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Tibet: Crossroads of Cookery and Culture

by Marc Cramer

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

Winter Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(4) page(s): 15, 16, 17, and 18

Perched high in the Himalayas, centuries of geographic isolation combined with self-imposed cultural and political insularity made Tibet a nation quite like no other. With its art influenced by Nepalese traditions, clothing adapted from the Mongolian robe or del, and much of its produce, including spices and rice, imported, like its religion, from neighboring India, Tibet’s contacts with the outside world, especially Europe, have traditionally been few. With its high altitude and the harshness of its climate, Tibet is a mostly a barren land where only a few crops can be grown, most of them restricted to its warmer valleys. Indigenous agriculture is centered round the growing of Tibet’s staple, barley, a hardy grain virtually imperious to the uncompromising Himalayan climate. In short, little grows in Tibet and what does must be coaxed from the inhospitable soil. For these reasons, Tibet has never evolved a broad or particularly complex cuisine such as its neighbors, India and China.

Much of my knowledge of Tibetan culinary traditions comes from my maternal grandfather, a Muscovite (in every sense of the word) and chef who joined the Czar’s moribund army to halt the Japanese advance of 1904. In Mongolia, his closest friend was a renegade lama and fellow chef named Dorje Gangchen. Like most educated Mongolians until restricted by communist edict, Dorje ('Thunderbolt') had a Tibetan name. The Tibetan language, not Mongolian, was used in monasteries throughout the land. Culinary bonds aside, Grandfather spoke Mongolian and Dorje, who had traveled in Siberia, spoke excellent Russian. Over endless cups of vodka, they exchanged bawdy stories and recipes, my grandfather passing many of the latter on to me.

As elsewhere, the diet of the wealthy is a far cry from the food of the fieldhand. Luxury foods such as rice, tea, sugar, spices, and dried fruit were traditionally imported from India, China, and Nepal. They were carried over the frozen peaks on the backs of porters; this done in a journey that could take up to four months. Although Tibet grows a little rice in her valleys, the luxury grain has to be imported on the backs of yaks and men, driving up the price so that rice was once synonymous with wealth. For example, one of Tibet’s three leading monasteries was the Drepung, which is literally translated as 'rice heap' but refers to its spiritual, not material or culinary wealth. The Tibetan diet, centered around barley and animal products, such as meat, milk, butter and cheese, may lack variety, but as we shall soon see, it does not lack flair nor imagination. Tibetans produce some wonderful dishes that make up for the limitations of its culinary oeuvre.

Based on the lunar calendar, the eighth and ninth months are the most productive for traditional Tibetan agriculture. This is when crops of buckwheat and barley are harvested. The barley is dried, toasted and finely ground into a flour called tsampa, which is mixed into tea with butter, made into soup called tsamtuk, or blended with sugar and ground hard cheese to be made into a square thin block known as pag. While wheat, millet, turnips, beans, radishes, chilies, and potatoes are cultivated in limited quantities, many Tibetans, particularly those living outside of Lhasa, rely on the flesh and fat of the yak to survive. A hardy beast impervious to the cold and thin air of Tibet’s frozen peaks, no part of the yak goes to waste--even its dung is dried and used for fuel because wood is far too scarce and precious to burn. Yak fat for frying (called tsilu) is packed into the stomach sack of a goat or ewe, smoked and dried, the latter to be used for cooking.

The meat of the yak, which tastes like lean beef or buffalo, is the most common flesh consumed. Sheep and goat are eaten but are not everyday foods. Since their conversion to Buddhism, Tibetans reject fish as a low incarnation and, unlike the Chinese, they eschew both pork and poultry. In the Amdo region where the present Dalai Lama was born, pork--a Chinese accretion to the local diet, was considered by some ethnic Tibetans as a rare treat. “As a child,” reflected His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, “I would sit and watch my father eat pork, begging like a little dog to throw me a morsel.”

Tibetan strictures against pork are not connected to Lhasa’s small but once prominent Moslem community nor to Islamic influences. A devoutly Buddhist people, Tibetans believe that killing is wrong. If one must take a life to survive it is far better to slaughter one large animal such as a yak, than many smaller creatures to produce a meal.

