Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Vive La Nouvelle Cuisine Tibétaine!

I’ve always felt Tibetan cooking was not as bad as some people thought. But you could say I grew up on that food and am biased, which is true. So I was flabbergasted when Sandrine from work told me over lunch that she loves Tibetan food. And not only did she take notice of the existence of something like Tibetan cooking she even said it was her preferred cuisine. Mind you, this was coming out of the mouth of a well-travelled French woman.

When I asked her what her favourite Tibetan dishes were she replied: “You know, those Momo, they are so delicious and also that curry with the chickpeas, absolutely delicious!”

Sandrine is a commuter who works out of town for three days and then returns to the countryside for the remainder of the week to be with her family. When in town, she stays in a small room with no kitchen and eats out regularly.

 “Is it authentique?”


Depending on your viewpoint, it could or could not be.

My reflex was: “Momo is as authentic as can be, chérie. We are the Land of Dumplings, the one and only Momo Country; our babies can say “Momo” before they can say “Mama” - and chickpea curry is fake!”


But what I actually said was more tempered: “Yes, it’s authentic. Momo is a typical dish. The chickpea curry is more contemporary Tibetan-style cooking, must be a specialty of that restaurant.”

Honestly, why should Tibetan cooking exhaust itself with classical best-sellers such as Momo or Shapalé?

Modern-day Tibetans enjoy the advantages of a globalised economy which obviously found its way also into many restaurants and private kitchens all over the planet: When we think about it, contemporary Tibetan cooking is as varied, nutritious and appealing as never before. In real life, Tibetan cooking has long been better than its reputation. Chickpea curry is only the beginning! 

So while our cuisine admittedly didn’t start out as la crème de la crème who says it has to stay that way until doomsday?

Tibetan cooking has its humble origins in the simple diet of farmers and herders who subside on lumps of dough (Pak), salty tea with butter in it (Bodcha), and dried raw meat (Shakam). But our ancestors have also continuously been adding new dishes to their menu that became “Tibetan” in the course of time. Even typical foods such as good old Momos or the popular lamb and potato curry (Shamdrè) were foreign imports at one point.

Likewise, should we not consider Indian Dal Bhat a typical Tibetan food by now? For so many Tibetans abroad it’s a familiar dish. Along the same lines that funny Chinese jelly-salad mish-mash known as Liangfen should be included too. When my relatives in Tibet come into town for business, their day is done only after slurping a bowl of spicy Liangfen before they head back home. Boy, did my dad miss Liangfen when he came to this country first! He was so desperate for it he used corn starch since mung bean starch was hard to come by in those days.


Both Dal and Liangfen have also been thoroughly Tibetanised in name: Dal for us is Dali and Liangfen is also called Leping or Labing. The popular pickled radish we call sönlabu is also a Chinese import as the treacherous name reveals. Would it ever cross our mind to not consider it a typical Tibetan dish although suan luobu (“sour radish”) is Chinese through and through as well as all the other pickled vegetables called yancai? In point of fact the Tibetanised mispronunciation is the ultimate indicator that these dishes have become “ours”. For once we can say, in culinary terms, China is part of Tibet!


So Tibetan cooking has always imported foreign foods and then naturalised them. The only difference between then and now is the improved, easy access to foreign foods and ingredients in our times. The trend confirms it: Tibetan cooks combine indigenous ingredients with a whole range of traditionally foreign ones to create new dishes for the Tibetan dinner table. Contemporary Tibetan cooking is evolving faster than in the old days and chances are it offers something for everyone’s taste.

I’m not much of a cook but as a married woman with children I simply have to cook regularly, so better try to do a good job in providing wholesome and tasty meals. I sometimes am also a wannabe nouvelle cuisine tibétaine cook. In addition, I try to pay attention to quality ingredients that meet Buddhist standards of avoiding harm: I opt for local, organic and fair trade produce; it’s more expensive but that’s supposed to be part of my practice of incorporating Dharma into daily life. Whatever waste is left from cooking is systematically recycled and properly composted. The habit comes in handy especially during these days when we’re in the middle of Saka Dawa, ha ha!

