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The taste of Tibet
Travelling around with his food truck, Tenzin Tibatsang has introduced momos to the whole of Switzerland. Not only do these juicy Tibetan dumplings fit in perfectly with current culinary trends, they also tell a story.
Happiness can be elusive, yet there are some ways of ensnaring it, for example in the form of little round or crescent-shaped dumplings. Anyone who has ever sampled a momo will be familiar with that perfect combination of soft or crispy dumpling dough and juicy filling.
"Tibetan cuisine isn't particularly varied, which is why we are particularly proud of our national dish," says Tenzin Tibatsang. The 28-year-old from Zurich is one of the country's best-known momo producers and has done much to boost their popularity. His success story began by chance four years ago. He was working as a graphic designer in an advertising agency and volunteering with a Tibetan youth association in his free time. "At the agency we got into the habit of going out for momos every Wednesday. Then at some point I was trying to raise money for the association and we came up with the idea that I should make the momos myself and sell them to my colleagues."
Tenzin's dumplings were so popular that he was soon regularly making them for the whole agency. Then when a friend told him about the newly established Zurich Street Food Festival, he bought himself a food truck, went from festival to festival, and introduced momos to the whole country. And the people of Switzerland, who until then had only experienced ravioli, Swabian Maultaschen and at a push gyoza dumplings, loved these Tibetan dumplings. Momos capture the spirit of the times perfectly. They are fresh, exotic, authentic – and they have a story to tell, naely that of the many Tibetans who live here in Switzerland. This is what is so magical about food: when you try new dishes you open both your tastebuds and your mind to other cultures.
In Tibet momos are something for special occasions and are laboriously prepared by hand by the whole family. Even the youngest family members get involved.
"My job was to roll out the dough," remembers Tenzin, who was nine when he came to Switzerland. Each family has its own recipe, and traditionally yak meat was used for the filling. There are vegetarian alternatives, too, but in Tibet you don't get momos filled with fish or sea food. This is due to the Buddhist belief that if you kill an animal it should be able to feed as many people as possible. A fish or a prawn isn't enough to fill up even just one person, whereas if you slaughter a yak it can feed a whole family for several weeks. As it is almost impossible to buy yak meat in Switzerland, Tenzin fills his momos with beef, but also offers vegetarian and vegan options. Other chefs pan fry their momos to produce a crisp crust, but at "Tenz" they are steamed, which is the traditional way of cooking them in Tibet. The only time they are fried is to warm them up if they are left over from the day before. When they are fresh, they are soft on the outside with a juicy filling. Tenzin creates his recipes himself. He does research, asks his relatives, watches YouTube videos and experiments with the filling until it is perfect. It makes him happy when other Tibetans tell him that his momos taste like the ones made by their mothers.
He made a conscious decision to use plexiglass for the fit-out of his food truck so that the customers can watch their momos being produced by hand from fresh ingredients. Once the queue at the Tenz stall was so long that some of his friends who had initially come to buy momos from him spontaneously decided to put on aprons and help him make them. "Luckily all Tibetans know how to make momos," says Tenzin. He began to take on employees and to dream of having his own restaurant. Then in the spring of 2017 he finally opened his first restaurant in Zurich's Badenerstrasse.
It was so successful that he asked two friends from the Tibetan youth association to join him in his venture, and in the winter of 2018 a second restaurant opened up in Langstrasse in Zurich. Today the three young men have 30 staff working for them and are proud to be the face of a new generation of Tibetans in Switzerland.
They still love momos, too. "We still eat loads of our dumplings every day, they just taste too good," laughs Tenzin and tells us his theory on how momos got their name. "When the famous Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer, who spent seven years in Tibet, tried them for the first time, he liked them so much he said 'more, more'. In his accented English that sounded like momo, momo, momo. So that's what they've been called ever since," he tells us, not necessarily meaning it seriously.
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