Aside from celebrity meet-and-greets with the Dalai Lama, a pop culture penitent for prayer beads and incense, and Scrabble-friendly terms like “yak” and “yurt,” Tibetan culture remains obscured by suggestions of exoticism. Few people bother to extend their knowledge and experience beyond mainstream gimmicks, but those seeking out authenticity close to home will find Om is a good place to start. This Tibetan restaurant opened over two years ago in Montreal’s Plateau district, along the bustling stretch of St. Laurent Boulevard, just below Mount-Royal Avenue.
Unlike many Asian-themed restaurants, the food at Om is more than a random assortment of cobbled-together dishes from a variety of regions. The menu is a veritable narrative of food, a reflection of head chef and owner YangChen Lhamo’s personal story. The daughter of exiled Tibetans, she was born and raised in Manali, India. Her own early experiences with cultural fusion form the basis of her culinary offerings. While restaurants which claim to specialize in multiple cuisines often attract skeptical reviews, the concept behind Om clearly demonstrates that homogeneity in culture and cuisine is no longer that obvious: chicken biryani holds court with cheese momo dumplings; everything on the menu can be washed down with strong black tea.
A petite woman in her forties, Lhamo is the mother of two who came to the restaurant business the long way. Her first career was on stage: a decade of performing Tibetan traditional dances in Asia. After the birth of her daughter, Lhamo realized it was time to invest in the future of her family. With a sister willing to sponsor her, Lhamo arrived in Montreal almost twenty years ago. In pursuit of financial stability, she worked at a hat factory, eventually became a manager there, all the while honing her cooking skills, realizing she had a passion for food. Her sister-in-law, a Quebecer, taught her about cookies and tortes, her Haitian co-workers unlocked the secrets to creole cuisine. She started cooking for friends at home and, through word of mouth, began catering small events for acquaintances. After being downsized from the hat factory, she seriously contemplated a career in geriatric nursing, but in the end seized the opportunity to be her own boss and open a restaurant.
When devising her initial menu, Lhamo had to strike the right balance between unbridled authenticity and palatable consumption. Tsampa (a ground barley flour), for instance, is perhaps the most quintessentially Tibetan food. It is often mixed with tea or milk, kneaded into a crude dough form and finally dipped in chili. Lhamo feared the uninitiated urbanite would find tsampa either aesthetically unappealing, or worse, choke on the dry mixture. It is thus not on the menu. For seasoned adventurers familiar with the food or the adventurous who inquire, however, Lhamo will often whip up a small taste-test portion for sampling.
Like most cuisines, Tibetan dishes are a representation of local ingredients and social traditions. The momo dumplings that Lhamo serves in four varieties—vegetable, meat, cheese and shrimp—reflect the culinary leanings and dietary reality of the different parts of Tibet. Northern Tibetan fare places a higher emphasis on meats, as little to no vegetation grows at such high altitudes. In contrast, southern Tibetan cuisine is centred largely on vegetables. Each dumpling is made by hand: two people need almost an hour to make forty to fifty of these stuffed delights. Dishes like beef-and-onion chow mein bare distinctly Chinese flavours, reflecting the influence of Chinese culinary traditions in Tibetan cooking.
The restaurant itself blends western sophistication with the arresting colour palette of a Buddhist temple. The small storefront with its deep currant interior, mahogany-hued furniture and crisp white table linen is a favourite stop for gawking pedestrians who all seem fascinated by the mystery of a Tibetan-Indian restaurant. The walls are adorned with silk pendants embossed with character-letters and symbols like the fish or conch, which promote good luck. Where the walls meet the ceiling, multi-coloured prayer flags hang. Lhamo explains that each flag is inscribed with a blessing, which relates to one of the five elements and that it must be placed at the highest point in the room so the prayers can be better heard in the heavens. Behind the counter hangs a framed black-and-white photograph of the Dalai Lama as a young man.
Seated at the front window and peering out at the rush-hour traffic, Lhamo pensively sips her cup of coffee. Dressed in a simple white T-shirt and a pale denim skirt, she looks much younger than she is. Since opening the restaurant two years ago, she has made the most of her unconventional timetable. When not at the restaurant, Lhamo can be found salsa dancing or at the driving range, where she is perfecting her stroke, hoping to soon graduate from nine-hole to eighteen-hole courses. Her quick success with Om is a testament to hard work; it’s also tied into a larger philosophy about her role in the community: cooking is her way of participating in society by sharing her God-given talents with others. Her desire to please customers has led to Om thriving on word-of-mouth advertising. “I love watching people finish a dish, and I want people to enjoy themselves at my restaurant. If something is wrong, I want to know what it is. I want to know how to make it better for their next visit.”
4382 St. Laurent
Tel: (514) 287-3553
Follow writer Ceridwyn Au through the kitchen doors as she gets to know the chefs you rarely have a chance to meet, in Maisonneuve's online series Under the Apron.