Eleven Sometimes Surprising Facts about Tibetan Food
Test how much you really know about Tibetan cuisine with the list below. Give yourself a point for every fact in the list below you already knew, and please tell us in the comments below how well you did, or if you know any other facts that we should add :-)
- Contrary to popular belief, Tibetans are not usually vegetarian, and are in fact heavy meat eaters, eating primarily yak, beef, mutton, and goat. The great majority of Tibetans are Tibetan Buddhists, but not vegetarian. It is difficult to raise 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. A big favorite is yak jerky, and it’s popular to serve hunks of meat to the table which we cut pieces off with knives and dip in hot sauce, which Tibetans love to put on just about anything. It’s very common to serve meat in shamdrey, which is meat with potatoes, rice and crystal noodles, or as a more simple fried meat dish, shaptra. Tibetans do traditionally eat some veggies, but only hardy vegetables can survive in Tibet, like cabbage, radish, turnip, green peas, carrot, potato, mustard and green onion. In the countryside, families keep radish and potatoes all year by keeping them in a deepish hole dug in the family house compound, covered by hay.
- The staple food of Tibet is tsampa, which is flour made from roasted highland barley. Tibetans in fact, are collectively referred to as tsampa-eaters (po mi tsamsey). The most common way to eat tsampa is in pa which is made from tsampa, mixed with various combinations of tea, butter, sugar and dried cheese.
- The most common drink in Tibet is butter tea — po cha — black tea churned with milk, salt and butter. The milk and butter come from cows or dri (see next item). People are known to drink this all day, sometimes 20 or more cups a day.
- There’s no such thing as “yak butter” or “yak cheese.” Only the male of the species is called a yak in Tibet. The females, called dri, produce the butter, cheese, yogurt and milk used in Tibetan cooking, so what is commonly referred to as “yak” cheese or butter is actually “dri” butter or cheese. Tibetans eat a lot of dairy, from fresh dri or cow cheeses, to yogurt to cheeses dried in rock-hard, bite-sized squares called churra that you can suck on, sort of like a dairy jawbreaker. In markets you are likely to find fresh dri cheeses, while in homes in the countryside in central Tibet, for example, there will more likely be homemade cow cheese.
- Tibetans eat a lot of wheat bread, not “barley bread.” Because barley and tsampa are so common, people sometimes mistakenly think that Tibetans eat a bunch of barley bread. In Central Tibet, at least, no one makes bread from barley. Honestly, we’ve never heard of Tibetans from any region of Tibet cooking this, though we’ve heard of some inji recipes for it, which do not look very popular, like one in the well-known Tassajara Bread Book. Actually, we might try making it sometime ;-) The most common breads are small round flatbreads called balep korkun, crusty yeasted round loaves called Amdo balep, steamed buns called tingmo and deep fried poofy breads called numtrak balep.
- Momos are the most beloved Tibetan food. These are vegetarian or meat dumplings that are fried, steamed or served in soup. Though everyone loves them and most Tibetans know how to make them, momos are not a daily food because they take a fair amount of work to make. But it doesn’t take too much of a special occasion for Tibetans to make a party out of making momos, gathering a bunch of friends to make them production style :-)
- Shabalep — savory, hot meat or veg pies — are very nearly as beloved as momos. Like momos, they take a lot of work to make, but no one cares too much about that when you get a craving for some. For a laugh, check out this great, funny rap song about shapalep. (The medallion shabaleps are way bigger than normal by the way :-)
- Thukpa — noodle soups of all types — are popular, probably because they are so warming. The noodle soups — thenthuk, thukpa barthuk, thukpa gyathuk, thukpa tsamthuk, to name a few — are usually made with meat and radish and greens if you have some. The noodles are many styles, ranging from long spaghetti noodles to little gnochhi-like shapes to the flat “pull” noodles of thenthuk, and all of them are traditionally hand made, though in Lhasa, Lobsang’s family used to bring flour and eggs to a noodle maker and they would make them for you.
- Tibetans do not traditionally eat fish. Although there are amazing rivers and lakes full of fish in many areas of Tibet, the people don’t typically eat fish or sea food. A commonly held belief is that it is better to eat large animals than fish or small animals, since less lives need to be sacrificed to feed the same amount of people. So Tibetans were all shaking their heads over that Groupon commercial in the Super Bowl a little while back that talked about a great “Tibetan fish stew.” Some Tibetan restaurants around the world may make stuff like this, but it’s in no way a normal Tibetan dish.
- There aren’t really any traditional Tibetan desserts. There are sweet dishes, like dresil, the lightly sweet rice with butter, sugar, raisins and droma (a small, slightly sweet tuber) served on special occasions. And like bhatsa marku, which is sort of like a sweet Tibetan macaroni and cheese, and khapsay, the lightly sweetened Tibetan New Year cookie. But really, Tibetan cuisine is not the place to look if you have a big sweet tooth.
- One of the most common foods for Tibetans in exile is rice and dahl. Since so many exiled Tibetans pass through Nepal and or India in their lives, or live there, rice and dahl is an extremely common dish in Tibetan homes. In Tibet itself, however, rice and dahl are hardly eaten.
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By Lobsang Wangdu