Butter Tea, Yak Jerky, and Momos Galore: An Introduction to Tibetan Cuisine

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

"Mountainous Tibet is one of the most beautiful places in the world," intones Timothy Hutton in a 2011 Super Bowl commercial. The camera pans over iconic Tibetan imagery, including the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and a young Buddhist monk with a traditional dungchen trumpet. "The people of Tibet are in trouble; their very culture is in jeopardy," Hutton continues in the earnestness reserved for charitable pleas. "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry," he says, shifting to a decidedly jauntier tone as the scene cuts to him in a restaurant. The punchline hits and the viewer learns it's a Groupon commercial.

But the real punchline is that Tibetans don't traditionally eat seafood in the first place, even though the region features lakes filled with fish and many major rivers, including the Yangtze and Ganges, have their source on the Tibetan Plateau. According to Tibetan food and culture expert Lobsang Wangdu, author of the Tibetan culture site YoWangdu, that's thanks to the commonly held Buddhist belief that "it is better to eat large animals [like yaks or goats] than fish or small animals, since fewer lives need to be sacrificed to feed the same amount of people."

So what gives? It turns out that while the restaurant in the commercial does indeed exist, and even serves fish curry, what it doesn't serve is Tibetan food. Chicago's Himalayan Restaurant specializes in Indian and Nepalese cuisines; confusing them with Tibetan food is a common mistake, not unlike the conflation of Hunan and Sichuan cookery that's been going on in the States since the 1970s.

That said, the Groupon commercial does get some things right. Tibet is quite mountainous; it's the highest region on Earth, with an average elevation of 16,000 feet and temperatures that drop well below zero in the long winter months. That means that, with the exception of hardy greens like mustard and cabbage, and root vegetables like turnips, carrots, and potatoes, it's very difficult to cultivate vegetables on the Tibetan plateau.

Instead, Tibet's cuisine reflects its wintry landscape, focusing on barley, dairy products, and meat. Yak, made into jerky dipped in hot sauce or fried, is a particular favorite among nomads, while farmers in central Tibet tend to eat more easily available livestock like beef, mutton, and goat. It's a diet heavy on noodle dishes, hearty braises and stews, dumplings, cheese, butter (often used to make tea), and, as befits such chilly climes, plenty of soups. Rice, though exceedingly popular in elsewhere in China and neighboring India, only grows in southern Tibet and is rarely eaten save for special occasions.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

"Tibetan cuisine is both unusual and comforting," says Wangdu. "The recipes are simple, hearty, and very warming—probably because Tibetan food developed over time for living at extreme high altitude," he clarifies, adding that both at home and in restaurants, Tibetans like to eat family style.

So while many think Tibetan food looks Chinese—no doubt because of the prevalence of noodles and the use of chopsticks—its iconic flavors have more in common with the cultures and cuisines of the neighboring states of Bhutan, Nepal, and regions of northern India like Sikkim, Ladakh, and Lahaul. In addition to aromatics like ginger, garlic, coriander, and green onion, the Tibetan kitchen employs spices like turmeric, black pepper, fenugreek, and kala jeera (black cumin), which is used to season everything from the spicy beef tripe dish known as dropa khatsa to potatoes. Sichuan peppercorn, known as erma in Tibet, is added to dumplings, beef dishes, and sprinkled over plates of the blood sausage called gyuma. If you haven't guessed by now, Tibetans embrace offal. Another favorite is chele katsa, stir fried beef tongue with chili garlic and onions.

Let's get to know some of the region's most beloved dishes.

Momo: Ambassador of Tibetan Cuisine

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

If I had to pick one dish as the culinary ambassador of Tibetan cuisine, it would be the wildly popular dumplings known as momo. In fact, momo are so central to Tibetan popular culture that there's even a rap song extolling their virtues. "He knows momo," a young Tibetan lady who I once tried to pick up in an East Village bar said with great surprise to her friend. "Have you been to Tibet?" "No just Jackson Heights," I responded. The Queens neighborhood is home to more than 20 Tibetan restaurants, each serving the steamed dumplings that are considered the region's national dish. It's an eating tour well worth your while if you happen to be in New York (we even have one just for momo).

