Of romance, momos and the Himalayas.
On Magdalen Road, south-east Oxford, there is a corner restaurant which proudly proclaims its culinary inspiration. Against a dark blue background it shouts out ‘Taste Tibet’.
The opportunity to taste and enjoy the food from this mysterious, rugged mountainous country does not present itself every day. I must admit that this was my first opportunity in the UK although I was once able to look across at Tibet when we visited LVMH’s Ao Yun winery in Yunnan, China. See my 2014 article Tibet on a plate.
But what had brought me here was if anything even more mysterious. I had heard that this restaurant was the creation of a Tibetan chef, Yeshi Jampa, 43, and his English wife, Julie Kleeman, 47; that it was the manifestation of their love for one another; and that this had all begun in the most unlikely of circumstances.
They had met originally in India travelling in opposite directions. Jampa had walked from Tibet and was photographing monkeys. Kleeman had left the UK, after Westminster and Oxford, where she read Chinese, and was on a short side trip while working for an NGO in China. They met, fell in love, and moved back to Oxford, where Kleeman had a job at Oxford University Press. With a son, born shortly after their return, they needed to find a way of life that would support their family.
They started to offer takeaway Tibetan food cooked in their domestic kitchen. Here Jampa could draw on national and family characteristics. When I asked him about any formal culinary training, he replied with a smile, ‘There are not that many restaurants in Tibet where I could have worked. But in Tibet if you cannot cook, you don’t eat. And both my parents are excellent cooks. Whenever there was a wedding in my village, my parents were always asked to cook. And my brother is a chef in New York. It is not elaborate cooking and the vast majority of my recipes are reasonably straightforward: my sous chef is in fact from East Timor.’
When I asked him to explain what Tibetan food is, he pointed to the blackboard which acts as this restaurant’s menu and said, ‘it’s the kind of food that can be eaten on the move, which makes it highly suitable for takeaways. But with the exception of yak milk, sadly not available in the UK, every dish is replicable here. There are plenty of vegetables; meat for the pies and the curries; there is spinach and lentils for dal; and there are various sources of Szechuan peppers which are an essential ingredient. Although there aren’t any in our momos.’
Jampa’s face seemed to brighten even more broadly at the mention of these Tibetan dumplings, the country’s most famous food export, which are here filled with either beef or a vegan alternative. ‘We sell thousands of these every week and one reason you won’t find any in our takeaway is that we simply cannot make enough to stock it.’ At this, Jampa roared with laughter.
He did so again as his wife joined us. ‘I am the sheep, but she is the tiger’, he explained as he went off back into the kitchen. Julie’s smile seemed almost as broad.
‘I suppose I am’, she continued, ‘if that covers the person whose job is to fill in the many forms that Taste Tibet has required over the past decade. We moved from takeaways locally to running a stall on Oxford Open Market to feeding lots of people at various festivals. We began with Glastonbury and Latitude, then the Cambridge Folk Festival and Green Man and we have recently done May Balls at Oxford and Cambridge. And this year we will be back at Glastonbury and for the first time at the Hay Festival, which will be a challenge as it is over 11 days, which will mean a lot of momos. But the festivals are fantastic because we take our children along. They keep each other happy and we can be together as a family and they can see how hard we have to work. Each festival provides a different type of logistical challenge which I find stimulating, as well as different sources of income.
‘Then we decided to open here. The plan was originally to convert the rooms at the top into places we could rent to support the restaurant but COVID-19 has prevented that so far [I visited at the end of April 2021]. But since we opened full-time in January the restaurant has far exceeded our expectations. I believe that that has been due to a combination of factors.
‘Obviously there is the appeal of Yeshi’s food, which seems to have struck a chord. It’s healthy, fresh and appealing. Then there is the Tibetan dimension, that our food is for the community whom we help as widely as we can via Oxford Mutual Aid. That, coupled with the fact that whatever the kitchen produces we can freeze and sell here, means that there is very little waste.’
And before I can ask, Kleeman provides the final, the most personal factor. ‘I love the hospitality side of this business. I love talking about Tibet. I am extremely proud of my husband’s food and every day we are open just reaffirms my view about our customers, how nice they are. People’s enthusiasm for our food, and the warmth they exude, actually feed us.’
Taste Tibet 109 Magdalen Road, Oxford OX4 1RQ; tel: +44 (0)1865 499318.
Open Wednesday (dinner only) and Thursday to Saturday (lunch and dinner) from 7 September.