Tibet in a bowl! I have never been to Tibet as such, but I’ve been close on a number of occasions, visiting various Tibetan regions of Northern India. Tibetan culture is alive and well in India (unfortunately the same cannot be said of Tibetan culture in Tibet, but thats a whole different blog. post. See here for more details regarding the present state of affairs in Tibet). Once, on a hike in Himachal Pradesh (North West India) I thought I’d made it across the border when a Indian army fella popped out from behind a boulder with an AK-47 and politely asked me to turn around and don’t look back. Shame, it was the absolute middle of nowhere! Tibet looked like a majestic place, all icy peaks and vistas to take the breath away and inspire sheer awe..
VEGGIE TIBETAN DELICACIES
The food in Tibet is designed to fuel some of the worlds most hardy folk, many of them nomads. Living at very high altitudes, with extreme temperatures and very little water, most Tibetans are rock solid folk and they need alot of sustenance. Salted yak butter tea is one way of getting fat and energy into the body, but we would definitely not recommend it as a tasty beverage. I normally opt for soemthing like Jasmin tea and Green tea is also common.
Tsampa is normal fare for breakfast, basically roast barley gruel (which grows well up there in the rare airs and windswept plains), sweetened or salty and we like to add banana to it for a luxury version. Tsampa is lovely and reminds me of a very nutritious and fortifying ‘Ready Brek’ (a British brand of thin porridge that most kids were rasied on in the ’80’s). ‘Balep’ is a light, spongy and chewy bread that is excellent dipped in a cup of hot tea on a crisp mountain morn. ‘Tingmo’ is a light, dimsun like bun that is popular as a snack and can sometimes be found by the side of village and town streets, served straight from the steamer. A welcome sight on wet and chilly day (seemingly very common in most of the Tibetan areas in India).
Noodles are an ever present and are made into something resembling what we’d call ‘Chow Mein’, sometimes with a broth, sometimes with bags of oil. Basically different sizes and styles of quite bland noodles. They normally call it Chow Chow, or they did in Arunachal Pradesh anyway. ‘Thentuk’ is like a soft tagiliatelle noodle in broth which I find the most appetising way of noodling in Tibetan parts. ‘Thukpa’ is another shape of noodle. Seasonal vegetables are an ever present in these dishes and you normally get a good amount of greens mixed in. The humble cabbage is well loved and creeps into most dishes. Fermented bamboo shoots are very popular and add a wonderful flavour contrast to meals with a very, very funky smell indeed.
We hand made noodles whilst up in Menchuka village, Arunachal Pradesh (the north east corner of India, sandwiched between Bangladesh, Tibet, Bhutan and Myanmar). We were staying with a lady named ‘Nana’ and she cooked us local specialities every night. These noodles were made as a second course, eaten after momos. The stock used was the water left after steaming the momos, she added some local vegetables (grown in the garden) and greens to the stock and let it simmer for a while and there it was, a gorgeous bowl of broth-y noodles, one of my favourite foods. Definitely what we’d call a ‘bowlful of soul’. I like the way Nana used the steaming water from the momo cooking, this type of cooking trick makes me very happy, it always seems that more traditional cooking techniques are far less wasteful than modern and the zero waste policy is something that we try and put into practice in the BHK. The beloved family Mithun (a cross between a buffalo and a cow, only found in A.P.) ate the vegetable scraps and seemed very happy with them.
Tibetans love cheese and make many varieties, normally using Yak milk. Dried yak cheese looks alot like parmesan and certainly smells like it. They also make fantastic little pastry parcels (like a British pasty) which I normally avoid as they’re stuffed with meat, like beef, or cheese. They do look delicious though.
Tibetans love a tipple and normally afterwards, a little boogie. Chang (not the terrible Thai lager) is a barley beer drank in most households and distilled grain alcohol, called Ara, is something resembling rocket fuel that gets you there very quickly, especially when huddled around a blazing fire. Falling over and dancing like a happy loon is quite common in Tibet (or maybe that’s just me!)
Being a vegan/ vegetarian couple, we find travelling around Tibetan regions quite easy, there are always plenty of vegetable based options to be had. The ‘usual suspects’ on menu’s (mentioned above) can become a little repetitive, especially when compared to the fabulous diversity of food in the plains of India.
Probably the most ubiquitous of Tibetan foods is the mighty Momo (see here for our post on these bite size pockets of supreme tastiness) and Sepen, or something similar, is the sauce you will find on most Tibetan tables. Momos are normally quite bland and need some jazzing up and this Sepen is the John Coltrane of condiments.
This bowl of bright red wonderment is destined to accompany the MOMOS, but it also makes an awesome sauce to stir into noodles and can be used as a spicy little dip when canapes and nibbles are on the horizon. You can use it like any Indian style sauce, stirring it into freshly roasted vegetables is a thing of extreme tastiness. Its a good all rounder and one of our favourite things at the moment (even better than turmeric milk. Yes, that good!)
This is pretty much the exact same sauce as you get in little momo shacks all the way across the Himalayas and to eat it in the Beach House Kitchen (North Wales) is quite a tastebud twister. We have just recently been sorting our way through the local tomato bombardment, no not La Tomatina (that festival in Spain where they all lob tomatoes at each other), no, this is more like massive boxes of local tomatoes landing on our doorstep (twas the nightshade fairy we’re told!!) We have been trying to figure out what on earth to do with the big old tom glut and sauces like this are perfect. Ideal frozen (leave out the fresh coriander until you re-heat) we are amassing little red bags of sauces and chutneys all over our freezer. Of course, Sepen is by far the finest, thats why we’re sharing it with you guys.
Make a big bowlful:
1 tbsp oil
dried red chilli (finely chopped) or 1/8 teas chilli flakes – to taste
500g ripe tomatoes
fresh coriander (chopped)
Gently fry the garlic and ginger in the oil over a medium low heat, taking care not to burn. After a couple of minutes add the fenugreek seeds and the chilli and stir until the fenugreek starts to turn a darker shade of gold. Add the chopped tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then blitz up in a food processer with the fresh coriander until smooth.
You can have this sauce warm or cold, both are very tasty. Like most sauces/ stews, it does get better with age. We’d recommend an evening of chilling in a fridge, to mingle and merge the beautiful flavours.
We love our tomatoes and we love our raw food, but the two don’t exactly mix. Tomatoes are one of the only fruits/ vegetables that benefit nutritionally from a little warmth. Cooking tomatoes stimulates the lycopene (a phtyo chemical found in the red pigment of tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables) content, but does reduce the vitamin C content. For example, lycopene content in tomato paste is four times higher than that of raw tomatoes. Its a balancing act, I imagine warm tomatoes are the way forward; not totally raw, not totally roasted.
Lycopene has been shown in tests to reduce the risk of cancer, but like most nutritional research, the evidence is debatable. Tomatoes are good for you, eat them by the barrel-full (if you’re not allergic to nightshades that is!) That’s the B.H.K’s advice.
This makes me so nostalgic! I was in Dehradun, Uttarakhand for two months last November and December, and was surprised to find such a strong presence of the Tibetan culture. I had the chance to visit a Tibetan Buddhist temple as well as a number of markets. It was the most fantastic experience, and I’m hoping that I’ll get to return again sometime soon. But anyways, gorgeous post!