Butchering in Lhasa was once related to Moslems. In the provinces, a few Mohammedans strayed into the profession of butcher; this handed down father to son. It was generally considered a lowly trade. Butchers, much like blacksmiths and shoemakers, could only marry within their social class; their abodes were restricted to the outskirts of their town or village. Although their profession was recognized as necessary, Tibetans tended to make butchers social pariahs as mainstream society did not care to be reminded of the necessity of taking life.

Before a yak was slaughtered, it was led to an altar where a ritual butter lamp (usually silver) burned. Then the creature was blindfolded, given holy water, and prayed over before its life was taken. Its blood was collected and the offal finely chopped to be mixed with onions, barley, chili and salt before being stuffed into lamb intestines, boiled, then fried in a little mustard oil to create a dish called gyuma. This sausage-like food was generally served with generous helpings of hot chili based sauce.

For the wealthy, better cuts of yak were reserved to fill the ubiquitous momo which is a steamed dumpling that can be filled with mushrooms or lamb, or finely ground into small curried lean meatballs. The latter is a delicious preparation known as shabril. This is sometimes grilled and called sha katsa and smothered in a spicy, tomato-rich sauce.

Except in monasteries or in former feudal manor houses, the kitchen was not a separate room but an area in the living room where the family’s meals were prepared. Stoves were made from stone and heated by a fire in the center, which also provided warmth for the dwelling. Tibetan houses traditionally did not make use of room heaters or fireplaces, just warm clothes and the family stove. Bread in not baked in a separate oven but is cooked (or fried) on top of the stove or in the central fire by waiting until the embers reach the right temperature for baking. In the black yak hair tents of nomads, cooking was done on a simple tripod that supported an iron pot in the center. The entire family ate and slept around the fire, their pallets placed next to the cooking area for protection against the ferocious howling winds that are especially punishing during the long winter months.

Although vegetable dishes were uncommon, buckwheat greens were eaten as a salad with a few radishes and butter-covered baked mushrooms are still served as a side dish, a rare treat. Perhaps the most interesting of Tibet’s vegetarian meals is shogok goptse, a flavorful preparation of sliced potatoes or sometimes turnips. They were cooked in a large pan or wok with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and spices imported from India including fenugreek, turmeric, and cumin, and other seasonings from China such as soy sauce and ginger.

Generally found only in big cities such as Lhasa or Shigatse, shogok goptse was generally made from dehydrated dried potato slices. This dish is brimming with flavor and regarded by locals as a curry, although the recipe is a far cry from the heavier, spicier curries of neighboring India. Delicious steamed bread known as trimomono and kapse, which is a fried bread very similar to Native American preparations, is often served with curries and dipped in hot sauce or honey, according to taste. Perhaps the most luxurious (if not sybaritic) of Tibet’s rice dishes is dresil, a sweet dish flavored with honey or sugar, nuts, and dried currents or raisins. It is generally reserved for special occasions such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year. That is celebrated over an entire week when special cookies are baked and Tibetans throw themselves into the noisy, colorful and boisterous secular celebrations.

Mundane as they may be, diary products are just as essential to Tibetans as they are to the Mongols, a people with whom they share many a common bond, genetic and cultural. Each home usually has a cylindrical wooden churn for producing butter made from whole milk yogurt. Later, the leftover buttermilk is boiled until it separates and it is eaten soft or dried. Tibetans traditionally obtain their milk from the yak or a yak-cow crossbreed called a dzo. The fat-rich milk of the female or dri is very rich, heavy and sweet. Like the Mongols, Tibetans drink as many as sixty cups of butter tea daily. It is called boeja or cha, and in monasteries huge caldrons of butter tea are stirred with wooden paddles resembling oars to fill the proffered wooden bowls of hundreds of monks (or nuns) and lamas seeking warm from the cold climes that permeated every home, even the Potala Palace.

In secular society, a simple rice or barley beer generally low in alcohol called chang is especially good when made from good quality grain and later laced with honey. It is brewed and often distilled into the more potent arag, generous servings of which are enjoyed during the traditional Losar celebrations when beggars and barons play mah jong or dance and sing, their boisterous merry making assisted by numerous bowls of chang or heady arag, which carries a considerable wallop imbibed at Lhasa’s heady altitude of 12,000 feet. Although a fun loving people, Tibetan’s share little of their Mongolian cousins’ bibulousness. Therefore one does not see public drunkenness nor displays of affection amongst Tibetans, those in exile and those Lhasans who still cling to traditional values in a society in a dizzying state of flux.