When most people talk about momo, they're referring to sha momo, a juicy beef variety that's seasoned with garlic, onion, ginger, soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorn, and sometimes Chinese celery. (Sha momo literally translates to "meat dumpling." Back home in Tibet, that meat is often yak; abroad, sha momo are typically made with beef.) With their pleated tops and juicy innards, sha momo eat like Tibetan xiao long bao.

"Every home cooks momo slightly differently," Wangdu says of the beloved dumplings. "Somehow they all smell the same, but the taste is unique," he adds, pointing out that some folks take a minimalist approach using only onions and meat.

The history of momo is largely unknown, but in Chinese, the word itself means "steamed bread." One theory holds that momo originated from the Chinese jiaozi and at some point passed through Tibet. There, yak meat became the protein of choice and the dumplings acquired a more localized flavor and appearance.

Another theory suggests that the dish originated in Tibet with the Newari people of the Kathmandu valley. But whatever the truth, one thing is certain: Momo are adored by Tibetans, both at home and abroad. Just don't eat them for Losar, or Tibetan New Year: According to Wangdu, some consider the dumpling's closed shape inauspicious for a time when generosity and abundance for the upcoming year are celebrated.

There are many other types of momo besides the ubiquitous steamed beef dumplings. Among my favorites are golden orbs of deep-fried beef momo and kothe momo, beef momo that have been steamed, pan fried, and anointed with vegetable broth. Other varieties include tsi-tsi, or mouse-shaped, momo, which are commonly used in the hearty soup mothuk. There are crescent-shaped momo, veggie momo, chicken momo, yak momo, and pork momo (common in the Amdo region and Central Tibet). There's even a dessert version, called chura momo, which is filled with sweetened dri (female yak) cheese.

At the end of the day, your average momo are just beef dumplings—albeit tasty ones—and I have to admit that I'll never ever get as excited about them as folks from the Himalayan diaspora do. Steaming-hot beef momo truly are the hamburgers of the Himalayas—a national dish that evokes gatherings with family and friends. "What's the big deal about a hamburger?" I imagine a Tibetan saying. "It's just two pieces of bread with ground beef in between."

Despite their popularity, momo aren't a typical everyday food since they're a relatively labor-intensive dish. "But," adds Wangdu, "it doesn't take too much of a special occasion for Tibetans to make a party out of making momo, gathering a bunch of friends to make them" assembly-line style. Not a bad way to spend a chilly day.

A Nation of Tsampa Eaters

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

As important as momo is to Tibetan foodways, there is another more elemental foodstuff that is as deeply Tibetan as the Himalayas itself: tsampa. The roasted barley flour has been a staple food in Tibet since the fifth century AD, and it's so ingrained in Tibetan popular culture that there's even a typeface named for it. (And yes, in case you're wondering, a Tibetan hip-hop artist also penned a song called Tsampa.) In fact, Tibetans often refer to themselves as tsampa-eaters, or po mi tsamsey, and there are numerous expressions involving tsampa. My favorite? Tsampa sholpa—to sprinkle or throw tsampa, to flatter. Here's another: Tsampa gam lingbu tang, which literally means "eat dry tsampa and play the flute at the same time," or do two incompatible things.

Tsampa is commonly eaten by mixing salty butter tea, dried dri cheese, and sometimes sugar for a stiff dough that's formed into small balls called pa—no cooking required (though they're often enjoyed with a sauce or gravy). Back in the day, pa was eaten at every meal, every day. Today, it's still commonplace in Central Tibet and, Wangdu notes, popular with "travelers, who bring a leather pouch for mixing the ingredients on the road."

But while pa may be easy to throw together, it's not for everyone. "When Chinese Communist soldiers first came to Tibet and tried to eat tsampa they choked and gagged on the powdery stuff—much to the amusement of Tibetan bystanders," explains Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu, author of the website Shadow Tibet. He goes on to say that Tibetans do actually eat dry, powdery tsampa. The method of ingestion is called tsang-gam, and the trick is never to inhale when performing tsang-gam, lest one suffer a nasty choking fit.

