When you grow up in a place as isolated as Tibet, it’s understandable that one might believe your most essential foods originated in the towering peaks of the Himalayas. So when Tsering Parshingtsang, brimming with pride over his nation’s momo dumplings, came to the University of Utah for college, it was something of a shock when a Chinese student insisted his culture had invented dumplings.
“'You’re both wrong,' said a professor who overheard our conversation,” recalls Parshingtsang. “He said: ‘They come from Mongolia.’”
The actual verdict is ancient and murky. But either way, Parshingtsang’s arrival in the United States from the lofty region that inspired Shangri-La, the mythical valley in the novel Lost Horizon, was a major awakening to both the diversity — and commonality — of foods that awaited him at lower altitudes.
By the time he arrived on the East Coast in 2003, he found in Philadelphia a thrilling dumpling universe, from the dim sum potstickers of Chinatown to the Korean mandu of Olney, the Uzbek manti of Northeast Philly, the Italian ravioli of South Philly, and the Polish pierogi of Port Richmond and Roxborough. That’s where he and his wife, chef-owner Treley Parshingtsang, opened White Yak, an homage to their homeland on a little commercial strip of Ridge Avenue. At 374 feet above sea level, it’s nearly as lofty a perch as flat Philadelphia gets.
Momo dumplings, of course, are in the spotlight at White Yak, in all their variations. Their sturdy dough skins, by design thicker and a bit chewier than their Chinese counterparts, come wrapped in hand-pleated crescent moons around beef stuffings flecked with red onion and garlic chives. Ground chicken vivid with celery and scallion is wrapped in top-twisted rounds of dough tinted yellow with carrot juice. Mashed potato momo, seasoned with ginger, tasted like a cross between pierogi and samosas. Leaf-greened vegetarian dumplings are stuffed with mashed tofu, shredded carrots, and spinach and, like all the momos, come with a small bowl of restorative beef broth and a gingery bell pepper sauce that’s more aromatic than spicy. (Tsering says that upon request, they can amp the heat up to “10 times” hotter to meet Himalayan standards, which I would have preferred.)
For those unfamiliar with Tibetan food — which may be many, given the scarcity of other local Tibetan restaurants — it shares regional similarities with both Chinese and Indian cuisines. That’s obvious in the various stir-fries, noodle dishes, curries, hot pepper sauces, and entrées like chilli chicken, a signature of the popular Indo-Chinese fusion trend. It’s also logical considering Tibet’s political geography as an autonomous region of China, annexed after the 1950 invasion of its plateau, which also borders India, where the country’s spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled in 1959.
You’ll see a shrine to the Dalai Lama at the back of the cozy dining room, which Tsering, a contractor by trade, has handsomely outfitted with varnished herringbone-wood floors, sacred masks, and false windows framed in traditional black trim. The rice paper panes flicker with backlights that evoke the streetscape of his hometown.
He describes the walls as “temple yellow,” which seems appropriate considering White Yak’s kitchen chef, Dark Pa, is a former Gelugpa Buddhist monk. And when you taste his renditions of Treley’s recipes — her family owns a restaurant in Lhasa — it’s clear these seemingly familiar foods have a distinctly Tibetan flavor, with a light touch that often eschews soy for salt; a knack for soft, handmade noodles; and spare compositions that rarely feature more than two prime ingredients on a plate. Some signature flavors, like buttered tea and the tsampa (roasted barley) used to thicken soups and desserts, are truly unique to this cuisine.
The laping noodles are a good example. The Chinese renditions I’ve tasted of these mung bean flour noodles tend to snap like slippery and elastic ribbons. The Tibetan tradition is to set them into thicker strips that eat almost like savory custard bars. At White Yak, they’re glossed in a crimson chili sauce that sparkles with ginger and scallions but has softer edges than its Szechuan cousin because Treley prefers sweeter balsamic to Chinese black vinegar.
I cannot stop thinking of the velvety, hand-ripped noodles that filled her thenthuk soup, steeped for nine hours with oxtails and beef neck bones. The gingery, star anise-infused broth is tinged with tomatoes and crunchy green bok choy leaves. It’s a specialty during Tibet’s cold winters: “You drink it hot and it warms your body,” Treley says.
Treley roasts and grinds whole barley into a flour that thickens the tsam-thuk soup, a soulful brew simmered with daikon radish and seasoned with garlic butter. Her take on red lentil soup is beguilingly simple — a thin but lip-coating puree of lentils that rises on a wave of ginger and sweet onions for a satisfying vegan option. Another is the glossy heap of wok-fried eggplant (gha) that’s tossed in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce tanged with tamarind and a balancing kiss of palm sugar.
While many Buddhists adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, Tsering says Tibet’s high altitude — averaging nearly 10,000 feet above sea level — makes it difficult to grow many vegetables other than radishes and potatoes. That tuber is best served here as sisi (Tibetan for shredded), whose snappy threads are quick-sauteed with garlic, ginger, and salt in a manner that will put most diner hash browns to shame.
Consuming meat, however, is a common practice in Tibet, where massive yak is generally preferred because, as Treley says, “one life can feed many.” There sadly is no yak yet at White Yak. But the beef, pork, and chicken dishes reflect the more diverse diet Tsering grew up eating in the lusher valley region near the Yunnan Province city now actually called Shangri-La (formerly Gyalthang).
They are all deftly cooked, and served by a cheerful staff at prices that top out at $19.95 for crispy whole branzino, making White Yak a fantastic value. The pork dish known as phaktsee — which in Tsering’s hometown is typically made from herb-stuffed pigs that are air-dried on rooftops — is replaced here by smoky, thin-sliced bacon wok-fried with crunchy leek ribbons. Tiny rib tips are marinated in five-spice, garam masala, and sweet wine, then fried into crispy nibblers.
Chicken comes skewered in tender, spiced nuggets for the Tibetan satay. It’s quick-fried without batter for the chilli chicken, served in a zesty red sauce rife with basil, peppers, tomato, and sherry. And it’s so tender and delicately sauced for snappy chow mein noodles (“I thought this was a Tibetan dish, too, before I came here,” confessed Treley) that I have a new appreciation for a dish that elsewhere has become a prosaic takeout standby. Chicken is also one of the best bets for the Tibetan-style curry that comes in a copper tin brimming with pureed red-onion gravy infused with garam masala, cinnamon sticks, and fresh curry leaves.
Beef is also excellent in that curry, but my favorite beef dishes here were stir-fried with vibrant fistfuls of spicy garlic chives, or ground into stuffings for sha phaley pastries, which come in flaky half-moons with braided seams. (“I thought for sure that nobody else makes sha phaley!” said Tsering, before acknowledging that, yes, they look almost exactly like empanadas.)
Beef is also essential for the gyuma, a Tibetan sausage seasoned with garlic and ginger that’s thickened here with the sweet rice of Tsering’s region. The real secret is the unnoted addition of blood, which gives the rounds pudding-like softness and chocolaty-dark richness.
That sausage goes down especially well with a dab of chili sauce and that rich, savory hot buttered black tea, which is useful, Tsering says, for those who are trying to acclimate to Tibet’s high altitudes.
No, Ridge Avenue’s perch is no match for the towering Tanggula Pass. But anyone who’s attempted to climb the Manayunk Wall or winding Green Lane to Roxborough can tell you it’s no small trek for a Philly flatlander, either. And for those who do, a feast of momos and other Tibetan treasures awaits.