Try your hand at a Tibetan meal
By TMC on July 15, 2008
(disclaimer: when I talk about culturally "Tibetan" things in this post, I mean particularly the things I have learned from my Tibetan Husband and his family, and our small community where we live in the Midwest. I do not want to make blanket statements regarding any culture.Take it with a grain of salt; your experience may differ.)
My Husband is from the northeastern area of Tibet, a region called Amdo. It's a beatiful mix of mountains, valleys and wide open fields that are sometimes home to nomads. Our family lives in a dusty village just northwest of a moderate-sized town. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law keep cows in our courtyard, and there are fruit trees everywhere. I visited a few years ago but my Husband fled Tibet and is unable to travel there or anywhere else. Political b.s. in the region (even before the Olympic boycott actions there) brought unwelcome attention to our family and I've been unable to travel there since. Being an Irish-Mexican-Danish-Scottish American, I tend to stick out. The local police have my picture but don't know my name; it's why you'll never find a post that shows either. I'm loudly incognito.
For a little bit of context, Tibetan cuisine tends to be meat-based as the fresh growing season there is very brief and sparse at best. Veggies tend to be dense and rooty... daikon (or something like it), carrots, potatoes or things from spindly vines like green beans. Tibetan cookbooks will tell you that pork is common in the Amdo area but in our area, not so. Our area is peppered with Muslim villages. And in many cases, the local butchers are Muslim gentlemen (and thank goodness, because they have religious laws about being careful to respectfully and swiftly butcher the animals), and being Muslim, they're not going to deal in pig. Lamb or beef is more common; chicken or other fowl is rare. The idea is to kill the least number of animals to feed the most people. Believe it or not, I was vegan before being married to a Tibetan carnivore; I now cook vegetarian for me and meat for him but I will occasionally taste what I've made him to make sure it's just right. I'm a more traditionally Tibetan wife than most Tibetan women I know (which isn't many). In reality, they're just smarter than me!
Anyway, I thought I'd share my Husband's favorite meal with you. It's a recipe of sorts, but there aren't precise measurements. There's no place to set teaspoons and measuring cups when you're cooking on a dung-fire claypile stove outside in the courtyard.
As an easy appetizer serve snack-sized plates of nuts and seeds; sunflower seeds are popular. You could also include dried fruits like raisins. Serve milk tea. Be sure to include little bowls or plates for the sunflower seed shells or they'll end up in piles under the table.
Bring to a boil a giant pot of water seasoned with soy sauce, salt, a splash of black vinegar and white pepper. When boiling, add chunks of boneless lamb or beef. The chunks should be pretty big, maybe 3" x 3". We use a fatty cut of chuck. It's best if each chunk has at least 1/2" line of fat along one side. Boil the meat until just done, skimming off the fat. It's good if it's got some red in the middle.
First Course: Serve the meat on a platter, giving each diner their own smaller plate, and a steak knife. You could put out forks but it's traditional to use your fingers. Be sure to put out soy sauce, chili sauce, and black vinegar. Put a dose of each sauce on your plate and mix it together. Use the steak knife to cut off pieces of your chunk, dip into the sauce, and eat. You could also serve rolls or pieces of dense bread. The bread is used to sop up the meat juice and sauces on your plate.
Second Course: In the pot you boiled the meat in, add any additional soy sauce or salt to taste (you can also add bouillon) to make a soup broth. Throw in chopped mushrooms, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, green onions (white part)...whatever's in season. (I use this opportunity to get my Husband to eat more veggies.) Add rice noodles (the larger round ones are best) and cook until everything's tender. Serve in bowls big enough to hold a generous portion. Garnish heavily with chopped green onion greens. Serve with chopsticks. No spoon required. You're supposed to drink the broth after eating all the stuff in the soup.
Dessert: Serve each guest a nice bowl of creamy whole milk plain yogurt.
A few notes on Tibetan etiquette:
1. Eating is a noisy business. There's slurping of tea and soup, and finger licking. Noisy.
2. Ordained persons get served first, then elders, then everyone else.
3. Don't let anybody run out of anything. Even if a guest says No Thank You, you keep offering seconds 2 or 3 times. It's just how things are done.
4. Mealtimes are quite long and leisured.