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Tibet and Tibetan Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 7 , 8, 12, and 16

Tibet is a land of snow-capped mountains crossed by rivers, dotted with wild regions, pasture lands, and dessert areas, and in the southern region, there is a granary area that grows highland barley, wheat, corn, broad beans, rape and other vegetables, and even some rice. Tibet is also known as Xizang and its capital is Lhasa. Some call Tibet 'the roof of the world' because most of the land is in the neighborhood of fifteen thousand feet above sea level.

Historical documents show that ancestors of the Tibetan people have inhabited the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau since the Neolithic Period. In the seventh century, they developed a written alphabetic language with four vowels and thirty consonants that is nothing like the languages of their neighbors. About that same time, Buddhism was introduced into the region. Since then, it has played a major role in people's daily lives.

The land was remote from invasion, so Tibet became an important treasury of Buddhist teachings. The people, more than six million, have been and remain inspired by their religion and they stay close to the monasteries where they can practice it. Thus, they live in Tibet and in the nearby provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan; a few have migrated to other countries.

Somewhat isolated behind the Himalayan mountains, their customs are unique as is their form of Buddhism and much of their clothing. Men wear a bacha, which is a long woolen garment lined with fur in the winter, and unlined or lined with silk in summer. Women wear the same with many bazhu or ornaments on it, in their hair or elsewhere on their inner garments. And. almost everyone wears a xianiao or Buddhist amulet in a case around their neck.

Cathy Ang also introduces readers to many important Tibetan foods and beverages in the September issue of Flavor and Fortune (Volume 6(3) on page 21). These included tsampa, kapse, butter-tea, crispy oil, sour milk, milk residues, air-dried meat, and wine. These, and the Tibetan people who eat them, have fascinated for decades, maybe centuries. There is much to know, understand, and delight about their simple lifestyles, their foods, and their beautiful temples and stupas.

The stupas, which they call chorten, are richly decorated, often pagoda-like structures, in which the remains of important religious leaders are preserved. After the death of one such, be it a Buddha or a Lama, the body is rubbed with salt water and then dried, then coated with spices, and finally put to rest in the stupa with thangka, which are paintings on silk, also with prayer scrolls, prayer wheels, and personal religious books, all kept together in perpetuity.

The Potala Palace is Tibet's most famous building. It is plated with gold leaf and inlaid with jewels. This building was built on the site of the place where King Songtsan Gambo lived, circa 600 CE. Potala, standing for the sacred center of Buddhism, is a very holy place thought to be the residence of Analokitesvara, the Goddess of Mercy. It is now a monastery and the largest Tibetan religious building. Red and tan in color, it stands thirteen stories or one hundred seventy-eight meters tall, and sits in front of red hills. It is a huge and very impressive building that covers one hundred thirty thousand square meters.

There are holy Tibetan places outside of Tibet, as well. Almost all of them are in areas with large Tibetan populations. For instance, Sertar in northeastern Garze Prefecture in the Sichuan Province is one such place. Some say this place is a mini-version of Tibet as it is located at a high altitude and has thirty religious sites including Damka Temple and the Donden Quden Buddhist Pagoda.

No matter where they live, almost all Tibetans practice what is called Tibetan Buddhism and they do so in one of its many sects. These sub-groups are known by the color of their robes. No matter the sect, all of their people learn their religion young. Many males are sent to a monastery, sometimes a daughter to a nunnery, as early as twelve years of age. They go not to become monks but to be trained in prayer and the reading of the holy books. It is common for them to spend at least two years there.

Almost all Tibetans enjoy a daily diet that includes zamba (the most recent Pinyin way to write the word most people may have seen written as tsampa), buttered tea, qingke--a wine made from it, and barley beer. To them, all of these are daily necessities. Zamba is toasted flour mostly of the cultivar of Hordeum vulgare, a six-rowed spring barley that has small dark grains. Also used to make zamba are two-row barley types, two types of buckwheat (Fagopyrum tartarium in higher elevations and Fagopyrum esculatum in lower regions), pea flours, oats, and other wheat-like grains. Highland barley is called qingke as is the wine they make from it. Thus, in many forms solid or liquid, qingke is one staple food of Tibetans.

Tea is consumed by Tibetans lots as butter-tea. They drink it all day long. They make theirs by boiling brick and other teas until very strong. Then they add yak butter (which is slightly cheese-like) and salt to it, and they churn these until they are well amalgamated and somewhat thick. These days, some Tibetans are adding ground walnuts to their tea as a means to thicken it.

Tea was known in Tibet as early as the eleventh century CE. The Second Dalai Lama is said to have begum the importation of special high-quality tea for religious ceremonies in the early 16th century. Brick teas shipped in from Sichuan and Yunnan were probably developed to withstand the rough transportation needed to get to the Tibetan highland market. Most arrived fermented, steamed, mixed with a small amount of glutinous rice and meat blood, then molded. Both rice and blood use disappeared quickly because of Buddhist objections to these cementing agents. Soon thereafter, brick tea manufacture included only tea and water.

