Saturday, July 31, 2010

my take on MSG

So, a few of my recipes call for Monosodium Glutimate, AKA MSG or in Chinese Weijing. I always note that it IS optional, but I get a lot of questions about why I use it at all, usually with the implication that MSG is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad substance.

First of all, what is MSG? MSG is a taste enhancer made (at least the ajinomoto brand that I buy) of fermented corn. Yes, it is extracted through chemistry, but then again, so is table salt and refined sugar. Fermented corn doesn't seem that terrifying to me.

MSG enhances umami flavor. Umami is considered the fifth flavor, and finally getting recognized. There is sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, or as my dad describes it "Protinaceous." Basically that indescribably flavor found in roasting meats as well as many mushrooms. It's not sweet, not salty, not sour, not bitter. It's umami.

In the same way that a tiny sprinkling of salt can be almost unnoticed, but really bring out the flavor of a dish, MSG does the same.

MSG, like sugar, naturally occurs in LOTS of foods. In fact, the first MSG was naturally taken from a japanese seaweed, kombu. I use that seaweed in soups sometimes. It's delicious. In fact, MSG occurs naturally in so many foods and in such quantities that the FDA stopped food companies from labelling foods "No MSG" or "No Added MSG" because it was there anyway!

Some people claim to have reactions to MSG, however the vast majority are simply convincing themselves of the effect, as many scientific studies have shown. One of my friends claims to have severe reactions to it, although she didn't tell me this for a long time and ate several of my dishes with MSG with no reaction at all. For full details on the health effects and scientific studies on MSG, check here.

The short story is there, there have been no noticable or scientifically reproducable effects beyond that of placebo for reasonable amounts of MSG mixed into foods. And let's be honest, that sounds a lot like what we say for salt.

Are there medical downsides to MSG? Surely. Some studies indicate that it may be connected to obesity, but so is sugar and salt is connected to high blood pressure.

In short, like any other condiment, MSG is just fine when used within reason. Since most of my recipes call for a pinch or small sprinkling of MSG, I like to think that I and my food consumers will be alright.

Of course, feel free to disagree and feel free not to add MSG to your food. I like it, not everyone does.

But when it comes to danger, I think we should all be worried about my obsession with Chili.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Yellow Laphing: A Photo Guide

As you may have seen, yesterday I failed at making Yellow Laphing. Today, fortunately, I have redeemed myself.

And so, I present you with an Illustrated Guide to Yellow Laphing
White all purpose flour
a few pinches of salt
a few pinches of MSG (as always, optional)
soy sauce
chili paste

Large pot or clean bucket
Mixing bowl
circular cake pans (2 or 3)
Wide pot with a lid.
Trays or pans

Before making the Laphing
peel a few cloves of garlic.
Drop these into a bottle of water to soak and flavor the water.

The Night Before
Yellow Laphing is a two day procedure.
The night before, in a large mixing bowl, mix flour and water. The amount is up to you, but 4 cups of flour will make about 10 laphing pancakes, in my experience.
Knead this into a nice dough ball.

Set up a large pot and place a screen type strainer over the top. It must be fine or else it wont strain appropriately.

Now pour water over the dough ball and start kneading the dough in the water. The water will turn milky white.

When the water is white, strain it through the strainer, holding back the dough and catching any dough bits in the strainer. Put the dough and bits back into the bowl. Repeat the process.

The dough will start to break apart and change consistency. You are extracting the gluten from the flour. As this happens, you will start getting little gluten bits at the bottom, which seem to act a bit differently from dough, this is a good sign.

Continue kneading and squeezing the gluten. It will start to feel rubbery and squeaky. It may even squeak (mine does!) this usually means the gluten is nearly ready. Keep repeating the kneading and straining until the water runs mostly clear and you are left with a nice clump of gluten, which you can mold together with your hands and squeeze out any remaining water.

knead a pinch of baking soda into your gluten, cover and leave that for tomorrow. Cover your big pot full of white water and let that sit until tomorrow.

Day of Serving

THIS is where I made my epic fail yesterday. Open the pot, the water should be settled. Mostly clear on the top and white thick goop at the bottom. Bring the pot CAREFULLY over to the sink. POUR the water out into the sink until the white goop is about to pour. This should leave a thin layer of water over a thick layer of goop. This was where I failed yesterday! I scooped out the water instead of pouring it and so I didn't get out enough water and made icky jelly instead of pancakes.

Add a few pinches of salt, a pinch or two of MSG, a small pinch of tumeric and a tablespoon of vegetable oil into your white goop and stir it together with a ladle.

Put an inch or so of water in your wide bottomed pot and bring this to a boil. On your counter, put the trays and partially fill them with water and maybe an ice cube or two.

Stir the goop and ladle one spoonful into the cake pan. It should just barely cover the bottom if you tip the pan around. Maybe a ladle and a half. Float the pan in the boiling water. Tip it around a bit until the bottom is coated and the coating has started to solidify. Also, make sure a bit tips up onto the sides.

Cover the pan and let the water come back to a boil. When it's boiled for a minute or two, the pancake should be a translucent yellow. Carefully pull the pan out and float it in your cooling bath on the counter.

