Posted on | February 14, 2010 | No Comments
For many years, when one mentioned Tibet, one tended to think of an inaccessible, faraway place, high up on a plateau surrounded by a ring of snow-capped mountains, with wide-open spaces inhabited by nomadic yak herders, and, monks, living in ancient, fortress-like monasteries.
Nowadays, much of what is written about Tibet tends to be about it’s political situation, it’s economy, and how the Tibetans’ culture and ways of life are being eroded by the modern aspects of 21st Century life which is now prevalent in it’s capital city, Lhasa, and are fast spreading to other outlying areas.
There isn’t a lot written (in English) about Tibetan cuisine, and I have a few hypotheses on why this may be so.
Firstly, travellers will usually be the ones who write about their experiences wherever they end up visiting. In the case of Tibet, most travellers tend to be overwhelmed by everything else that they encounter (all the sights, sounds, and experiences), that they tend to miss out on writing about what they ate.
Most of the time, all they would remember to write about, was the bowls of Hot Yak Butter Tea offered to them… Everything else that they would have eaten would have seemed somewhat underwhelming, compared to the overall experience of being in Tibet.
Secondly, for the foreign tourist travelling with a tour group (the only way for a foreign tourist to even enter Tibet these days), meals would have been arranged by the Tour Organiser, and Tibetan dishes would probably be featured in a meal or two for the entire duration of the trip.
The travel agent that I had used for my trip to Tibet gave me a bemused look, after I had told her that I wanted ALL my meals to be Tibetan. “Are you sure…?”, she asked, looking very concerned. “Most Singaporeans will want to eat anything else by the second day!”, she continued, trying to convince me that 6 days of Tibetan meals would make even the most seasoned travellers balk.
But, I insisted that I wasn’t the typical Singaporean tourist when it came to food, and that I had an academic interest in everything to do with food and drink… After some negotiations, I settled for Tibetan meals to be organised for all lunches for the duration of the trip, leaving dinner to be settled on my own account and breakfast, with the compliments of the hotel I was to stay at. I could see her shaking her head quite sadly, and hear her sighing, as I left the Travel Agency Office.
A month later, when I arrived in Lhasa, I met my Tibetan Tour Guide, perhaps the third reason why Tibetan Cuisine remains such a mystery to foreign travellers.
The Tour Guide was Tibetan, but had spent most of his life outside Tibet, leaving as a child refugee, and living mainly in Nepal, with a few years spent studying in Europe…
He spoke fluent Tibetan, Nepali, Putonghua, English, and even Italian, but, when it came to food, he wasn’t too fluent at explaining what the Tibetan dishes on the menus of the various eateries where we ate, were all about. The descriptions that he could provide, were rather vague and hazy at best…
I also noticed, that whenever he ordered his meal, it would be chosen from the Nepali section of the menu. It seemed to me, that he was more comfortable with the cuisine of his adopted childhood home. When I once asked him whether he ever ordered Tibetan dishes, he replied quite sadly, “Tibetan food upsets my stomach…”
The fourth reason becomes apparent once you’re in Tibet. The usual barrier of language pops up and trying to interpret what’s on the menu becomes extremely difficult…
Nowadays, most eateries catering to foreign tourist/travellers have menus in English, where “Western” or “Fusion” items like Yak Burger, Yak Steak, and Cheese Momos (dumplings) can be found, in addition to Indian, Nepali and Chinese dishes.
However, when it comes to the Tibetan section of the menu, most tourist will encounter strange and exotic sounding dishes, which the wait-staff won’t usually be able to describe, as most of them do not speak anything except Tibetan, sometimes Nepali, maybe some Putonghua, and perhaps, if you’re really lucky, a smattering of English.
The fifth reason, is as suggested by an expatriate hotel and restaurant owner in Lhasa, who was quite succinct, when he said; “Tibetans can’t cook”… According to this expatriate of more than 10 years, most of the cooks in eateries catering to foreign travellers tended to be Nepalese, whilst those catering to the Chinese, were obviously, Chinese…
So, if Tibetans can’t cook, what then do Tibetans eat?
Traditionally, Tibetan cuisine was based on a few basic ingredients that were available to them in their rather harsh, high altitude environment. The most important ingredients were, barley, yaks, salt, and tea.
Yak herders would roam the vast Tibetan Plateau with their herds of yaks, and, as they roamed with their herds, they would gather salt from saltpans and pick various medicinal herbs along the way. They would then trade the gathered salt and medicinal herbs, along with their yak products in exchange for Roasted Barley Flour, which would be grown by the farmers, and for tea, brought in by traders.
Roasted Barley Flour, or Tsampa, was, and still remains the main staple food of Tibetans. As this is already cooked, it can be eaten as it is, usually by the spoonful, and washed down with Hot Yak Butter Tea. Alternatively, the tsampa can be made into a ball of hard dough/bread called Pa, by mixing it, with what else but, Hot Yak Butter Tea.
Yaks were their main source of movable food, providing not only yak milk, yak yoghurt, yak butter, yak cheese, but also yak meat, which was normally air-dried, and eaten raw.
A typical Tibetan meal would consist of tsampa, washed down with lots of Hot Yak Butter Tea, some air-dried yak meat, and dessert would be yak yoghurt, perhaps with a bit of wild honey…
So, if the above is a typical Tibetan meal, what then did I eat during my trip to Tibet?
Find out on the next post, Tibet Special Part 2 – Eating in Lhasa.Copyright © MM - MMXII Daniel CHIA. All rights reserved.