Tibetan Cuisine Deliciously Different

Joydip Sur

Tibetan cuisine offers exotic flavours, deliciously different from anything that you might have tasted till now. Although completely uninhibited by western cuisine, Tibetan food depicts a strong similarity to the Indian and Chinese style of cooking. In this edition of Calcutta Chronicle, we explore the world of Tibetan cuisine which offers mouth watering delicacies for connoisseurs to savour.

For many years, when one mentioned Tibet, one couldn’t help but conjure up an inaccessible, faraway place, high up on a plateau surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with wide-open spaces inhabited by nomadic yak-herders and monks living in ancient, fortress-like monasteries. Much of what is written about Tibet mostly tends to be about its political situation, its economy, and how the Tibetans’ culture and ways of life are being eroded by the modern aspects of 21st century life. Sadly, not much is written about their cuisine which is exotic and unique.

Traditionally, authentic Tibetan cuisine is very different from the kind of Tibetan food we are used to eating in Calcutta. Authentic Tibetan food is based on a few basic ingredients that are available to them in their rather harsh, high altitude environment. The most important ingredients are barley, meat, salt, tea and dairy products. In fact, dairy products are something that Tibetans are likely to consume with every meal of the day. Since Tibet is a high mountainous region, vegetables are not grown in good quantity and variety which is easily traced by the minimal use of veggies in their dishes. And unlike us or the Chinese, Tibetans very rarely eat fish.

Although there are several food joints in Calcutta which serve Tibetan cuisine, but sadly the menu is restricted to only three or four items at the most. Momos, though are hugely popular among the foodies of this city. From specialty restaurants and clubs to small eating joints and roadside stalls, they are available almost at every nook and corner of the City of Joy.

Momo is a kind of dumpling native to Tibet and is also popular in the bordering regions of Bhutan, Nepal and the Himalayan states of India. They are made with a simple flour and water dough (white flour is generally preferred) and sometimes a little yeast or baking soda is added to give a more doughy texture to the finished product. The dough is fashioned into small circular flat pieces. The filling comprising meat (chicken/pork) or vegetable is then enclosed either in a round pocket or in a half moon or crescent shape. The dumplings are then cooked by steaming over a soup (either a stock based on bones or tomato-based), which is later

served with the dumplings, along with a spicy red chili sauce. Momos may also be deep-fried or pan-fried with hot garlic or schezwan sauce after being steamed.

Next in the line of popularity among Tibetan dishes which are locally available, is the thukpa – a hearty Tibetan noodle soup usually cooked with meat and vegetables. The thukpa can be made bland or spicy as per individual taste and preference and is very tasty dish if it is cooked properly. It is a wonderfully nourishing and warming dish and can easily pass as a full meal during lunch or dinner.

Then there is the shyphalley; it is a Tibetan bun stuffed with either minced vegetables or meat (chicken/pork). The bun is soft in texture and delicious in taste. Unlike the momo or the thukpa, this is not a very popular Tibetan dish among Calcuttans but definitely worth digging into. And for those who love their momos steamed and fried at the same time, just order for a plate of kothey which is basically a half-steamed and half-fried momos served with the red chili sauce.

Coming to beverages, the Tibetan barley beer, known as Chang is quite popular. It is mild, slightly sweet and sour in taste and contains little alcohol. You are not likely to find this in any of the local food joints, so try your luck at a Tibetan or Nepalese home in the city. The beverage is definitely worth a try.

Did you know?

Dried beef and mutton strip is a favourite among Tibetans living in Tibet. In the winter, beef and mutton are cut into long strips and hung in shade to be air-dried. The dried meat is crisp and tastes good and can be eaten raw as the chill in the winter air kills all the bacteria. Big joints of beef and mutton boiled with salt, ginger and spices are also popular among Tibetans. They take down the meat and cut them with their own knives. The guests are catered with breasts and spareribs. Don’t be surprised if you are served a tail of white sheep in a Tibetan home; it only means that you are being deemed as the guest of honour.