While Tibetan food has a reputation for being quite exotic, the great majority of the most common Tibetan recipes can be made with common ingredients and kitchen utensils.
There are some unusual ingredients, and it helps to have access to a good Asian foods market, but almost none of the unusual ingredients are essential to make normal Tibetan recipes. In almost every case, you can substitute a common ingredient for everything you need. (See the Cook’s Thesaurus for great ides on what to substitute for many different ingredients.)
In this post, we’ll talk about some of the ingredients that you may be challenged to find, and some ideas on where to buy them, or how to substitute for them. If you want to try the recipes mentioned in this post, many of them are available on our site, and all of them can be found in our Tibetan Home Cooking cookbook 🙂
Tsampa, which is roasted barley flour, is the one ingredient that is both quite unusual for non-Tibetan cultures, and not really substitutable in Tibetan recipes.There are a few shops we can recommend for getting tsampa. Please let them know we sent you 🙂 We can recommend buying from Ann at Purple Mountain Tsampa, who makes tsampa fresh to order from hull-less barley, a “whole food” barley grown without a hull, and nutritionally superior to “pearled” or “hulled barley.” Contact Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, our friend Samten la sells bags of tsampa from her Cafe Tibet restaurant in Berkeley, California, at 2020 University. Her phone is 510.548.5553. You might like to check out these tsampa snack balls recipes, a modern twist on traditional tsampa dishes.
Dri Cheese and Butter (Commonly called “Yak” Cheese and Butter)
The butter and dried cheese in some Tibetan recipes (such as for pa and bhatsa marku) comes from the milk of the female yak, the dri. Pictured here is chu ship, dried dri cheese in small pieces. We have not found any sources outside of Tibet that sell these. Tibetans in exile get them directly from relatives inside Tibet or certain parts of India. However, we can substitute some hard western cheese for the dried dri cheese. Parmesan, Asiago, or Romano cheeses work all fairly well. They do do not actually taste like dri cheese, which is quite unique, but the texture is close enough, and the dishes taste good.
Yak meat is the most commonly eaten meat in Tibet, and is prepared any number of ways, including raw and dried, as well as in the popular momo dishes, noodle soups and labsha. The only way we know that we and others in the Tibetan community get yak meat is to go to Tibet or to get some dried yak from traveling Tibetans. As a substitute many people use beef, as we do here for our meat recipes. We have seen some yak meat for sale online but have not tried this ourselves. The meat is quite mild and lean.
Yerma, or Emma (Commonly called Szechuan pepper)
Tibetans often use this very tasty, tiny, slightly numbing and citrusy “pepper” in hot sauces, meat dishes and in trang tsel. It is commonly called Szechuan pepper, but is actually a fruit. You should experiment with very small quantities and grind the dried peppercorns very well with a mortar and pestle before using. Emma is sort of like Japanese wasabi in that you don’t want to get a big piece of it in one bite. The amounts we use in the recipes does not leave your mouth numb unless you happen to get a whole pod, which you can avoid by grinding the emma well and mixing the ground mixture well with the other ingredients. Look for dried “Szechuan” or “Sichuan” pepper or “prickly ash” in Asian food stores. We have not tried this shop so cannot give a personal recommendation, but we found emma for sale online on Amazon.*
Droma is a small, highly nutritious root that is harvested on the grasslands of Tibet and eaten especially for Tibetan holidays, like Losar (Tibetan New Year), as we mention in our dresil (sweet rice) recipe. Unfortunately, it is another ingredient that we have not found except in Tibet or perhaps the markets of Nepal. Although droma is tasty and unusual (sort of similar to a tiny sweet potato), don’t worry if you can’t get it, since most Tibetans outside Tibet also don’t have good access to it, and tend to eat their dresil without it. Instead, for sweetness we use raisins or other dried fruit.
We use bok choy or baby bok choy in our momo recipes, as well as for sha and shamey balep. Bok choy, also called Chinese chard or Chinese cabbage, is a crisp green with edible stems and leaves that is available in most Asian markets. As a substitute, you can use Napa cabbage, broccoli, Swiss chard, celery or collard greens. (We don’t recommend mustard greens.) Of course each of these will taste a bit different than bok choy, but what we’re aiming for when we add them to momos or sha balep is a blended flavor with the meat or other vegetables, so it’s not a problem.
Labu — Daikon
The large white radish that much of the world knows as daikon and that Tibetans call labu apparently originated in continental Asia. Tibetans use it in noodle soups, and cooked with yak, beef and mutton. Like bok choy, you can find daikon in almost any Asian food store. If you are not near one, there are substitutes. For our thenthuk and thukpa bhathuk recipes, you could use red radish or turnips. We have also used potatoes at times, though you have to be sure they don’t cook the potatoes down too much. For the labsha recipe in our Tibetan Home Cooking cookbook, we suggest trying red radish, though the typical red radish will be spicier than the mild daikon, or jicama, if you can get that. Jicama will be a bit sweeter than labu.
We offer instructions on how to hand-make all the wrappers for all our recipes for momos or mothuk, but if you don’t have time to make the dumpling wrappers yourself, you can buy round dumpling wrappers in many major grocery stores. They might also be called wonton, potsticker, gyoza or shu mai wrappers. These will taste a bit different than the kind we make, but they will work. If needed, you can also buy square wrappers and cut the corners to make them round, or just experiment with square shapes.
Shiitake mushrooms have a wonderful earthy flavor and we use them as a substitute for Tibetan mushrooms, sesha, which we cannot get outside of Tibet. For our recipes you can use fresh or dried shiitake mushrooms. Just soak the dried ones for 30 minutes before using. If you cannot find shiitakes, you can use crimini mushrooms, straw mushrooms, chanterelles, or just good old white mushrooms instead. The shiitake’s are definitely more flavorful. We have not tried this dried shiitake mushrooms seller on Amazon* but they get good reviews.
* We are Amazon Affiliates so get a small commission when you click through and buy an Amazon product. We never suggest a product that we don’t believe will be helpful to our community 🙂I
Tibetan Home Cooking
Bring joy to the people you love by making your own delicious, authentic Tibetan meals
Paula Reed says
I live in Portland, OR, USA and we are blessed to have ranchers from Bend, OR called Pine Mountain Ranch who raise bison, cows and YAKS!! The owners Allan and Lauretta are very nice and helpful. They offer yak meat in stew chunks, bones, various steak cuts and my favorite as a former vegetarian, ground yak meat- a very easy to digest and highly nutritious life saver! These are for sale year-round at the Portland Farmers Market and Hillsdale Farmers Market.
I manage social media for a local farm and write recipes and flavor recommendations using our produce, honey and eggs along with other local sources. I love to recreate recipes from my time in India and other places with our wealth of diverse local ingredients, so very happy to find your website. Do you have any recipes using wild honey?
I am interested in finding authentic Tibetan recipes to use. When I was traveling in India I met a kind Tibetan monk in McCleod-Ganj who mentioned the precious memories of eating barbequed yak meat in his village as a child. Do you know what seasoning they might have used or how it was prepared?
**Also there may still be a yak rancher in the North Idaho area who was selling yak meat (in 2012 when I was there last) at the Sandpoint Farmers Market in Farmin Park.
linda confalone says
re: substitutions for yak meat
i have never had yak meat, but from your description i am thinking that a good fit might be moose meat. i atee this all the time while in alaska. it is very light and has a nicer flavor than beef ( not a strong “beefy” taste.
Thanks, alaskababa, for this fascinating suggestion. Do you no where to get moose besides in Alaska?