Happy hens

Enough theorising now!

Check out three real-life, field-tested recipes out of Mountain Phoenix’ green gourmet kitchen which expand the traditional Tibetan culinary experience and perhaps help to get a tiny step closer to enlightenment by starting out right with our dinner plates  - served with some personal anecdotes as a side-dish:

Precious Banana Garland 

(neo-Tib: Rinchen Banana Trengwa)

Precious Banana Garland

250 g soft butter
150 g brown sugar
1 pinch of salt
5 egg yokes
grated skin of 1 lemon
500 g ripe Bananas
4 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 shotglass of liquor
100 g Tsampa
80 g flour
15 g baking powder
75 g grounded almonds or hazelnuts
5 egg whites

Grease cake-pan and heat the oven to 200 degrees Celcius. Mix the butter and sugar; add egg yokes, grated skin of lemon and stir; peel and squash bananas, add liquour (use Arrak if you have or Cognac, Rum, Whiskey, anything will do) and lemon juice and mix; add the banana mix and sift flour with baking soda over the batter, add Tsampa, ground nuts and stir well; beat egg whites and gently fold into the batter; fill batter into cake-pan and bake for 70 – 80 minutes.

Of course the banana is not an indigenous Tibetan fruit. One of my friends was asked by a nomad who saw them pick-nicking in the grassland: “Aja, what’s that hand-like looking thing?” But where would all the cuisines in the world be if all their foods were cooked with indigenous ingredients only? The banana is as common in Tibet as anywhere else and is usually called xiangjiao. India-Tibetans know their banana inside out calling it kera; the politically over-correct too eat bananas opting for the long-winded and laboured shing tala’i drebo. I am a practical person. Some foreign loanwords just shouldn’t be Tibetanised, so I call the banana banana.

Garnished with the right accessories, the Precious Banana Garland makes also for a great kid’s birthday party cake or a small present for tea-party. Or try to bake the Rinchen Banana Trengwa with the best ingredients and a pure motivation - with that auspicious name you could then even use it as an offering to your Lama – kyabso chio!

Tsampa Biscuits 

(neo-Tib: Tsampa Biscuits)

Tsampa Biscuits

80 g Tsampa
250 g flour
80 g ground nuts
1 teaspoon of salt
400 g chocolate
220 g soft butter
300 g brown sugar
2 eggs from happy hens
15 g vanilla sugar

Sift flour into a bowl, add salt; crush chocolate. Stir butter in another bowl until creamy; add sugar, eggs and vanilla sugar, mix well; add flour mix and stir into soft batter; add crushed chocolate, stir well; heat oven to 190 degrees Celcius; put baking-paper on baking-plate; make 4 cm big balls out of the dough and place on baking-plate (5  cm gap); bake for 15 minutes.

The first time I baked these cookies they were an instant hit with kids and adults alike. When I revealed there was Tsampa in them everyone was thrilled and surprised that these weren’t regular American-style chocolate chip cookies. Good old Tibetan Tsampa could be turned into something fun and even our men enjoyed the Tsampa Biscuits although Tibetan males usually don’t have a sweet tooth.

In Tibet you get all kinds of roasted barley flour varying from region to region. Use whatever Tsampa you have at your disposition, they all work. As for the chocolate, even the Hershey bars you find in Tibet will do the job. Dark bitter chocolate goes really well with whole-grain Tsampa.

You can be really creative with names for these new dishes. First, I wanted to name them “Rangzen Cookies” but that somehow reminded me of George Bush’s “Freedom Fries” and things like “Liberty Cabbage” so I dropped the name. Also if you are in Tibet, baking Rangzen Cookies could get you into trouble - “guilty of baking illegal cookies” so to speak. I don’t want to cause harm, remember? So I switched to harmless “Tsampa Biscuits” which would also be understandable in Tibet because “biscuit” is an old English loanword. My brother can pronounce it super well with a proper Tibetan accent: Tsampa Betscootring!