Wait until the pancake is cool to the touch, then run your fingernail (please wash your hands first) along the sides (this is why you have to get some up on the side) until you get it to start peeling. Then carefully peel off the pancake.

ooh! A pancake! Look! I made a pancake!!!

I find that a 3 pan system is best. One boiling, 2 cooling. Stack the pancakes in a tray or dish.

On a clean cutting board, cut a piece of your gluten into centimeter by centimeter pieces. Roll a pancake and slice it into half inch wide coils.

Put the noodles in a bowl and top it with the gluten. Sprinkle salt, msg, and chili to taste. Pour soy sauce over that and then water the soy sauce into a "soup" with your garlic water and stir. Serve! mmmmmmmmmmmm

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yellow Laphing Attempt 1: Total Failure

Dear Readers (Yes, all four of you.) I have failed you, and I am sorry.

Last night and this morning, I attempted to make Yellow laphing. I bravely worked late into the night and woke up bright and early, excited to make and eat yellow laphing all by myself.

Yellow laphing, one of the great mysteries of Tibetan food. I had finally learned how to make it by watching a professional as she explained it step by step. This would be my first time making it. I was sure of my success.

Now, after having spent my morning washing yellow goop down the drain, I must admit my failure.

And now to try again...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


A favorite Indian treat of mine is raita, a cool yoghurt salad of sorts. My mom also liked it, so when I came home, I made a big batch (a small bowl of which is featured above.) I ate that bowl in about 2 minutes.

Mixed Vegetable Raita

2 Cups plain yoghurt (Dahi)
1/2 medium red onion (or, if you are in India, 1 small indian red onion) finely chopped.
1 medium tomato, finely chopped
1/2 of a medium sized cucumber, chopped
1-1 1/2 TBS chopped cilantro
1-2 chopped green chilis (to taste. I personally leave these out, even though I like spicy food, I don't like the taste of raw chili)
1 tsp cumin powder (more or less to taste)
Salt to taste

pour the yoghurt into a mixing bowl. Whip it with a fork. My dad likes to drain the yoghurt, but I prefer it a bit watery.
chop and add the cilantro, mix
Peel the cucumber, scoop out the seeds. Chop the cucumber, add to the yoghurt and mix.
chop and add the onions, mix
chop the tomatos and squeeze them out a bit between your hands, then add (too much tomato juice will water down or curdle the yoghurt)
add the cumin powder and salt, mix together. Taste and adjust.

Serve chilled.

Currently, I have a nice big container of Raita in my fridge. I am a happy camper.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sonam's Summer Chili: A refreshing take on a chili sauce

I spent my day at Tashi Jong along with a large group of Tibetan volunteers clearing away literally tons of rock, brick, cement and sand from what had been a foundation in order to make room for a new building at the monastery. It was a lot of fun, although very hard work, and basically consisted of carrying large buckets full of rocks on our heads.

Special Kudos to the ladies of Tashi Jong who not only made up the majority of the workers, but about half of them were working in ankle length skirts.

Around 10 AM we had a tea break with sweet milk tea, fried bread and chili sauce.

Now remember, 10 AM. HOT summer's day. We've been lugging rocks around. The idea of sweet milk tea, fried bread and chili sauce was NOT appealing. Especially since Tibetan chili sauces tend to be very heavy and thick.

And then I tasted the chili sauce. WOW. My friend Sonam, who runs a local restaurant, had specially made a chili sauce for us using mint. It was hot but also cooling and refreshing. Even though I didn't want to eat fried bread in this heat, I had two just so that I could eat enormous dollops of this chili sauce. Below is the recipe as she told it to me. This is to serve a lot of people, but you can just take the recipe and cut it down, or save the leftovers in the fridge.

Sonam's Summer Chili Sauce

1 kg Small tomatoes, finely chopped
A bit less than 1/2 kg red onions, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
10 small green chilis, finely chopped.
Small handful of fresh, green mint leaves. Finely chopped
Salt to taste
MSG (optional) to taste
Erma (Hua Jiao. Sichuan peppercorn. Optional) ground, to taste.

(instead of chopping, you can use a blender)

Mix all the vegetables , mint and garlic together. sprinkle the condiments on top. Mix them together and let it sit until the tomatoes have started to release their juices. Serve chilled.


Like a magical Tibetan salsa. Mm, mm, mm.

PS: I'm wondering how a dash of lemon juice would contribute....anyone want to try it and tell me?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Drokpa Tenthuk--Nomad's Noodle Soup

Drokpa Tenthuk-Nomad’s Tenthuk

During my first trip to Tibet, I was lucky enough to stay with a nomad family in Amdo in the middle of winter. The family consisted of a husband, wife, and two daughters, seven and ten years old. After a day of yak herding, horseback riding, and playing with the girls (who had never met foreigners, much less foreigners who spoke Tibetan!) we came inside for dinner.

The father had recently slaughtered a yak, something only done in winter, and was preparing a feast for us. The nomadic kitchen is very small, as nomads live in one room tents and occasionally one room huts in winter. All cooking is done on a small, clay, dung burning stove.

