Khampa Kitchen Preserves Tibetan Food and Culture in Queens

Khampa Kitchen Preserves Tibetan Food and Culture in Queens

A few times a year, Thupten Bachan’s family sets out into the mountains near their home in the Kham region of Tibet to forage for herbs — mostly parsley, coriander and chives — that they’ll bring back, clean and dry for the months to come.

Mr. Bachan and his fiancée, the chef Tashi Dechen, opened Khampa Kitchen last year in Jackson Heights, Queens, and the packages of dried herbs his family sends serve as the backbone of the kitchen’s dishes.

This small pipeline of flavor is an act of preservation — not just of the delicate greens, but of the recipes that Mr. Bachan and Ms. Dechen learned from relatives, and recreated meticulously in a restaurant meant to sustain their region’s culture on a busy stretch of Roosevelt Avenue. “We wanted to keep the food as traditional as possible, to make sure it’s all about history and homemade food,” Mr. Bachan said.

Mr. Bachan’s herbs are the heavyweights of his menu. They perfume the ground beef inside paoze, the baseball-sized dumplings whose wrappers are made fat and bouncy by baking powder. Each steamer basket arrives with a bowl of unflavored split-rice porridge, a monochromatic sea of comfort adorned with thinly sliced scallions. The combination is a common breakfast in Tibet, and here, too; the restaurant opens at 10 every morning, and sometimes as early as 9.

That filling — chive-laced beef slick with a broth of its own making — shows up again in the khampa poethek, a centerpiece of a meat pie meant for a celebration. “Poethek is a family dish,” Mr. Bachan said. (His and Ms. Dechen’s families are from Derge, in the Kham region.)

In Kham, he said, “you can’t find Poethek anywhere except your home. And when the family gets together, you make it and share and talk and sing.” Ms. Dechen meticulously crimps her poethek’s edges into a braidlike roll, and slices off the top just before serving, setting aside the mountain’s peak to reveal its heart.

Meat is king here, and variable. You can swap in chicken, pork or vegetables to your liking, but beef is the closest substitute for the yak meat that would be inside your paoze, poethek and momos soups if you were in Tibet. (Yak butter would show up in your salty, warming butter tea instead of the standard cow butter used here.)

In the restaurant’s soups, bones are just as important as flesh. Ms. Dechen simmers beef bones in water for 24 hours, until the resulting broth is thick and almost milky, a base for the menu’s many soups. The stunner is the dumpling soup, in which a sauce of sesame oil, soy sauce and housemade hot sauce is topped with beefy momos, broth and bok choy. The layering allows you to first taste the broth on its own, before mixing from the bottom to fortify it with spice and heft. The momos, prepared in a pressure cooker, are as fork-tender as gnocchi.

Each table holds two hot sauces: one is fiery orange, made from reconstituted dried chiles sent from Tibet; the other is a thick, dark chile oil, made tingly by Sichuan peppercorns. Kham once spread into parts of the Sichuan province of China, and that region’s influence appears throughout the menu: on a rub for twice-cooked beef ribs, smoky and tender, and in the sauce for liang fen, whose bean jelly Ms. Dechen makes from scratch.

Mr. Bachan and Ms. Dechen are involved in the local Kham community; once or twice a year, they get together to sing songs, wear traditional Derge clothing, and dance, in part to pass on traditions to the youngest. At the front of the restaurant is a small storefront full of Tibetan antiques, jewelry and precious stones, things that Mr. Bachan loves finding and knows his neighbors like wearing.

In the dining room, a TV perched high on one of the walls is constantly playing a YouTube stream of traditional song and dance. Tables full of robed monks usually sit below, lingering over bowls of noodle soup.

“Each and every day, I miss my home food,” Mr. Bachan said. “So with every dish, we wanted people like us to find it joyful. And it reminds them that keeping our culture is very important.”

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