Risotto Tibetano 

(neo-Tib: Itali Mingtag)

"Risotto tibetano"

Risotto rice
1 onion
rapeseed oil
vegetable broth
fresh highland mushrooms
salt, pepper, nutmeg
fresh Koriander
Graded Tibetan Cheese (Chuzhig)

Heat oil (any kind is ok but I recommend rapeseed since it’s common in Tibet), fry minced onion; add Risotto rice and stir-fry briefly; add vegetable broth until rice is covered and let simmer at low heat for 20 minutes; keep adding broth as the rice absorbs liquid, don’t let it dry out; wash mushrooms (Chanterelles and Matsutake are typical Tibetan) and brown them a bit in butter, then add to the rice; cook for 5 more minutes; season with salt, pepper and Dzati or nutmeg, also a typical spice; sprinkle graded Tibetan dried cheese over the Risotto and stir well leaving it in there for a few minutes to dissolve;  garnish with some Sonam Penzom (Koriander)  - and finito is your Risotto Tibetano - tataa!

I don’t remember whether you can buy Risotto rice in the big cities in Tibet. If not, just use a locally available short-grain rice, Sushi- or other kinds of sticky rice may work too. I will try it out next time I’m there.

What makes this dish “tibetano” are the local mushrooms, the Koriander, and of course the Chuzhig which substitutes for the graded Parmesan.

The Tibetan name “Itali Mingtag” goes back to my childhood. When my mom served Risotto when we were little, I remember my dad referring to this dish as “Mingtag”. He told us in the old days, they served a Risotto-resembling rice porridge in the monasteries when the monks were admitted to their finals. The candidates were called dgeshes ming-rtags-ba (no guarantee for correct orthography!) aka Geshe nominees from where the rice porridge served during the exams then got its name: Mingtag Thugpa. It was a heavy buttery, sticky, sweet-and-salty affair with raisins, dates, and chunks of meat in it. The dish was also known as Damcha Thugpa when served by the Khangtshens. I only know the dish from hear-say. Rather than Risotto maybe Mingtag resembles a Spanish Paella more or an Indian Pulao or maybe Cajun Jambalaya?

One day, when I’m that old woman with long white hair living in retirement in her little house in a corner of the Tibetan highlands, I would like to bring out a cookbook with wonderful recipes based on locally grown produce: Mountain Pesto (with wild garlic), Tibetan Ravioli with wild asparagus and ricotta filling, Tibetan apple pie, Tibetan peach jam and so and so forth. And I will have a hell of a time finding names for my creations!

Of course these imagined dishes as well as the ones I presented here are only Tibetan out of pure arbitrariness and labelling: I choose to emphasise the Tibetan ingredients over the other components and I try to stress some kind of “mindful eating” Buddhist ethics in food preparation. Kill-joys could easily say: “This is not how Tibetans eat! This is the fancy food of Westernised urban Tibetans!”

Well, some Westernised urban Tibetans consider themselves very kosher Tibetans too – Mountain Phoenix is one of them. I may not look like one and for sure I wash more often, but hey: Folks like me are as typical Tibetan as the archetypical grubby nomad living in a black tent. We come in all shapes and sizes, live scattered all over the globe in all kinds of dwellings, have all kinds of life-styles, eat all kinds of foods, and our heads are full of all kinds of ideas – long live our internal diversity!

And while not all Snowlanders may be equally fond of all dishes alike – Buddha knows I would only eat Pak and drink Bodcha if we were on the verge of a famine - contemporary Tibetan cooking is becoming more varied and richer, offering delicacies for all of us – and as we have seen even for some foreign culinary adventurers like Sandrine.

So let’s go back to our kitchens and invent more new Tibetan recipes!

Bon appétit - nyébo nanggo!
Mountain Phoenix

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