Tibetan food is anything but a vanishing art. Delightful Tibetan restaurants (with Westerns standards of hygiene) can be found throughout Europe (Switzerland has a large expatriate community), and the East Coast of America and the Rockies where many Tibetans have settled. Over the years, a few Tibetan cookbooks have found public supports, including the now out of print. The Copan Cookbook and the fine tome called The Lhasa Moon Cookbook written by a Tibetan opera star turned chef, the multi-talented Tsering Wangmo. While my book focuses on the cookery of the vast Mongol Empire, which encompassed Tibet, it includes many of Grandfather’s Tibetan recipes, many of having found favor with Mongol khans and his Moscow patrons.

I have chosen a selection of my family’s favorite Tibetan recipes, all of which require ingredients easily found in your local Asian grocery or in any ordinary, well-stocked supermarket. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to know it is to do it.” The same is true of Tibetan food. Without doubt, the best way to appreciate the culinary gestalt of the 'Land of Snows' is by preparing a Tibetan banquet. Savor its range of flavors, sweet and fiery, alike; and experience and appreciate its uniqueness.

The recipes that follow are taken from my book Imperial Mongolian Cooking: Recipes from the Kingdoms of Genghis Khan, courtesy of Hippocrene Books, New York. It was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 8(2) on pages 23 and 24. There are so many others I would like to share, but space does not permit. However, if any one meal could be called the national dish of Tibetans, it would be the momo. During feats and celebrations, they are always served. My grandfather found that mushrooms blend beautifully with the combination of vegetables and spices he used for their filling. His recipe is not here because a recipe for this wonderful food was featured in another issue of Flavor and Fortune in volume 6(4) on page 12. Consult that recipe or my grandfathers, which is in my book. Both are best served with a spicy sauce, which along with other Tibetan recipes follow.
Tibetan Hot Sauce (Sipen Mardur)
1 medium tomato
3 teaspoons red chili pepper flakes, or to taste
1 cup plain yogurt
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
salt to taste
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 Tablespoon paprika
1. Boil the tomato for two minutes then place in a blender along with the red pepper flakes and yogurt. Add the garlic, salt, and ginger and blend for two minutes then pour this into a mixing bowl.
2. Add the cilantro and paprika. Cover with plastic wrap and chill before using.
Tibetan Fried Bread (Kapse)
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups nonfat milk
3 teaspoons sugar
4 cups vegetable oil
1. In a large plastic mixing bowl combine the flours and the baking powder.
2. Mix the milk and sugar in another bowl until the sugar is dissolved, then add the milk mixture to the flour and knead until it is stiff.
3.Cut the stiff dough into pieces two inches long and three inches wide. Roll each into a ball and flatten with a rolling pin. Repaet until all are prepared.
4. Heat the oil in a deep pan until it becomes very hot. Then drop in one piece of bread at a time and cook until it is lightly browned. Place it on a paper towel to absorb the excess oil and repeat with the other pieces. Serve them piping hot.
Note: In the United States, fried bread is generally associated with Native Americans. It is also a great favorite of Tibetans, who rely heavily on grains, particularly barley for sustenance. Wheat is only grown in small qualtities in Tibet's warmer valleys. This bread is delicious with hot sauce or dipped in honey.
Tibetan Meatball Curry (Shabril)
2 pounds ground lamb
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 Tablespoon crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
salt to taste
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
2 cups finely sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced radishes
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions
1. Roll the ground lamb into half-inch balls.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and stir in the fenugreek seeds, cooking until they turn dark brown. Stir in the onions and cook until golden brown, then lower the heat to medium and gently stir in the lamb, then the ginger, garlic, turmeric, salt, and soy sauce. Add a little water, if necessary.
3. Cover and reduce the heat, and simmer for five minutes. Then uncover and stir in the mushrooms and radishes, and cook for fifteen minutes or until tender. Then, remove the pan from the heat and gently stir in the sour cream; and next sprinkle with green onions.
Note: This dish is traditionally served with saffron rice and baistsaa which is a spicy cabbage. It is also, traditionally, thickened with milk of staggering fat content that comes from a crossbreed of yak and cow. Sour cream is a good and convenient substitute. Regarded as a festive dish, shabril is a unique Tibetan delicacy reserved for honored guests and on special occasions. Although a wide variety of mushrooms grow in Tibet, commercially raised white mushrooms, crimini, or shiitake mushrooms are all perfectly suitable.