Our meal, an absolute feast, was made only in one pot and illustrates how the nomads like to use all parts of the yak. The recipe here is an abridgment of what could only be replicated by re-making that entire meal.

To start, large chunks of yak meat on the bone were boiled in a large pot over a period of several hours( These were fished out and served to us, with daggers to cut the meat and a mix of dried chili and salt. As we ate, freshly stuffed Gyuma Nakpo (Blood sausage) boiled in the same water, which soon became a deep, rich, meat stock. Then, as we ate the steaming hot Gyuma, our hard working host and hostess pulled tenthuk for us and the children.

Especially in winter, vegetables are rare fare for the nomads of Tibet. The spinach was a special treat, bought just for the foreign guests. I remember watching, as the father spoke animatedly, he was holding his bowl of soup in his left hand, just out of his sight. There, his seven year old daughter, like seven year olds anywhere in the world, was carefully picking all of the spinach out of her bowl, and dropping it into her father’s.

1 Lb Lamb or Beef on the bone (Short Ribs or something similar)

1 Medium white onion, Chopped

2-3 sprigs of scallions, coarsely chopped

2 Cloves of Garlic, finely chopped

4-5 cups of fresh spinach


Soy Sauce

Chili Powder

12 cups of water

Thenthuk Noodles (Although this is made at the end of the recipe, it's easier just to put the explanation here)



vegetable oil

The skill of a chef is judged, in part, by how quickly and evenly he or she can make the tenthuk noodles. A skilled Tibetan chef pinch out the noodles faster than the eye can follow.

In a large mixing bowl, pour a large pile of flour. Make a pool in the center with your fist. Fill the pool with water. Carefully mix water from the sides into the pool, adding water until the flour is fully incorporated. The end result should be a stretchy, but not sticky, dough. Knead the dough until smooth. Separate dough into fist sized balls. Pour 1 tsp of oil per ball into the bowl. Roll the balls around until evenly coated. Allow to sit for at least 15 minutes.

Roll out each ball between your palms to form a long coil. Pinch the coils between your thumbs to form a long, thin tape around 1 inch wide. Tear 1 inch pieces into your boiling soup.

But Back to the Soup!

Roughly cut the meat off the bones. Leave a little bit of meat on the bones and save the fat. Cube the meat. If you want to be really authentic, buy more meat and just boil it on the bone with some salt and fish that out after several hours and enjoy eating the lightly salted boiled meat.

Bring the water to a boil. Add the bones and fat and let the water boil on a low flame for at least 30 minutes, an hour or more is preferable. The water should turn a rich brown. If the water reduces too much, add more. The final volume should be around 10 cups.

Add onions and continue to boil. Add the garlic and stir. Add Soy Sauce, Chili Powder and salt to taste. When the water is boiling, add the tenthuk noodles (stirring occasionally to make sure the noodles don’t stick together. Let the noodles boil for at least 3 minutes. Add the scallions and stir. Add the spinach and stir until the spinach has reduced, which should only take a minute or two. Serve hot with black vinegar, chili, and soy sauce as condiments.

Samma So! Introduction

What is Samma So? Samma So is Khampa dialect for "Eat food!" the cry of every Khampa hostess to her guests. It's not particularly formal, or even polite, it's more like when a Jewish mommy (or, I'm told, Italian, Greek or pretty much any other Mediterranean group...) says "Eat! Eat! You're getting too skinny!" It's a command of love.

I like food. A lot. I especially like Tibetan food and some of the surrounding regional foods that I've learned to cook from my Tibetan friends. Some are pretty easy, but the problem is that some of my favorite Tibetan foods are pretty obscure and definitely not simple to make.

At the urging of a few friends, I've created this blog and I hope to post Tibetan recipes as I learn them, as well as any other interesting recipes or Himalayan food tidbits I pick up along the way. If I get batteries for my camera, the recipes will have pictures too!

Although I hope to cover all the basics (Momo, Thukpa, Phing sha, etc...) my goal here is to cover some of the foods that you won't find in restaurants or cookbooks, either because they aren't popular with the non-Tibetan crowd (like Gyuma, blood stuffed sausage, or Dropa Khatsa, spiced tripe), because they are considered too simple or street foods (Sha Kampo, dried meat, or La phing, a street gelatin snack), because they are isolated to one region of Tibet (Pholo, a Tibetan jelly donut) or because they are Tibetan home cooking foods that you won't find outside of the nomad camps of Tibet. These are my absolute favorites, and you can't find them anywhere outside of Tibet unless you take the initiative to make them yourself.

So, if you want food that you can get in a restaurant, then go to the restaurant. These aren't quick dishes to make.

But if you want to join me as a recreate my culinary experiences in Tibet, this is the place to be.

Disclaimer: I am not Tibetan. I just love Tibetan food. While some recipes will be posted as close to the original as I can possibly muster, I also like to tweak recipes to serve my personal tastes, and those may be slightly inauthentic. However, they are in my opinion, tasty.

A note on Tibetan cooking (and ethnic cooking in general): No one measures anything. My descriptions will very rarely use measurements and more often use indicators, such as "If it pours like elmers glue, add more flour." If that sort of thing makes you crazy, hopefully the photos will help!