Sunday, September 23, 2012

Momo Experimentation

Last night, on a whim, I made momos.  Just for fun, I used a handful of chives from the garden.  After much experimentation, I think I should start using 1 part chive, 2 parts scallions, 1 part onion, and 3 parts meat.  I am considering cutting out the white onion entirely.  The chive and onion provided enough of a depth of flavor and texture that I'm inclined to think the white onion might be unnecessary. Many momo experiments shall follow!

Also coming soon: How to make Bhoeja!

Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Survive Tibetan Tea Culture

(I wrote this article in 2009, while staying in Tibet.  I had been approached by two Tibetans and one American. All three were baffled and deeply uncomfortable with the opposite culture's approach to tea.)
A traditional meal in Kham, with an unending cup of Ja Nakku at the corner of the table

I never realized this was a major issue, but now several people in the past two days have expressed to me how much stress Tea Culture causes between foreigners and Tibetans. I would like to share my brief guide to surviving Tibetan tea culture.

First of all, there are many types of drinks that fall into the tea catagory. Not all of them are actually tea, but the rules of Tibetan Tea Culture apply to all.

Chu Kolwa, ཆུ་འགོལ་བ boiled water. This will just be hot water that has been boiled for several minutes.

Ja Suma ཇ་སྲུབས་མ། Churned tea. This is the classic Tibetan butter tea also called བོད་ཇ་ bhoeja, Tibetan tea. Despite what foreign writers say, I have never had it with rancid butter. Dri (female Yak) butter just tastes much sharper than cow butter. The tea is made of a strong black tea, milk, butter, and a pinch of salt all churned, these days using a blender, and served hot and frothy.

'o ja, འོ་ཇ། Milk tea. More popular in eastern Tibet this is just tea and milk. In Kham they may add a little bit of salt, but more likely it will be plain.  It is also called Amja ཨམ་ཇ་ because of its popularity in Amdo.

Ja Ngarmo ཇ་མངར་མོ། Sweet tea. Black tea with milk and sugar. Popular only in major cities like Lhasa and considered a speciality. Probably Indian influence.

Ja Nakku/Nakpo ཇ་ནག་པོ། Black tea. Plain black tea, usually with a pinch of salt.

When you arrive in any Tibetan home, you will be sat down and immediately offered a cup of one of the above mentioned forms of tea. If you have only recently arrived in Tibet, ask for the Chu Kolwa for the sake of hydration.

Tea will be offered no matter how brief your stay in the house is. Do not refuse it unless you are with a Tibetan who refuses it as well and you both have a damn good reason. If you don't have time to sit and drink tea, don't worry. Accept the cup, take a few sips, and then ignore the cup and leave whenever you have to.

Tea will be offered with the words "ja tung" or "solja choe". Ja tung (Drink tea) is more common in amdo and kham, while Solja Choe (Honorific: consume some tea) is more common in Lhasa area, or in a home where they are trying to impress you. Accept the tea with both hands.

Your cup will be refilled any time you make a dent in it. This creates a lot of tension because in western culture, if we are given a cup of something to drink, we need to drink it to show our host that we enjoy it. Then the host may ask us if we would like another and we can feel free to refuse if we are full. We would never ignore a cup, because that would be rude to our host. In Tibet, this is not the case. Your cup will be refilled whether you want it to be or not. what you should do is drink slowly (you will drink a LOT over the course of the evening.) especially smiling and taking a sip whenever your host tells you 'ja tung'. 

Drinking slowly will make you appear to be drinking more. Whenever you feel full, simply ignore your cup. It will be refilled to the top and you can safely ignore it. Occasionally taking a tiny sip is a good idea, and if you drink slowly you can pace yourself and drink more, but ignoring your cup is completely OK. Do not get frustrated at the constant filling, do not feel like you need to drink every glass to completion. You can feel free to politely say "no thank you" to a refill, but this will most likely be ignored. Your host will pressure you to drink more, nod in assent and then take a tiny sip and ignore the cup. This is OK.

