manage to get along without a steady supply of their staple grain, teff. Tibet has been poor, but so have France, Italy, and China. One difference is that the latter countries' rulers hired chefs and ate fancy even when the people starved, whereas the resident authorities in Tibet have mostly been ascetic Buddhist monks. The Mongol rulers of Tibet always liked a good feast, but not much of that era seems to have stuck, with the possible exception of the dumplings called "momo." (Mo' on those in a minute.) Most of the non-dumpling food I sampled at Rising Moon and House of Tibet Kitchen looked and tasted Chinese or Indian. It may be that if you are going to survive as a spiritually inclined people between two culinary superpowers, adaptability in the kitchen makes sense.

Both restaurants do have soup that neither looks nor tastes Indian or Chinese. Good hot soup makes sense in high, cold places, and both restaurants have a lot of different soups on the menu. But the "clear soup" accompanying my momo at House of Tibet was a muddy-flavored cup with barley and undercooked split peas. It was the same general idea at Rising Moon. And neither restaurant makes much of the buttered barley noodles called tsampa, which are reportedly standard fare back in Lhasa.

Both places are rather sparely decorated with yellow walls and very bright striped trim. Both have tall young Tibetan female servers who are fluent in English. House of Tibet Kitchen is more out there, with a featured portrait-icon of the Dalai Lama, historical paintings, rugs on every chair, a history of the Chinese Communist occupation, and a Tibetan Buddhist resource center next door. Rising Moon is more restrained and less elaborate, and the menu translates the names of many dishes: "Beef Garlic," "Chicken Curry."

Well, let's get down to momo. A jaunty sign outside House of Tibet Kitchen says MOMO EXPRESS, and specials here have involved filling momo with chicken and other nonstandard ingredients. The standard versions are beef (likely standing in for yak) and vegetarian. I had the former, in the form of "sap momo ngopa" ($8.75), a very filling entrée involving seven large momo (here, purses a bit larger than most Peking ravioli) arranged in a mandala-like circle around cole slaw ("house salad"), accompanied by the barley-pea soup and a little dish of incendiary salsa. The momo (fried in this case; they also come steamed) puff around the filling of minced beef, onion, and a little ginger. They are as fresh and lovely as any dim sum, but with a surprising (in an Asian dumpling) beef flavor. They are a little big to eat with chopsticks and don't cut well with a fork, but are otherwise exemplary of their novel kind. The featured dessert at House of Tibet is "dreysil" ($2.50), which the menu says is typically a special item for New Year's or for serving to the Dalai Lama himself. I'm not sure what's special about dreysil; it seems to be broken basmati rice cooked with a little saffron and a few raisins and bits of walnut, with yogurt on top, but less sweet or creamy than rice pudding.

At Rising Moon I managed to try both sha momo (beef) and tsel momo (vegetables) by working out lunch specials with a companion. But that got us only a pair of momo each, whereas a $6 appetizer order would get us 10. That's the way to go. Rising Moon's beef momo are half the size of House of Tibet's but have a much more intense beef flavor, perhaps from shin meat or oxtail. Rising Moon's vegetarian momo is in the folded-crescent shape of Peking ravioli and about the same size, filled with spinach, cabbage, carrot, onion, and potato. Where Rising Moon excels is with a choice of three dips: a red chili sauce somewhat like Inner Beauty hot sauce, a sour tamarind sauce like the dip at some Indian restaurants, and a really nuclear mess of fresh green bird chilies sliced into soy sauce. They also have a nice dessert "chura momo": six deep-fried crescents with hot cheesecake inside.

Besides momo, our lunch specials were "Phingsha" ($6.50), sliced beef in a very mild curry with tree-ear mushrooms and peas; and "chicken chili" -- bone-in chicken stir-fried with onions, green bell pepper, and avoidable chunks of that green bird pepper. The latter was like Szechuan food without the brilliance. Then we had dangtsel (garden salad) and a choice of rice (good and plentiful) or "tingmo" (think day-old steamed bun).

Both restaurants offer rather good buttered tea. "Tibetan tea" (95 cents) at Rising Moon is quite buttery, like hot buttered rum without the rum. "Boe cha" ($1.75) is a little lighter on the butter and has a little of the raciness of chai, though I wouldn't call it spicy. This is a good drink for a New England winter, and I am not going to complain that it is supposed to be made with slightly rancid yak butter.

Service at both restaurants is delightful. I would give the atmosphere edge to House of Tibet based on its background music, blatantly exotic décor, and delicious overheard conversations from a truly motley lunch crowd. Rising Moon's lunchers were more in the usual academic vein. For that I can stick to Mr. and Mrs. Bartley's Burger Cottage.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

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