Turns out that last Saturday, 10th March 2012, was the 53rd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising.
Yet there was no sign of this at New Sernyaa, the ‘Tibetan Chinese’ restaurant at Mumbai’s Oshiwara Link Road (opp Calcutta club & Woodside Cafe) when we were there that day.
We discovered that Sernyaa is owned by an ex Calcuttan, Mr Lama, who is originally a Sikkimese of Tibetan origin. Which possibly explained the non-reference to the Tibetan uprising at the restaurant.
I had gone to Sernyaa with Sue & Nathan. Sue was the one who pointed out the coincidence of the dates to me. She said “anywhere else in the world and we would have been in commemoration event”.
My prior exposure to Tibet and its food were through Chang, the drink referred to in Tintin in Tibet and then the momos in the inexpensive little Tibetan restaurants of Calcutta’s Bhowanipore that we discovered and lived on in college. Sue and Nathan had eaten at a few Tibetan restaurants across the word. They were the ones who helped me navigate the menu that day at Sernyaa. When I later asked Sue and Nathan about how the food compared with that in the Tibetan restaurants they hade eaten at, they both agreed that they really enjoyed the lunch at Sernyaa.
New Sernyaa is not really “new”. The branch we went to, the original one, is about nine years old. They now have a new branch at Malad too. That is where there manager, the iconic Uncle John, sits.
Iconic because everyone, who helped us out when I asked for directions to Sernyaa on twitter, spoke about the charming Uncle John. We didn’t get to meet this gentleman whom the smiling Mr Lama called his ‘brand ambassador’. His other manager, Sylvester, with an equally big smile was there though. Another ex Calcuttan.
The place was packed on Saturday with Lama and Sylvester running from table to table. The sort of place where you know you will have a great meal. Sylvester guided us through our orders and the selection was perfect.
Mr Lama told us that in his opinion the Tibetan restaurants at Calcutta were all about momos and thupkas. While he has opened a new place at Mumbai’s Malad, Lama’s dream is to open a restaurant at Calcutta. To showcase the dishes he has conjured up using Tibetan ingredients and cooking traditions and yet tempered down for the plains. The food he serves is less hotter than it would be in the hills. You will find fish in the menu which my lunch mates had rarely seen in other Tibetan restaurants. And the traditional pork sausages were made more politically correct here. But more on that later.
We started with a chicken thupka. Sylvester suggested that we split it two by three and that we don’t order more soups. I’ve never been a big fan of clear noodle soups and didn’t have any memories of thupkas from Calcutta to go by.
I just loved the thupka at Sernyaa in absolute terms. The noodles were nice and firm, the chicken incidental with the flavour coming from the stock…the incredible inherent heat of bits of red chillies elevated this dish to stratospheric heights. The pungency of the chillies hit you in a refreshing way…made you pant but not cry…the perfect balance of spice I thought…right at the tipping point….titillated you but didn’t overpower you…the balance of colours, textures and tastes which make me a slave to Asian (Far Eastern) food was perfect in the thupka.
Turned out that that things are apparently different in the hills. Sylvester smiled and said “we make it a lot less spicy here than it should be. We use small red round chillies but a lot less than the original recipe calls for.”
Well I have been ribbed for saying that we can eat Jabanero chillies in our sleep when I did the Mumbai street food shoot. I guess Sylvester possibly can, not me.
Next were the momos or the tandoori chicken or sushi of Tibetan food. We chose pork. Steamed. And pan fried.
The steamed momos were nice but lacked the juiciness of the ones I have had at Kepchaki Momos at Carter Road. The dough of the pan fried ones were slightly chewy and needed the lively house chilli sauce to liven things up.
After the momos was the item on the menu that we all zeroed in on. Tibetan sausages.
Mr Lama said he originally made these with pork the way they are meant to be. Lack of demand forced him to change to chicken. Rough course hand ground meat pickled in Tibetan spices, cased in goat intestines (“it is thin you see”) made these taste a lot different from plain Jain, no pun intended, chicken sausages. Reminded me a lot of the pickled sausages that I brought back from Chiang Mai. In both cases pickled chillies were at the core of the dish.
The Tibetan sausages at Sernyaa were sliced and tossed in onions, garlic, capsicum and a blackish soy-like sauce which Mr Lama said was a Tibetan Minsi sauce. The taste rather sharp and a tad salty. Better enjoyed with some steamed rice in my opinion.
Sylvester suggested a bamboo rice for our mains but we were clear that we didn’t want anything with sauce in it. So he pulled a rabbit out of his hat…not literally of course.
Crunchy lamb in Tibetan pickled spices. I’ve never been a big fan of ‘crunchy’ dishes in local Chinese restaurants. They normally tend to be over-fried and too crisp.
The crispy lamb at Sernyaa had the perfect texture though. A slight crunch giving into good, honest meat. The Tibetan pickle spices giving it a fairly distinctive taste which made you feel that this was a special experience.
Well it was special as was the Amdo de, a Tibetan fried rice with the Tibetan sausages and minced meat…with bites of zucchini and cauliflower getting in the Mumbai touch. A dish that was delicate and yet poetic in its flavours.
The afternoon was also special as we were at, as Mr Lama put it, Mumbai’s only Tibetan restaurant. A fact he said he didn’t publicise too much as he didn’t want people coming in from Colaba, Worli, Kemp’s Corner coming in.
“They will come from all the way and see it is a small place and get disappointed”.
Yes, I couldn’t see the swish set scouring the city for Italian food, as a recent food magazine research would have us belief, smile indulgently as the three of us did at the little cockroach that scurried across our table.
I always say that you should choose the people you eat with carefully and with Nathan and Sue I was in good company that afternoon.
Even though we were done with lunch, Nathan and my eyes’ lit up when we heard a lady at the next table order spare ribs. Nathan said he was was 3/4th full, I nodded vigorously and we ordered our ‘dessert’.
Extremely pliant slices of spare rib. The sort that bend as you hold them. Ever eager to please you. Crowned with a wickedly sensuous layer of fat. Meat the way it is meant to be. Cooked in that Tibetan soy-like Minsi sauce.
The secret to the suppleness of the meat? Well this was not even double cooked pork. Triple cooked in fact as Mr Lama explained. Braised. Cooked with sauces. Finished off in a pan.
A great meal came to an end with a crescendo thanks to the spare ribs…but then such meat perfection deserves a drum roll.
I have often lamented about the lack of immigrant cooking at Mumbai. New Sernyaa is such a peasant surprise.
It was quite a discovery. Some benefits of moving out of one’s comfort zone I guess.