A Short Story Behind the Wall of Flavour by Thupten Tsewang
When we come across ‘Momo’ counters in Delhi, do we think of Tibetan Cuisine? I am not sure.
Usually, the people attending the counters are mostly either from Nepal or from India’s North-east. Moreover, the ingredients have evolved so much to suit urban tastes that if we were to present the authentic Momo, I am afraid customers may not even like it!
Anyway, that’s the story of Tibetan cuisine. Even the stories inside Tibet are no different. With the massive influx of Chinese migrants, Tibetans have become a minority in their land, and so has Tibetan cuisine.
Historically, Tibet has had a close relationship with its neighbouring countries such as Mongolia, China, Nepal, and India. Along with cultural influences, there is bound to be some influence on the country’s cuisine. However, because of Tibet’s unique geographical location, extreme weather, and treacherous terrain, the staple food of Tibetans has remained almost unaltered for several centuries, which is true even now.
It was almost impossible to grow anything in Tibet, especially in areas where the lifestyle is nomadic. It was only highland barley that emerged as the superstar among all the ingredients that were available indigenously or from neighbouring countries. I believe barley is also a binding force among the three provinces of Tibet even though the dialects are sometimes challenging to understand when people converse. Since I was young, I used to wonder, Buddhism has transmigrated to Tibet successfully, but how come the rich Indian cuisines and varied form of music didn’t reach us. Well, I can understand now partially due to the geographical reasons coupled with the priority of the travellers who visited India.
The remarkable yak and dri (female) are also integral to the evolution of Tibetan cuisine. Again, due to extreme weather conditions, Tibetans are heavy meat eaters and consumers of dairy products. Both the yak and dri play essential roles, and it is the latter whose dairy products keep the women of the house busy from dawn to dusk. There is no such thing as ‘Yak Butter’, and you now know why! Men usually look after grazing and some hunting when required. Deeply Buddhist, Tibetans don’t kill animals for fun or more than what that they need; proper rituals and prayers are always observed before doing so.
Barley’s importance is enormous in Tibet. It is not only easy to grow but also widely accepted too. Highland barley is unique and exclusive to Tibet. Scientific research findings also explain the same. Over the centuries, barley has not only become the staple food but found an essential place in the religion as well as the culture of Tibet. Barley and barley flours are used extensively on occasions such as the Tibetan New Year ‘Losar’, Buddhist rituals, and even funeral ceremonies.
The highland barley grains are roasted and then grinding takes place under natural flowing stream mills. The whole process involves a considerable amount of community work and looks like some festivity in the neighbourhood. I still remember, when my mother and couple of ladies from the area, plan the whole process meticulously and we children used to have great fun watching them and eating hot roasted barley grains, which somewhat looks the tiniest version of pop-corn.
As my late mother used to say, for a nomadic family, there isn’t a specific time for meals; hence, you can have Tsampa anytime and anywhere. The most common way of eating Tsampa is in ‘Pa‘ – usually made by mixing it with tea, butter, sugar, and dried cheese. The most common way is then to put it straight into your mouth by squeezing it into smaller pieces with your hand.
Another typical habit of many Tibetans is drinking Tibetan Tea or Bodcha. In popular culture, tea is prepared as either salted butter tea or black tea. Tibetans are happy to drink at least a few dozen cups from morning till late night!
For making salted butter tea, a special churner called Dongmo (a cylindrical length of wood about three to four feet in height) is used – this is to mix hot water, milk, butter, and salt. Each family HAS to have one of these ‘appliances’. My mother would keep her collection of Dongmos in super condition by attending to them every day. However, surprisingly, by the time I was an adult, her habit of drinking had changed to sweet tea, but with a pinch of butter on the rim of the cup. Perhaps that’s the perfect example of living in India with your roots in Tibet. I still have the last piece of my mother’s Dongmo, which has now become an object of reverence for me.
Festivity and Occasions
There are certain occasions where certain kinds of foods are more dominant and popular. One such food item is Khabsay. You could call it a Tibetan-style deep-fried snack made of wheat flour. There are various kinds of Khabsay in varied sizes and shapes among which Bungu Amchok (Donkey-Ear) is specially made during the Tibetan New Year, mainly for decoration purpose for few days and later of course enjoyed by all the family members with Bodcha. One of the interesting articles on Khabsay is written by our fellow Tibetan Jamyang Norbu la (https://www.jamyangnorbu.com/blog/2010/01/30/dipping-a-donkey-ear-in-butter-tea/)
Dresil, a bowl of lightly sweet rice with butter, sugar, raisins, and droma (a small, slightly sweet tuber) served on special occasions such as religious affairs and marriage ceremonies.
Bhartsa-Marku, is somewhat like a sweet Tibetan macaroni, again, made of wheat flour and cheese, served primarily during the religious fasting practice of Nyungne.
Guthuk, a variety of Tibetan soupy noodles, is eaten two days before the Tibetan New Year. The speciality is that it consists of nine items which predict the nature of those whosoever receives it in their bowl.
