Mumbai Food: Versova pop-up to serve modern Tibetan spread

Nov 27, 2018, 17:20 IST | Shunashir Sen

A pop-up in Versova will serve a modern Tibetan spread that's a rare treat for Mumbaikars

Mumbai Food: Versova pop-up to serve modern Tibetan spread
Ema datshi

Sunlight is streaming into Esha Sahor Lepcha’s cosy living room, which overlooks the expansive Gulmohar Garden in the nether regions of Versova. A copy of The Dhammapada — a collection of the Buddha’s sayings — is lying atop a pile of books on a table, revealing her religious beliefs. This is where she will host a pop-up tonight serving modern Tibetan food, a cuisine that is thoroughly underserved in Mumbai.

There is in fact only one restaurant worth its salt — Sernyaa in Oshiwara — that does similar dishes. It is, not so coincidentally, run by Lepcha’s uncle. “They have a black sauce there that you won’t find anywhere else. But every time I ask my uncle about how it’s made, he says, ‘Oh, it’s just beans.’ I guess he wants to keep the secret to himself,” she laughs.

Kaalo daal maasu
Kaalo daal maasu

We, however, are here to coax some of the secrets behind Lepcha’s own cooking out of her. Her journey in the kitchen, she tells us, started when she was around eight years old, when her family would sit stuffing momos together, and would hold strings of flour in a line for her mother to turn into homemade noodles. “The kitchen soon became my favourite part of the house,” Lepcha says, adding that her culinary exploits flowered further after she turned 13, when her father was transferred to Mumbai from Kolkata.

Their ancestry, though, lies in Sikkim, and it’s the flavours of that region that she now brings to the table after deciding to host pop-ups last year. The cuisine of the northeastern Indian state is borrowed heavily from Tibet, where, in turn, a fair amount of Chinese influence has crept in since the two countries, Lepcha says, are basically like two sisters always fighting with each other.

Sepen
Sepen

“In the old days, the food was so simple that if you saw a vegetable growing in the garden, you’d simply pluck it and put it in boiling water. Or if you had, say, a rack of lamb, you’d just roast it over a fire. But now, a modern Tibetan meal would reflect the Chinese, Nepalese and Indian influences,” Lepcha says, before telling us that her own menu, too, is a similarly hybrid one.

It starts with a welcome drink of suja, or butter tea, accompanied with sampla. “Hardly anyone here knows about suja, an everyday staple in the Northeast,” the home chef says, informing us that sampla is a sweet dollop of barley that balances out the savoury tea. That done, the meal begins with a serving of vegetarian momos — which have an unusual filling of bottle gourd — and sha phaley, a deep-fried meat pie normally stuffed with pork or beef mince, but for which Lepcha uses chicken keeping the Mumbai palate in mind. The main course follows next, and if you are vegetarian, you might as well stop reading from here onwards.

Braised chicken
Braised chicken

For, Lepcha was clear from the beginning that she wouldn’t compromise on meat at her pop-ups. So, there is a mix of chicken and pork dishes that vary between authentic Tibetan recipes and those that the chef picked up from the Chinese community in Kolkata. But the one she is clearly most enthused about is ema datshi, which is essentially a pungent chilli and cheese curry served with rice.

“It’s the subtlest item on the table and you won’t feel the heat in it because the chillies that are used are broad,” she says, adding that ema datshi is also the national dish of Bhutan. Then there is kaalo daal maasu, a Tibetan favourite where lentils and meat are cooked together, and a few dishes of Chinese origin in the form of chilly pork with mustard leaves, meatball soup, and braised chicken.

Esha Sahor Lepcha in her kitchen
Esha Sahor Lepcha in her kitchen

There are actually two vegetarian dishes too — shogog khatsa, a hotter version of dum aloo, and thentuk, a soup mixed with hand-pulled noodles. But these are more token additions, since meat remains at the core of this culinary experience that, like we said earlier, you’d be hard-pressed to replicate in Mumbai.

In fact, forget Lepcha’s lavish spread. There is such a woeful lack of Tibetan cuisine that it’s difficult to find even a decent momo here. There’s Sernyaa. There is Suraj Lama’s stall in Versova. And that, really, is all.

On Tonight, 7.30 pm
At Lila Apartments, Versova, Andheri West.
Log on to authenticook.com
Cost Rs 1,250

Tibet on a plate
If you miss Lepcha’s pop-up, head to Sernyaa, a hole-in-the-wall kind of joint in Oshiwara that serves an extensive list of authentic Tibetan dishes.
Time 11.30 am to 12 am
At 185, Oshiwara Link Road, Andheri Lokhandwala, Andheri West.
Call 65741005

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