A Taste of Tibet

Tibet is very high up on my list of places to visit and I’m hoping to make it there in the next few years.  While on a trip to Sichuan province I was able to get a preview of traditional Tibetan food and whet my appetite for this little-known cuisine. Tibetan food  abounds in northern Sichuan because the region used to be part of Tibet and the cultural and culinary influence remains.  Prayer flags colorfully paint the landscape and the locals still abide by their own customs and traditions next to their Han Chinese neighbors.

The first obvious Tibetan influence was the predominant source of protein.  Pork is king throughout most of China, but here yak rules.  The hills of this mountainous region are dotted with these stocky furry animals.  My first yak meal was simply stir-fried yak, seasoned with cumin, fresh green chilies dried red chilies and scallions.  While most mountain-dwelling animals tend to have tough meat and this was a pleasant surprise, the yak was melt-in-your-mouth tender.

Yak (1)

Yak is also the perfect portable food for days spent exploring the mountain terrain.  In the valley towns there are many shops specializing in yak meat.  Some tourists buy boiled yak meat to hold them over on a day of hiking or for the less messy option choose yak jerky.  Jerky has always been a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts and there’s no reason why yak couldn’t be the next preferred choice.  The meat was sweet and delicious and can keep you going all day.

Yak (2)

To break up your day of trekking you can stop by a Tibetan restaurant, rest your feet, and reenergize with some butter tea, po cha.  I had romanticized the idea of luscious creamy butter mixed with dark fragrant tea, but this was not the case.  This was a slab of yak butter, very different from cow milk butter.  While I like my tea with a bit of sugar (blasphemous by some standards), yak tea is flavored with salt; something that is very strange to western taste buds and which sounds better than it actually is.

Butter Tea (2)

At a traditional Tibetan dinner I sampled several dishes to have a broader understanding of the cuisine including the most well-known ones such as momos and tsampa. Momos are the Tibetan answer to dumplings, a yeast dough filled with meat, vegetables or a mixture of both.  In this instance they were filled with yak meat.  The momo skins were much heavier and denser than their eastern counterparts, but the filling was flavorful and a steamer basketful was served with a spicy tomato based sauce.

Momos (1)

Next was the tsampa, buckwheat dumplings (without a filling); roasted buckwheat mixed with a yak dairy, either butter or milk.  The tsampa was dense in texture and sweet in flavor.  I ordered them along with a pureed spinach soup.  It crumbled when pressure was applied and I broke it up into my soup.

Tsampa

The star of the evening was a hearty stew of chopped yak and peppers topped with diced potatoes in a rich meaty gravy,  reminiscent of a shepherd’s pie.  It was definitely what was in order after a long day of physical exertion; filling and stick to your ribs.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised with my first exposure to Tibetan food.  Somethings I can’t wait to try again and others I know I will forgo the next time around.  The food represents the environment where the people live.  There is no lack of sustenance in their food and you will never walk away feeling hungry.  The flavors are of what the land provides them, earthy herbs, hearty meats and filling starches.

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