Stories from Exile
My earliest memories of childhood are from Manali in Himachal Pradesh, a state in India’s north, where I was born. My mother and father were young exiles from Tibet during the 1960s. During several years of living in India, my mother would often fondly remember how the locals of Manali, especially of Palchaan, treated them so well. They would offer local produce along with the Tibetans who were mostly road labourers and made the entire stretch of road from Manali to Leh. Tibetan dishes like Thenthuk, Shabakleb, Momos, Tingmo, Dropa-Khatsa, Gyuma, LowaKhatsa, Shabtra, Bodcha and Chang are some of the old dishes that they enjoyed even though living conditions were very hard. However, with time and experience, many Tibetans gradually started adjusting their eating habits.
A range of vegetables and cereals were introduced slowly to their eating varieties. Except for that of a few elderly Tibetans, I would say our daily food consumption is not so different from any other Indian’s. In that context, His Holiness the Dalai Lama used to proclaim that he is a ‘Son of India’ since, for the last many decades, most of us have been surviving on Indian Daal and Roti. Having said that, on special occasions and in most of the Tibetans areas in India, we still enjoy having our typical Tibetan food either at home or in small restaurants.
Popular Tibetan Food:
Tsampa & Bodcha
As briefly mentioned earlier, Tsampa and Bodcha have become an essential part of Tibetan Identity. In Tibet, this proclamation still stands, I believe. But for Tibetans outside Tibet, they would love to associate with these two essential preparations but savouring them in daily life is something that has dwindled drastically. Perhaps, because of the environment or influences from the immediate contacts in everyday life.
Tibetans eat a lot of dairies – from fresh dri, goat or cow cheese to yoghurt to cheese dried in rock-hard, bite-sized squares called Churra that you can suck on, sort of like a dairy jawbreaker. Recently, a friend of mine has shown me a delicious-looking packed of Tibetan styled cheese specially made of dogs, welcome the modern world of e-commerce.
Tibetans eat plenty of wheat bread, not ‘barley bread’. The most common bread is small round flatbreads called Baglep Korkun, crusty yeasted round loaves called Amdo Baglep, steamed buns called Tingmo, and deep-fried poofy bread called Numtrak Baglep.
Momos are the most popular food among the Tibetans. They can be made with both vegetable (though with limited varieties) and meats either as fried, steamed or served in soup. Despite being one of the most delicious delicacies, the Momo requires skill and patience; the whole process could be quite challenging and tedious. Despite that, it is one of the widely enjoyed activities in the family or when you decide to have a gathering among your friends.
The Shabakleb, a deep-fried bread stuffed with minced meat and vegetables, is as delicious as Momo.
A Bowl of Thukpa
Thukpa is a noodle soup of various types. Its warming effect in the cold weather has made it the household dish for many centuries. It is usually made with meat and radish, and green if it’s readily available. Though finding green vegetables in highlands of Tibet is quite a challenge. The noodles can be of various types, ranging from long spaghetti type to short flat ones to little conch shaped ones. Nowadays, however, both traditional methods and modern machines are used to prepare the noodles. Some of the varieties of Thukpa can be explained below, but its aroma and taste are hard to describe.
- Dethuk: includes yak or sheep soup stock along with rice, different types of Tibetan cheese and droma (a small root, which grows on grasslands throughout Tibet)
- Gyathuk: long spaghetti-type noodle soup
- Guthuk: a noodle soup in Tibetan cuisine that is eaten two days before Losar
- Thenthuk: hand-pulled noodle soup
- Bhagthuk: a typical Tibetan cuisine noodle soup that includes small handmade conch-shaped noodles
- Tsamthuk: prepared with yak or sheep soup stock and tsampa as well as a variety of Tibetan cheese
Contrary to popular belief, Tibetans are not usually vegetarian, and are heavy meat eaters, eating primarily yak and goat. The first-generation Tibetans in India during the 1960-70s had hard times as they had to change this habit. In the cold climatic region of Tibet, meat has played an essential role in people’s survival. It is difficult to grow vegetables on the Tibetan plateau, so Tibetan diets (at least in Central Tibet) have traditionally focused on barley, dairy products, and meat when the household could afford it.
- Yak Jerky: A big favourite is yak jerky, and it is popular to serve chunks of meat at the table which we cut pieces of with knives and dip in hot sauce, which Tibetans love to put on just about anything
- Shamdre: Meat with potatoes, rice, and crystal noodles
- Shabtra: A simple stir-fried meat dish
- DropaKhatsa: A spicy stir-fried tripe dish
- Gyuma: Sausage filled with blood and minced meat
- LowaKhatsa: Made of pieces of fried animal lung and spices
Chang: Tibetan Beer
Chang is the traditional and mostly homemade alcohol in Tibet. Highland barley, millet, and rice grains are the primary ingredients for Chang. As traditional alcohol, it is the most popular drink during Tibetan festivals and on other special occasions, such as wedding ceremonies, religious ceremonies etc. However, Chang can also be made with rice, which is mostly the case with Tibetans living outside Tibet. In Tibet’s social structure, Chang is often given to guests to welcome them. Chang has a great cultural significance and is commonly used as a tool even to settle disputes. During the early years of settlement in India, many Tibetan resorted to the sale of Chang for survival. The small settlement of Majnu-Ka-Tilla in Delhi became the major hub for sales of such homemade liquor. However, that is not the case now, after an appeal received from His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the early ’80s, a course of life was changed due to sporadic consumption by poor local Indians.