Happily, the tsampa you'll find in Tibetan eateries is a different matter entirely: earthy-sweet and smooth, it's a perfect vessel for hot sauce, achar, or your sauce of choice. Indeed, most of the tsampa I've eaten has been nutty and comforting in a way that recalls a denser, more Tibetan Cream of Wheat. And sure enough, there's a breakfast version of tsampa called cham-dur, often listed on Tibetan menus as "tsampa porridge." The flour is mixed with butter, powdered cheese, a little sugar, and hot tea or milk for a thick, smooth consistency.

Noodles and Bread

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Tsampa is far from Tibet's only popular starchy food—breads collectively known as balep are central to the cuisine and, contrary to common belief, are often made from wheat rather than barley flour. From the round loaf known as Amdo balep to steamed tingmo buns and puffy fried numtrak balep, Tibetan breads are often enjoyed with hot sauce and a side of butter tea.

And then there are the noodles. From nomads to the Dalai Lama himself, Tibetans are almost as fond of noodles as they are of tsampa. These include the warming soups collectively known as thukpa, swimming with noodles in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, often accompanied by tender chunks of meat for extra body. Here are some important ones to know.

Thukpa bhatuk: With their ovoid shape, hand-rolled bhatsa noodles are often compared to Italian gnocchi. But unlike their potato-based brethren, the Tibetan wheat pasta features an extra little dimple that's perfectly engineered to cradle a bit of the soup's savory beef broth with every bite. Traditional recipes pair the pasta and broth with a hearty mixture of beef, garlic, onion, daikon radish, cilantro, spinach, tomato, and scallion.

Thenthuk: The name of this dish literally translates to "pull noodles," a reference to their mode of preparation: small pieces of dough are torn off and thrown into the cooking pot. The broth is typically flavored with ginger, garlic, and onion, and bulked up with stewed meat. At Lhasa Fast Food in Jackson Heights, thentuk is quite an affair. The bowl brims with chewy swatches of wheat noodles, slippery translucent sweet potato noodles, slices of beef shin, green and red peppers, and wood ear fungus. Doctored up with some chili, soy, and black vinegar, it's one of the most comforting soups around.

Thukpa gyathuk: These Chinese lo mein-style noodles are served in a mild broth with aromatics and minced beef or chicken.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Laping: A popular summertime street food of spicy chilled mung bean noodles seasoned with red chili peppers, chili oil, cilantro, scallions, and prodigious amounts of garlic. It's a dish at once smooth and crisp, cooling and spicy.

On Cheese

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Dairy isn't just crucial for Tibetan staples like butter tea—dri milk is made into curds and cheeses that make their way into a wide variety of rustic dishes. Churpi, for instance, is made from solidified yogurt, that is cut into small cubes and strung on yak-hair necklaces to dry. Chewing—or more realistically sucking and scraping away—the rock-hard, smoky cubes can take several hours, making it an ideal snack for a trek...or, say, a five-hour writing session on Tibetan cuisine. To the best of my knowledge nobody has written a song—rap or otherwise—extolling the virtues of churpi. I purchased mine at Himalayan Connection, a specialty store in Jackson Heights where the cheese is somewhat misleadingly labeled "Hard Dried Cheese Candy." The owner tells me his dog, Rocky, is fond of chewing on it.

"Most of my American friends don't like churpi because it's too hard and tastes weird," Wangdu says. "I love it for some reason, I don't know why. My family puts it in the butter tea." Himalayan Connection also sells chura kampo: squiggles of curd that have a sweet lactic tang and are a hit with kids. And then there's chu rul, which has a pungent aroma, akin to Taleggio. At Phayul in Jackson Heights, it's added to a soup called tsak sha chu rul. "Have you tried it before?" is a common question from the waitress when you order a bowl of the pungent spicy beef noodle soup. The answer? Yes, yes I have. And you should, too.