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Overview of Tibetan Food: Butter Tea, Yak Jerky, and a Plethora of Momos

    Overview of Tibetan Food Butter Tea, Yak Jerky, and a Plethora of Momos

    According to a commercial that aired during the 2011 Super Bowl, Tibetan mountains are among the world’s most stunning landscapes, as proclaimed by actor Timothy Hutton. Images of the Himalayas and a young Buddhist monk playing the dungchen trumpet are among those that the camera lingers on as it travels across Tibet. Hutton adds with the kind of sincerity reserved for altruistic appeals, “The people of Tibet are in crisis; their whole civilization is in risk.” With a somewhat jollier tone, he remarks, “But they still whip up a fantastic fish curry,” as the camera switches to him in a restaurant. The climactic reveal that this is really a Groupon promo arrives.

    Even though the Tibetan Plateau is home to several fish-filled lakes and important rivers like the Yangtze and the Ganges have their origins there, Tibetans don’t often consume seafood. According to Lobsang Wangdu, a Tibetan food and culture expert and the creator of the Tibetan culture website YoWangdu, this is due to the widely held Buddhist belief that “it is better to eat large animals [like yaks or goats] than fish or small animals, since fewer lives need to be sacrificed to feed the same amount of people.”

    So what gives? The restaurant seen in the ad is real, and it does offer fish curry; however, Tibetan cuisine is not on the menu. Even though Indian and Nepalese dishes are what Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago is known for, Tibetan food is often mistaken for them. This is similar to the misunderstanding between Hunan and Sichuan cuisine that has persisted in the United States since the 1970s.

    That said, the Groupon commercial does get some things right. Mountains dominate the landscape of Tibet, the world’s highest area, whose average height is above 16,000 feet and temperatures fall far below zero during the lengthy winter months. Therefore, growing vegetables on the Tibetan plateau is challenging, with the exception of leafy greens like mustard and cabbage, and root crops like turnips, carrots, and potatoes.

    Instead, the barley, dairy products, and beef that are staples of Tibetan cuisine are reflective of the region’s chilly climate. Nomads love yak, especially when prepared as jerky and doused in spicy sauce or fried, whereas farmers in central Tibet prefer more readily accessible cattle like beef, mutton, and goat. Noodle dishes, robust braises and stews, dumplings, cheese, butter (frequently used to make tea), and lots of soups make up the bulk of the cuisine, as befits such frigid regions. Only in southern Tibet can rice really grow, and even then it’s only grown for ceremonial purposes rather than regular use.

    “Tibetan food is distinctive and comfortable,” adds Wangdu. To clarify, he says, “the recipes are straightforward, substantial, and extremely warming—probably because Tibetan cuisine evolved through time for living at extreme high altitude.” He goes on to say that Tibetans like to dine in a family-style setting at both home and at restaurants.

    Although many people mistakenly believe Tibetan cuisine to be Chinese due to the prevalence of noodles and the use of chopsticks, Tibetan cuisine actually shares more in common with the cultures and cuisines of Bhutan, Nepal, and regions of northern India like Sikkim, Ladakh, and Lahaul in terms of its signature flavours. The Tibetan kitchen uses a wide variety of spices, including ginger, garlic, coriander, green onion, fenugreek, and kala jeera (black cumin), to season everything from the fiery beef tripe dish known as dropa khatsa to potatoes. The Tibetan name for Sichuan peppercorn is erma, and it is often used in dumplings, beef meals, and as a finishing touch on platters of blood sausage called gyuma. To no one’s surprise, Tibetans like eating organ meats. In addition, chele katsa, beef tongue stir-fried with chile, garlic, and onions, is a fan favourite.

    Let’s explore some of the most popular meals in the area.

    Momo Is the Face of Tibetan Food Abroad

    Momo, those enormously famous dumplings, would be my choice to represent Tibetan food outside. Momo play such a significant role in Tibetan popular culture that they even have a rap song dedicated to them. A young Tibetan woman I was trying to pick up in an East Village pub shocked her companion by exclaiming, “He knows momo.” Are you familiar with Tibet? I said, “No, just Jackson Heights.” In this area of Queens, you may choose from one of over 20 eateries offering steamed dumplings, the national cuisine of Tibet. In case you find yourself in New York, I highly recommend this food tour (we even have one just for momo).