Few recipes to make authentic Tibetan food
Momo: Tibetan Dumpling
- 4 cups of flour. For a healthier option, we can use wheat flour; however, refined flour will be much tastier.
- 1 to 1½ cup of water approximately
Put the flour in a large bowl, make a well in the centre. Slowly add the water, and start mixing it with the flour – use just enough water for the dough to hold. Then knead until firm but supple — the more you knead, the better the dough.
- 1 kg Minced Meat
- ½ kg of finely chopped Onions
- Two stalks of finely chopped Spring Onion
- Small bunch finely chopped Coriander leaves
- One tablespoon of Oil
- Two tablespoons of Soya Sauce
- ¼ cup of water
- Salt & Black Pepper for taste
- A little dash of Erma (Sichuan peppercorn) if available easily
In a large bowl, add the meat, chopped veggies, and the remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Best to use your hands and dig into the bowl and gently mix it all up well. Adding a little water, and the celery and greens will contribute to making juicy momos.
Making the dumplings:
1. Divide the dough into four parts
2. Traditional method: Take a portion and shape it into a long roll. Then pinch off small portions from one end. Shape each portion, rolling it in both your palms into a ball shape. Then flatten each ball and using a rolling pin, shape it into approximately 3″-3½” flat circle, this is your momo skin.
3. Take a piece of flattened dough, add a spoonful of your mixture and then shape your momos, starting from one end; close the skin together from side to side. The point is to try and not overlap the skin too much so that you don’t end up with a thick layer of folded dough on the top. This part takes some practice.
4. Oil your steamer tray, and line up the momos in the plate close enough but not touching. Add water to steamer bottom; once it begins to boil, stack up the steamer trays on it.
This step is essential as over-steaming can ruin your momos – all the juices will disappear. Steaming momos usually takes anywhere from 12 – 15 minutes depending on the size of your momos, the strength of your stove burner, and where you are – remember altitude counts – water boiling point is lower at sea level than at higher elevations, so you need to increase cooking time.
How to tell if your Momo is done:
- Lift the lid and check the steamer; if it is dry, the momos are done. If it is wet, then they aren’t.
- Take the cover off and touch one of the momos with your fingertips. If it is sticky, it still needs steaming – if it is not, then it should be done.
- Third full-proof method – take a momo out, cut it open, and check if it is done!!!
Thenthukor ‘Pull’ Noodle Soup
- 1 kg Meat with Bone
- Ginger, Onion, Spring Onion
- ¼ teaspoon Erma (Szechuan pepper), ¼ teaspoon whole Pepper and Salt
3 cups of Wheat Flour
- 1 Egg
- 1 ½ – 2 cups of water
- Vegetable Oil
- ½ Onion – chopped
- Three cloves of finely chopped Garlic
- ½ kg Meat, sliced into thin bite-size pieces
- 300 gm of radish, sliced into thin bit size pieces
- Spring Onion, for garnish
- Salt and Soya Sauce
Put all the ingredients in a large pot, fill it with water halfway through and bring it to a boil. Once it boils, bring the flame down and let it simmer for 45 minutes or so. Occasionally, you can skim off the scum that builds over the soup liquid. Add just a little salt to flavour the meat but not too much as you’re going to use the soup later and it will get salty then.
Put the flour in a large bowl, make a well in the centre. Add one egg and slowly add the water and knead the dough until it is firm but supple. Now, flatten the dough and slice it into strips about one inch wide. Add a little oil, and let it sit covered on a plate. This is your thenthuk dough ready to be pulled. (You can bypass the egg, but the egg addition makes the noodle a little firmer – it absorbs less liquid and keeps its firm).
The first step is to make the radish. In a pan, add a little oil and fry the radish on a medium flame by itself until it becomes nice and golden. Once browned, leave it aside – it will be added to the soup at a later stage.
In a big pot, add the oil, onion, and garlic, and let the onion brown. Add the meat, a dash of black pepper, salt to taste and as it browns, a dash of soya sauce to flavour the meat. Once the meat is nicely browned, add your strained soup stock and bring it to a boil, letting the meat cook nicely.
Finally, add the browned radish, and now you are ready to throw your thenthuk. Basically, take one of the strips of oiled dough, flatten it out with your fingers and gently pull it till it is flat like a long ribbon. Now, starting with one end, break of square thumb-size piece from the end and throw it directly into the soup. Keep repeating – the trick is not to get the steam on your hands, so, stay a little clear of the soup pot and throw the dough into the soup. If this is too hard, you can pull off longer strips and add them to the soup. After adding all the dough, cover, bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let stand for two minutes, and your soup is ready to serve. Garnish with chopped spring onion.
First, serve the boiled meat accompanied by some nice spicy hot sauce. Next, serve the bowls of thenthuk along with a side vegetable or two.