Tibetans still drink lots of butter-tea. However, many younger ones are now adding sugar, with or without the salt, to their tea. Also, they drink theirs thick or thin. The textural change may be because traditional churns are expensive and take up much space. Churning takes ten to fifteen minutes each time you make butter-tea, that may also be a reason. No matter the age, everyone drinks several cups of butter-tea in the morning. With each sip, custom dictates the host refill the cup never leaving it empty. They also drink about the same amount in the evening, also whenever a guest stops by and at other times, too.

Zamba, was spelled tsampa; it is made from roasted flour called nas, mixed and rolled into balls with the fingers of the right hand. It is often eaten when having tea. Once when visiting a Tibetan family in Qinghai, they worried that Americans do not like thick beverages and so the tea served us on that occasion was thin and called boeja. It was loaded with butter and salt and milk, even some cream, and many in the room put their finger around the edge of the cup and rubbed the butter fat on the sides of their noses, their foreheads and on other dry skin places.

That day, there was little zamba--no balls of roasted flour in sight. As is common in families, it came after several cups of tea were downed; and when it did, we each prepared our own. My ineptness generated the dozen people in the house to individually provide a lesson on technique. Not all were similar but the results were as if made by machine, perfectly round and all the same size, that of a small walnut.

On that occasion, I was asked to make at least five extra balls, as were the others there, to be boiled later with large bones, chunks of meat and some vegetables. This was dinner for that night, served with more zamba to be made, if wanted, along with butter-tea, large yak rib bones with little meat on them, some dried milk residue that looked like dark sweepings but that they called cheese (chura), and lots of qingke wine. All solids were eaten with the right hand, a difficult task for this lefty, or if liquid, they ate them using a wooden spoon. When drinking, we said gambei (which translates to bottoms up) and at least half of the people emptied the tiny one-to-two ounce cup each time.

Qingke, their low alcohol beverage, is about fifteen to twenty proof. Consuming it is somewhat equivalent to drinking a fortified wine. The way most of us drank it at that visit was not bottoms-up. After each small to middle-sized sip, the cups were refilled. Not emptying the wine cup is OK except for the fourth time. For that refill, tradition dictates that it must be emptied. As I never made it past six, nor was I counting what others did, I am not sure if that holds for every fourth refill or just the initial one.

Wine drinking is different from tea drinking. For the latter, you never empty your cup. To do that signals that you are ready to leave. Tea is always refilled after each sip. I almost quit drinking mine when I realized this. My culture embarrassed me when my host jumped up and down keeping all cups topped off. With dinner the evening of that occasion, there were white radishes, steamed cabbage, and a few boiled potatoes made into a curried dish called shogok katsa. Really it was a sauce served over the potatoes made with chili peppers, cilantro, sheep and yak meat, fat (called tsilu), and several spices, the most recognizable of which was fenugreek. Also served as a side dish was churned boiled milk. This was a huge meal, necessitated by the large number of important guests.

Yak meat is from a type of ox that has high withers, a broad back, big horns, and a hairy coat. It is an animal that does well in highland areas. Never served in any Tibetan home visited, were eggs, some say because they can not be sure of their fertility. This makes sense as their religion forbids killing even an insect because life is an interlude between successive rebirths. Most Tibetans also do not eat small animals as they consider it better to take the life of but one than many animals. They also do not eat fish, poultry, and pork. Monks and other religious folk do not eat onions, garlic, leeks, and other foods of this family, as well. The reason, this group of foods are not consumed is that they believe they raise sexual energies, an item not needed for the celibate.

Three meals a day and many snacks are eaten by Tibetans. Soup is served at almost all of them, and they love dumplings called momo with them. The noon meal is the largest or main meal of the day. Those who snack, and almost all do, love yoe, which are partly popped grain pieces. No matter the meal, one never starts to eat until prayers are said. As a guest, it is prudent to wait for others, particularly elders to begin first. At one meal we all started to laugh. No one had started eating after prayers. As an elder myself, my forty-plus year old host was waiting for me, and I for him.

Calendars that Tibetans use are their own. Their New Year, called Losar, is not on the same day as the Chinese New Year, but is also their most important holiday. Other holidays, most in warm weather, include Lingka Festival when families camp out together, Muyu Festival, known as the ''take a bath,'' a holiday where they do just that (bathing in the very cold regions is not done frequently in winter). They also wash their clothes and bedding during this festival. There is also the summer Ongor Xodian Festival where they feast, have horse races, sell their cattle, sheep and their wool, and the best of their salts that were gathered around Banggong Lake. And there is Xodoin or the Sour Milk Festival where they celebrate the making of yogurt.

Sky burials are an ancient custom, they use foods and have been in use since the 7th century. A special attendant takes the deceased away from all relatives to a burial platform. Placing pine branches nearby with zamba, meat, cheese, milk, butter, and animal blood and fat, a fire is lit, the aroma attracts the vultures. After they leave, remaining bones are pounded into pieces,mixed with more zamba, made into balls and left for the vultures. Should there be leftovers, these are swept together, burned, and the ashes scattered. Ground burials are used only to prevent epidemics, so they are reserved for those with small pox and similar diseases. Water burials are reserved for widows, widowers, and those of a low socio-economic class. No matter the burial type, food for the dead is placed in a red earthenware pot and wrapped with a white sheepskin or a white hada, a long ceremonial scarf.