Tibetan Saffron Rice (Dresil)
2 to 3 saffron threads
pinch of salt
1 cup long-grain white rice
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup golden dried currants
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup butter
1/4 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1. In a small, heavy saucepan, heat one and two-thirds cups of water. Add the saffron threads and the salt, then remove the pan from the heat and let it stand for about ten minutes until the water turns a deep, rich yellow.
2. Wash the rice until the water is clear. Then bring the saffron water to a rolling boil, stir in the rice then the raisins, currants, and almonds. Cover tightly and cook over a very low heat for fifteen minutes.
3. Meanwhile, blend the honey, butter, and cardamom; and when the rice is done, stir this honey mixture into the pot, and cover and let it stand on a wooden block for five minutes. Then fluff with a fork and serve immediately.
Note: Served with spicy baistsaa, the sweetness of this rice dish offsets the bite of the cabbage dish as well as compliments the smoothness of shabril. Barley is the staple grain of Tibet. Prior to the Chinese invasion, rice was a costly import that had to be carried from India across the Himalayas on the backs of porters. Not surprising, this rice dish was a luxury and a sign of wealth.
Spicy Cabbage, Genghis Khan (Baistsaa)
4 cups diced red cabbage
1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup diced onions
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/4 cup sliced green bell peppers
1/4 cup sliced yellow bell peppers
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spices powder
2/3 cup water, or vegetable broth
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon crushed red chili peppers, or to taste
1.Spread the diced cabbage on a tray and sprinkle with salt. And force the salt into the cabbage by running a rolling pin over it. Let stand for forty minutes.
2.Meanwhile, sauté the onions in the oil until they become transparent, then stir in the mushrooms, cabbage, and bell peppers, and add the five-spice powder and stir.
3. When the cabbage begins to soften, mix the water with cornstarch and soy sauce. Stir it into the cabbage with the chili pepper. Gently stir until the mixture thickens and serve with the latter two dishes.
Note: The dish has fallen into obscurity in Mongolia but is still enjoyed in Tibet. The recipe works best when made with red cabbage, and does make a delightful side dish with lamb dishes and dresil to create a harmonious well-balanced meal. It is interesting to note that it was introduced to Tibet by Mongolian warlords who were conquered by the peaceful ways of Tibetan Buddhism, which was itself, introduced into Mongolia by Altan Khan in the sixteenth century.
Tibetan Rice Cookies
Ingredients for the dough:
4 cups milk
1/2 cup rice
1 Tablespoon (1 packet) yeast
4 eggs
1/3 cup honey
1 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 cups all-purpose flour
Ingredients for the syrup:
1/2 cup honey
1/8 teaspoon finely grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1/8 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1. In a heavy saucepan, slowly bring the milk to a boil. Stir in the rice and simmer over low heat for twenty minutes or more, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and cover; and let this stand in a cool place for eight hours.
2.In a large mixing bowl dissolve the yeast in one-quarter cup warm water for ten minutes, then beat the eggs and stir them into the mixture.
3. Add the honey, cardamom, salt, and flour. Knead into a moderately stiff dough then place the dough in a greased bowl and cover with a cloth in a warm, draft-free area for an hour until it doubles in size.
4. Punch the dough down and knead for a minute or two; then form the dough into a ball then roll it on a lightly floured wooden board into a one-quarter inch thickness and into a rectangular shape.
5. Cut the dough horizontally into one-inch strips. Then make a cut down the center so that each piece is about four inches long. Make an incision into the center of each dough strip. Lift the strip from the cutting board and gently push one end of the dough through the center cut and pull it through. Straighten the dough and set it aside. Do the same with each piece and let them rise for thirty minutes.
6. Ten minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bake on a buttered tray for fifteen to twenty minutes until golden brown.
7. Mix the honey with three tablespoons of water, then add the nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon and mix. While the cookies are still warm and moist, brush each cookie with the syrup mixture, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve.
Note: These delicately flavored cookies were always a part of the festivities on Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Baskets of cookies were wrapped in silk to mark this special occasion. An alternative to baking them is to fry the cookies until they are golden brown.

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