ON THE WEB, 7 April 2012
It was in a monastery in Eastern Tibet as a teenager that Phuntsok Gyatso learned to make neatly pleated steamed dumplings. Known as momos, the meat and vegetable-filled parcels are a popular Tibetan fast food and are typically accompanied by rice vinegar and chilli paste.
“The young monks cooked for older teachers,” recalls the 41-year-old. “I always like to make food,” he adds, apologising for his simple English.
Gyatso left the monastery after 14 years at the age of 28 and his culinary skills have since served him well. When he was jailed for two years in 2002 for his role in the Tibetan democracy and human rights movement, he worked in the prison kitchen.
When he eventually fled his homeland for Dharamshala in northern India, a gruelling 36-day walk, he earned a meagre amount from cooking.
Since arriving in Australia in 2008 as a refugee, initially settling in Dee Why on Sydney’s northern beaches before moving to Newcastle a year ago, Gyatso has eked out a living working in restaurants, cleaning, and selling his much-loved momos at the weekly Newcastle City Farmers Market.
He and good friend Yeshi Sangpo spend the latter part of the week in the kitchen of Gyatso’s modest rented Adamstown home making momos.
The men, who are sometimes assisted by Gyatso’s wife Palchen, deftly fashion the flour and water dough into small, flat circular pieces.
The vegetable filling, which includes finely grated carrot, spinach, shallot, cheese and onion, is then wrapped in a round pocket.
The flavoursome beef filling is wrapped in the more ornate crescent pocket, which is similar to a Japanese gyoza.
“I started making momos for my Tibetan friends,” says the father-of-two. “They are the most Tibetan food and people were missing them from home.”
The popularity of the momos soon grew.
Gyatso’s neighbour and friend Geoff Webber is a dumpling devotee. “I just love them,” he says enthusiastically.
At the Newcastle City Farmers Market, Gyatso and Sangpo sell packs of 10 frozen dumplings for $10 and, after a slow start, the freshly steamed variety are also gaining a following.
Initially, they sold about 300 dumplings a morning, but that has grown steadily to 850. For $10, you are served eight momos with condiments and a small salad. Their chilli paste packs a whopping punch and is not for the faint-hearted.
(The pair also sells tingmo, steamed scroll-like Tibetan bread served with small tubs of honey and chocolate sauce.)
Their outdoor stall is located in a sunny spot near a couple of towering gum trees. “Good in winter,” smiles Gyatso.
Chairs and tables surrounding the stall are in high demand and empty seats are snapped up as quickly as those in a child’s party game.
The dumplings are cooked in large metal and bamboo steamers stacked five high.
One regular who buys take-home packs of frozen dumplings for light and easy meals swears by lightly frying them after steaming and serves them with asian greens.
For Gyatso, who never dreamed he’d get a chance for a fresh start in “easy to live” Newcastle, there is joy in seeing his favourite dish being embraced by Novocastrians.
“I am happy,” he beams.