Butter sculptures are another interesting food-related custom. Most famous are those of the Yellow Sect of Buddhism, a sect with an important position in Lamaism. Monks of this sect never marry while those of other sects have that option. Also this sect practices reincarnation of living Buddha's. At Kumbum Monastery, their most sacred center, they have a religious competition to make butter sculptures. They are exhibited at Lantern Festival time, then kept as long as possible, thereafter.

Tangkha are the scrolls they and others make. hey are a most ancient art, most are embroidered, others woven or made of applique with silver and brass ornaments. They are kept rolled up and carried from place to place, many exhibited with the butter sculptures. The largest of these is eight hundred square meters and is a huge holy image. In butter or in thread, the use of red represents nobility, black stands for dignity or solemnity, and blue for serenity. They and other colors are made from mineral and plant pigments mixed with animal glue and yak bile.

Many medical volumes have been publsed by Tibetan Buddhists. Many are classic, the first said written at the end of the 8th century. Many are wall hangings called Tantras. Four of these are especially holy, loaded with medical advise, and revered by their people. Tibetan medicine, practiced for centuries, is somewhat distinct from Chinese medicinal beliefs with their own ways of natural healing. They use all parts of plants and animals for healing, each has its own use and purpose. One difference is that their herbs are not boiled in a decoction and drunk as is common practice in China. Rather, the herbs are ground into a powder, some compressed making them into a ball or pill. When someone is ill, special prayers are recited for their recovery, and these are said before the herbal remedy is consumed. At temples, Tibetans spin prayer wheels to ward off demons and bring merit to the person who is ill. Even if no one is ill, when they go to a temple, they spin them in special order and special numbers of times.

While much has been written about their medicine, we only know four books in English about their food, These are:

Rinjing Dorje's Food in Tibetan Life. London: Prospect Books, 1985.
The Kopan Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes from a Tibetan Monastery written by by Bett Jung and oublished in San Francisco by Chronicle Books in 1992.
Tibetan Cooking by Indra Majopuria and Diki Lobsong. Their revised edition published in Bangkok, Thailand by Craftsman Press in 1989. (The first edition is no longer available; it was published by S.Devi in Lakshar, India.
The Lhasa Moon Tibetan Cookbook by Tsering Wangmo and Zare Housemand, published in Ithaca NY by Snow Lion Publications in 1999. (This book was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 6(3) on pages 22-23).

As many Tibetans do not live away from their homeland, there are few other ways to sample their food. We know of only two restaurants serving Tibetan food, both are in New York City. They are:

Lhasa; 96 Second Avenue; Manhattan: phone: 212 674-5870, and
Tibet; 136 West Houston Street; Manhattan; phone: 212 995-5884

Below are four Tibetan recipes, not from any of the above cookbooks. The first is for zamba, the next for soup and their dumplings, the last for zamba, their butter-tea. Notice that Tibetan dumplings have more greens in them than do typical Chinese dumplings.
1 cup roasted barley flour
1/2 cup Butter-tea made only with tea, salt, and butter
1. Make a well in the flour and slowly add the butter tea.
2. Mix until all flour is moistened; then roll it into eight one-inch balls.
Note: These can be eaten plain, boiled in soup, or used in various dishes.
Tibetan Momo's
1/2 pound ground lamb or beef or a mixture of both
1 small onion, minced
2 cups chopped mustard greens or spinach
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
2 Tablespoons dry sherry
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon zamba or other flour
24 wonton wrappers, at room temperature
6 to 12 lettuce leaves
Rice vinegar, soy sauce, and/or hot chili oil for dipping
1. Mix all of the ingredients except the wrappers and items listed after them. Set aside in the refrigerator until cold.
2. Put two tablespoons of the meat mixture in the center of a wrapper. Lightly wet the edges of the dough then fold and pinch edges to seal. Set on leaves on a steamer rack not touching each other until ready to cook. It is best if they are half-inch away from each other.
3. Cover and steam over boiling water for eighteen minutes.
4. Serve hot with any or all of the dipping sauces.
Momo Soup
5 cups chicken stock
12 prepared momos
12 zamba balls
1 cup cooked thin egg noodles
2 cups shredded spinach or mustard green
1. Put the stock into a pot and gently bring to the boil.
2. Add the momo's putting them in gently lowering them with a spoon. Do likewise with the zamba balls.
3. Next put in the noodles and cook for one minute; then add the spinach and serve.
Note: Some serve the zamba on the side, others prefer them in the soup.
Special Butter-tea
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 Tablespoons brick tea (or use a Darjeeling tea)
6 cups boiling water
1/3 cup salt butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1. Put the salt and sugar in a teapot with the tea leaves. Add the boiling water and steep for fifteen minutes.
2. Return to the boil, remove from the heat source, and then add the butter, cream, and milk. Whisk this for five minutes, then serve.

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