    In most cases, when people refer to momo, they mean sha momo, a flavorful beef dumpling seasoned with garlic, onion, ginger, soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorn, and occasionally Chinese celery. (The name “Sha momo” is a Tibetan word that means “meat dumpling.”) Sha momo are traditionally cooked with yak meat in Tibet, while beef is more common in other parts of the world. Sha momo are similar to Tibetan xiao long bao in that they have a pleated top and a rich filling.

    Wangdu says of the popular dumplings, “Every family makes momo somewhat differently.” He continues by saying, “Somehow they all smell the same, but the flavour is distinct,” before noting that some people use simply onions and beef.

    Momo has a murky past, although the name “momo” means “steamed bread” in Chinese. It has been hypothesised that Tibetan momo were influenced by the Chinese jiaozi. There, yak meat replaced pork, giving the dumplings a distinctively indigenous taste and texture.

    Another explanation is that the Newari people of the Kathmandu valley brought the dish with them from Tibet. Whatever the case may be, there is no denying the widespread popularity of Momo among Tibetans both at home and abroad. Don’t eat them during Losar (Tibetan New Year) however; it’s bad luck. According to Wangdu, the closed form of the dumpling is seen as unlucky during a period that celebrates giving and plenty.

    Momo are not limited to the traditional steamed beef dumplings. Deep-fried beef momo and kothe momo, which is steamed, pan-fried, and doused in vegetable broth, are two of my favourite dishes. Other types of momo include the mouse-shaped tsi-tsi, which are often used in the hearty soup mothuk. Vegetable, chicken, yak, and pig momo are only a few of the varieties (common in the Amdo region and Central Tibet). Chura momo, stuffed with cheese from female yaks (dri), is a popular dessert option.’

    One reviewer said, “Steaming hot beef momo are the hamburgers of the Himalayas.”

    Despite their popularity among the Himalayan diaspora, I will never share the same enthusiasm for momo as the locals there. Hot and steamy beef momo are the Himalayan equivalent of hamburgers; they are a national delicacy that are often served at social occasions. In other words: “Why should we care so much about a hamburger?” For some reason, a Tibetan proverb keeps popping into my head. “It’s basically some ground beef sandwiched between two slices of bread.”

    Despite its widespread acclaim, momo aren’t something most people eat on a regular basis because of the effort required to prepare them. On the other hand, as Wangdu points out, “it doesn’t take too much of a special occasion for Tibetans to create a party out of manufacturing momo, assembling a lot of friends to manufacture them” assembly-line manner. A pleasant way to spend a brisk day.

    Tsampa-eating People as a Nation

    Momo is a staple of Tibetan cuisine, but tsampa is a more fundamental meal that is as intrinsically Tibetan as the Himalayas. Since the fifth century AD, roasted barley flour has been a staple diet in Tibet. It has become such an integral part of Tibetan culture that it even has its own font. And in case you were wondering, a Tibetan hip-hop musician also wrote a song titled “Tsampa.” Indeed, Tibetans often refer to themselves as tsampa-eaters, or po mi tsamsey, and there are various idioms surrounding tsampa. Personally, I can’t choose just one! To deceive oneself with a sprinkling or tossing of tsampa is called tsampa sholpa. One more: Eating dry tsampa while playing the flute at the same time is referred to as tsampa gam lingbu tang in Tibetan.

    Mixing salty butter tea with dried dri cheese and occasionally sugar results in a stiff dough that may be rolled into little balls called pa and eaten raw (though they are generally served with a sauce or gravy). Pa was a staple food that was consumed at each and every meal back in the day. According to Wangdu, “travellers, who pack a leather bag for mixing the ingredients on the road,” consume it often nowadays in Central Tibet.

    Although pa is simple to prepare, it is not a dish that everyone enjoys. According to Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu, creator of the website Shadow Tibet, “when Chinese Communist troops first arrived to Tibet and attempted to eat tsampa, they choked and gagged on the powdery stuff—much to the amazement of Tibetan observers.” Furthermore, he states that tsampa, a dry, powdery food staple in Tibet, is genuinely consumed by the locals. The technique is known as tsang-gam, and the key to not having a horrible choking attack is to never inhale while doing it.