Tibetans, in turn, are often frustrated in western homes. When offered tea, they are given one small cup and when they finish it, usually no one offers them more. One Tibetan man told me that when visiting western homes, he now carries a large thermos bottle that holds the equivalent of about three cups of tea! When sitting around, especially at a Tibetan restaurant in Tibet, with Tibetans, its a good idea to top off everyone's glasses every couple of minutes. If nothing else, it will show you as a good host.

Finally, do drink the tea! Butter tea can take some getting used to, so most Tibetans will automatically offer westerners some sort of alternative option. No one will ever take offense if you ask for black tea or hot water. Asking for hot water is especially normal. As for the other teas, I reccomend you try them. Butter tea is very refreshing especially in winter, but it takes getting used to. black tea and milk tea are very easy for the western palatte. But the big thing is drink the tea. Refusal is offensive and in Tibet the altitude makes hydration especially important. Yes, you will be peeing every five minutes, but its better than being extremely sick. Over time, you will learn to enjoy the constant flow of tea and the social situations it creates.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Preparing Droma and Droma Dresi and Droma Markhu

Tibetan food, traditionally, does not have a lot of sweets and there are not a lot of naturally sweet ingredients in Tibet.  However,  there are a few.  One sweet ingredient, unique to the himalayas, is droma.  Droma is a sort of wild sweet potato.  It is small, dark brown root, with a grainy texture and a mild and naturally sweet flavor similar to molasses.  Droma is used in a few Tibetan sweets, especially Droma Dresi and Droma Markhu.

Droma Dresi (left) and Droma Markhu (right), a recent photo from Yushu, Kham
Droma is stored dried, and as a result can keep for several years. When my friend M and I prepared Droma Dresi this past weekend, we were using Droma that was well over a year old, and that's fine. However, it does mean that it requires special preparation.

Techniques vary, but most people recommend soaking the droma over night. Just put the droma in a bowl and pour water until it completely covers the droma, and then a little bit more. Leave this over night and the droma will be ready to use in the morning.  Note that this is not ready to eat, just ready to use.
Soaked Droma
The simplest preparation of Droma, and the one most abhorrent to non-Tibetans, in Droma Markhu.  Mar means butter, and Khu means clear soup or juice.  Markhu, basically, means melted butter.  So Droma Markhu is droma absolutely floating and drenched in melted butter and sugar.  If you look at the top pictre, there is a dollop of sugared butter on top of the hot Droma, which will then be stirred in.  To prepare Droma Markhu, just boile the droma for about 5-10 minutes until it has become tender enough to easily bite, but not soft.  Mix butter and sugar.  Dollop.  Did I mention that Tibetan food is not heart friendly?  Delicious though.

The most popular Droma desert is called Droma Dresi, or sweet rice with Droma.  This is not only a desert, but a celebratory dish.  If you attend religious festivities, a wedding, or any other big Tibetan special event, chances are the first thing that will happen is people going around passing out cups of bhoeja (Tibetan salt and butter tea) and droma dresi.  Another fun fact:  I have not yet met anyone, no matter how unfamiliar with Tibetan culture they were, that hasn't liked Droma Dresi.  If you can't get droma, you could replace it with cubed yam or leave it out altogether. However, I think it's worth the effort to find it.

So, without further ado,

Droma Dresi

3-4 cups of Basmati rice (really this depends on how many people you are serving)
a heaping handful of Droma
a handful of golden raisins
a handful of cashews
a cup of pineapple, cut into small bite-sized pieces (optional and not traditional, but I had it this way in Xining, Amdo, and fell in love with it)
sugar to taste
half a stick of butter (minimum!!!)

Soak the Droma overnight in room-temperature water.  Drain before preparing.


-Prepare the Basmati rice according to instructions
-While the rice is cooking, soak the golden raisins in warm water for about 15 minutes
-Bring a small pot of water to a boil, boil the dresi for about 5-10 minutes or until tender enough to easily bite, but not soft enough to squish with your fingers.
-When the rice has about 5 minutes left and virtually all the water is gone, stir in the raisins and cashews

Stirring in the raisins will plump them up
-Melt the butter completely

-When the butter has melted, add sugar and hot butter together to the rice, then add the pineapple and droma and stir while still hot

-Taste and adjust sugar

And there it is! Droma dresi, a delicious desert and an important food for special occasions

Our finished product