Yeshi and Julie are the husband and wife team behind Taste Tibet. Yeshi is from rural Tibet and Julie is a Londoner. They met in India and moved to Oxford in 2011. We spoke to them to find out more about peppercorns sourced from Yeshi's village, his nomadic upbringing, their awesome yagye-go, and the secret to making the perfect momo! It doesn't get more authentic than this...
"Yeshi is a fantastic cook - it’s all in the genes. His brother was once the head chef at a monastery of 5,000 monks..."
When and where was Taste Tibet created?
Taste Tibet came to being in 2014 while I was on maternity leave. Yeshi had been a full-time dad to our eldest child until that point, whilst I worked as a Project Manager at Oxford University Press. Neither of us had a formal background in food, but Yeshi’s cooking and my managerial experience meant that at least some key bases were covered!
What gave you the idea to start Taste Tibet?
Friends and family always encouraged Yeshi to cook professionally and my maternity leave in 2014 gave him the space and time to finally get his food outside of our home.
Who is the Taste Tibet team made up of?
Taste Tibet is now more than just Yeshi and I. We are still the backbone of the company, but we employ a number of other Tibetan chefs and front-of-house staff, particularly during festival season.
"Yeshi lived a semi-nomadic life in Tibet, herding sheep and yaks for months at a time on the high altitude Tibetan plateau."
What did you do before you started this venture?
Yeshi moved to India when he was 19, and worked inside a monastery and and also at markets in Goa selling Tibetan jewellery and other handmade artefacts. I studied Chinese at Cambridge University and worked for NGOs and in publishing for many years and I am the Chief Editor of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary.
Tell us a little bit about how you created your brand?
Our business started very organically and our brand kind of made itself. It takes inspiration from Yeshi’s rural and nomadic existence in Tibet, where cooking outdoors is a way of life. Our food is also influenced by Yeshi’s many years spent living and working in India, where he discovered new flavours and cooking styles. It took us almost three years to get ourselves a logo! By this point we knew very well who we were and what our business was about, and the mountains (little momos) in a bowl is a perfect expression of our concept.
"In Tibet, nobody eats alone. Food is a communal experience, both in preparation and consumption."
Do you consider yourselves entrepreneurs?
Yes. Taste Tibet is often the last thing on our minds before we go to sleep at night and the first thing we remember when we wake up in the morning. It’s our passion, and it is the starting point for a whole lot of other entrepreneurial visions!
What were the first three steps of getting Taste Tibet set up?
Courage was the first step! Yeshi had been talking for years about starting something up, and taking the plunge was harder and certainly a longer process than we had expected. The next challenge was equipment, as some of the food we make is very specialised and equipment can be difficult to source in the UK. We are grateful to friends in India for sending us over some amazing steamers and other bits and pieces, without which we couldn’t have got going. Finding events was the next step, and then a regular market stall. It was surprisingly easy to get Taste Tibet set up, possibly because we live outside of London, where pitch space is less competitive.
What are your three most important brand values?
*Fresh ingredients: processed food didn’t even exist in Tibet when Yeshi was living there, and fresh ingredients, preferably homegrown, are what makes our food authentic and also so delicious.
Community: in Tibet nobody eats alone. Food is a communal experience, both in preparation and consumption. Our stall is a place where people will stop and chat, and this is a really important part of the experience.
Largesse: in Tibet there is always more food on the table than people can eat - you never know who might drop in. We always serve large at our stalls, as our biggest fear is that people will walk away still hungry. When we have leftovers, we gift them to the local homeless shelter.*
What has been the highlight of your journey so far?
Six months after we started trading, the Guardian named us as a Top Ten budget eat in Oxford. The BBC Good Food Magazine also named us in their Oxford Top Ten in 2017. A trading highlight is always Latitude Festival: the people there really get our food and the queues don’t stop from Friday morning until Sunday evening.
Have there been any bumps in the road?
There have been huge bumps as our business started without a plan, and neither of us had any trade experience to call on! Our business grew really fast, and we were catering for thousands at the Oxford University college balls when Oxford City Council’s Environmental Health department called in wondering at how we were still managing our business from our home. They made it clear that a commercial kitchen setup was necessary, and this forced us into a big and expensive action that ultimately has been the making of us. We love our purpose-built kitchen and of course we wonder at how we ever made things work from our own humble home.
Tell us about your beautiful market stall...
At festivals we operate out of our purpose-built Tibetan picnicking tent. It’s called a yagye-go, and in Tibet people pitch these on the grasslands during summer for parties and special events. It is really eye-catching a totally unique, and we love it.
We're desperate for momos! When and where can you be found?
During summertime you can find us at many of the country’s best known music festivals, but we also cater at small, family-friendly festivals and many other events, small to massive. We have a regular stall in Oxford’s Gloucester Green market (currently Wednesday’s only), and in the autumn we are opening up our first bricks and mortar cafe in central historic Oxford. Pretty excited about that!
What kind of events have you catered for so far?
We spend our summers at music festivals and we cater at a lot of the Oxford and Cambridge university college balls. We have also pitched up at Blenheim Palace several times, including the massive BBC Countryfile Live. We love wedding catering and catering at other private events. These have taken us inside many of the Oxford colleges, to nearby Waterperry House, and so on. We also ran a very successful pop-up at an Oxford cafe during the early months of 2018.
What events does Taste Tibet flourish at?
Taste Tibet is a festival favourite, and we have been invited to cater for many private events off the back of the big festivals. Our food always goes down well with people looking for something a little different. We offer something unique, but our food is not out of the box and everyone finds is very accessible. We always provide a lot of vegan and gluten-free options, so we usually cover all bases, and this makes us popular for big events at which a number of dietary requirements need to be taken into consideration.
Tell us about your mouthwatering menu...
Our signature dish is our Tibetan momo dumplings (vegan or beef). Momos are the unofficial national dish of Tibet. We always make our momos from scratch, and serve them with a range of homemade chilli dips that are a selling point in their own right! We also serve a range of Himalayan curries with dal and rice. Our customers love to mix and match our dishes by popping a momo or two on top of their curry. Our chilli dips contain peppercorns that we source from Yeshi’s village in Tibet. We will make them available for sale when we open our cafe. The peppercorn is the secret ingredient: it has a tongue-tingling taste that is not blow-your-head-off, and is apparently totally addictive.
Do you have any Tibetan dumpling making secrets you’d be able to share with us?
The secret to a good momo is always fresh ingredients, and never, ever use those dumpling wrappers you can buy ready-made from the Chinese supermarket. Cutting corners will always compromise on taste. We hand-make all our dough, and it really makes the difference.
What's favourite thing to eat that isn’t Tibetan cuisine?
We both love Japanese food, especially sushi. We both have big appetites and high standards, and Yeshi in particular is easily disappointed!
A huge thank you to Julie and Yeshi for sharing their story with us, you are incredibly interesting and talented people and we're proud to be able to offer your delicious food to our clients! Book Taste Tibet for your next event today, before they get snapped up! We have over 400 other street food traders and mobile bars on our site - click here to browse.