    Happily, the tsampa served in Tibetan restaurants is an altogether different story. Earthy sweet and silky, it makes a great vehicle for spicy sauce, achar, or any other condiment you would choose. In fact, the majority of tsampa I’ve had has a nutty, soothing flavour reminiscent of a richer, more Tibetan version of Cream of Wheat. Breakfast cham-dur, a kind of tsampa, is often referred to on Tibetan menus as “tsampa porridge.” To make a thick and creamy sauce, the flour is combined with butter, powdered cheese, a pinch of sugar, and either hot tea or milk.

    Flatbread with Tibetan Noodles

    Breads, generally known as balep, are fundamental to Tibetan cuisine and, contrary to popular perception, wheat flour is commonly used instead of barley flour. Amdo balep, a circular loaf, tingmo buns, fried in butter, and numtrak balep, a fluffy fried bread, are all staples of the Tibetan diet, served with butter tea and a generous helping of spicy condiments.

    Noodles, too, are an option. Tibetans, from nomadic people to the Dalai Lama, have a strong preference for noodles over tsampa. Among them are the hearty thukpa soups, which are filled to the brim with noodles of varying shapes and sizes and usually have soft bits of meat for added substance. Some of the more crucial ones are listed below.

    Thukpa bhatuk: Hand-rolled bhatsa noodles are frequently likened to Italian gnocchi because of its ovoid form. Unlike their potato-based counterparts, each bite of Tibetan wheat pasta is designed to cradle a little of the soup’s flavorful beef broth. Classical preparations ask for meat, garlic, onion, daikon radish, cilantro, spinach, tomato, and scallion to be added to the pasta and stock.

    Thenthuk: Thenthuk means “pull noodles” because the noodles are made by pulling out little pieces of dough and tossing them into a kettle of boiling water. Ginger, garlic, and onion are often used to season the broth, which is then augmented with cooked meat. The thentuk at Lhasa Fast Food in Jackson Heights is a big deal. Wheat noodles, sweet potato noodles, beef shin pieces, green and red peppers, and wood ear fungus fill the dish. One of the most soothing soups is this one, which has been doctored up with chile, soy, and black vinegar.

    Thukpa gyathuk: Noodles prepared in the manner of Chinese lo mein and topped with minced beef or chicken are served in a light broth known as thukpa gyathuk.

    Laping: Robyn Lee Laping is a well-liked summertime street meal that consists of spicy chilled mung bean noodles seasoned with red chilli peppers, chilli oil, cilantro, scallions, and copious quantities of garlic. It’s a refreshing and warming meal at the same time.

    On Cheese

    Butter tea and other Tibetan staples wouldn’t be possible without dairy; dri milk curds and cheeses are used in a broad range of traditional Tibetan recipes. For instance, churpi is produced by dicing dried yoghurt into little cubes and hanging them on yak-hair necklaces. The cubes of rock-hard, smoky food need many hours of chewing—or, more accurately, sucking and scraping away—making them a great lunch for a trek…or, perhaps, a five-hour writing session about Tibetan cuisine. No one has, as far as I know, composed a rap song on the wonders of churpi. Mine came from Himalayan Connection, a Jackson Heights specialty shop where I found it under the somewhat deceptive name “Hard Dried Cheese Candy.” I was told that Rocky, the owner’s dog, really enjoys chewing on it.

    ‘Most of my American friends don’t like churpi because it’s too hard and tastes odd,’ adds Wangdu. “I don’t know why, but I really like it. My loved ones and I like it in butter tea.” Chura kampo, curd in the shape of squiggles that have a sweet lactic tang and are a child favourite, is also available at Himalayan Connection. And then there’s chu rul, whose strong perfume is reminiscent of Taleggio. Phayul in Jackson Heights serves a soup with it called tsak sha chu rul. When you order a bowl of the hot beef noodle soup, the waiter may ask, “Have you tasted it before?” What is it? Indeed, I have done so. The same goes for you; you should, too.

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