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Austin Chronicle Lhasa Moon Tibetan Cookbook

By Mick Vann

MARCH 8, 1999: 

The Lhasa Moon Tibetan Cookbook by Tsering Wangamo and Zara Houshmand, Snow Lion Publications, $14.95 paper

In the process of researching a cookbook project, I've had occasion to run across a few Tibetan cookbooks which were written in the late Forties, after World War II. One was a guide for American troops; the other was produced by the United Nations. They featured staples such as Black Tea with Yak Butter and Tsampa, which is roasted barley ground into flour and eaten as a paste, moistened with tea. Not the sort of riveting recipes that would hold a reader's interest or the kind of dishes utilizing items found in the cooler case at the local 7-Eleven. Tsering and Zara have produced a cookbook that much more accurately reflects the regional cuisine of Tibet -- especially that of the Lhasa area in eastern Tibet -- and gives Western readers a realistic look at the foods and culture of this ancient land.

Tibet's climate dictates what can be grown for food. Of all the grains, barley is the best able to tolerate the high altitude, cold temperatures, and short growing season, with wheat coming in a close second. Wheat is used to produce a wide variety of breads, noodles, and pancakes, but barley -- the staple food for most Tibetans -- doesn't have enough gluten to produce bread from the grain. Instead, it is eaten as Tsampa (in the form of either a stiff dough or a congee-like gruel) and used to brew the ever-popular Barley Beer. After the Chinese Red Guard occupation of Tibet in 1949, the Chinese government made a disastrous attempt to convert large areas of the country to intensive wheat farming by forcibly settling nomads. Fertile land that had supported nomadic herders and farmers for generations quickly became high-altitude desert. The Chinese also began a campaign of religious persecution (most Westerners are familiar with the exile of the Dalai Lama), which caused many Tibetans to flee their homeland.

Tsering's family was among this group that fled, and she ended up in an agricultural collective carved out of the South Indian jungle. Recognized early in life as a naturally talented singer, she was sent to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts to study traditional opera, folk dance, and the regional music of her homeland. In 1989, she emigrated to the United States, where she founded Chaksam-Pa, the Tibetan Dance and Opera Company, as well as Lhasa Moon, perhaps the only Tibetan restaurant outside of Tibet. Lhasa Moon has enjoyed huge success with the dining public in the Bay Area, and most people are surprised at the variety of dishes offered. Certain concessions were made to accommodate the menu to Western tastes. For example, a Tibetan Buddhist would never consider slaughtering many small animals like chicken or shrimp to provide a meal when a larger animal such as a yak would feed so many more. Fish is also rarely eaten in Tibet, although it's abundant. Ideally, Buddhists prefer to be vegetarian, but in Tibet, where so much of the land is suitable only for grazing, and the climate is ill-suited to agriculture, they have no choice but to be pragmatic.

The Lhasa Moon Tibetan Cookbook's recipes work well with the American supermarket, as most ingredients can be readily found. I was surprised to learn that Tibetan food is as spicy as it is. Common spices used are Sichuan peppercorns, fresh and dried chiles in abundance, ginger, and Indian garam masala for curries. All recipe catagories are well-represented, from appetizers and soups to noodles, breads, desserts, and beverages -- there's even a recipe for making Barley Beer. The cooking instructions are clear, simple, and easy to follow, and most recipes are sized for four portions.

I attacked Tibetan cuisine by making several recipes that sounded appealing to me. Ashom Tang (Corn Soup) was rich and flavorful, seasoned with paprika, garlic, and ginger, and accompanied by tomato and tofu. I used some speckled trout I had caught at the coast to make a batch of Nya Taba (Spicy River Fish). The filets are marinated in soy, garlic, ginger, paprika, Sichuan peppercorns, and lots of dry red chile, then flash-fried. Any Cajun would think he'd died and gone to heaven after munching on these filets -- very spicy with surprising depth. I had to make some Momos -- stuffed and steamed dumplings -- which are the national dish of Tibet. I cheated by using frozen gyoza wrappers instead of making my own. They're stuffed with chopped beef, onion, and scallion, the basic spices and celery, then steamed for 10 minutes. The true Momo connoisseur first bites a small hole in the wrapper, sucks the juices out, fills the hole with Sonam Penzom Sibeh (Chile Sauce), then pops the whole thing in the mouth. These may well top my list of favorite dim sum -- the Chile Sauce with cilantro, yogurt, jalapeño, dried chiles, and garlic was the perfect foil to the surprisingly light dumplings.

This was my first exposure to real Tibetan food, quite unlike the boring staples mentioned in the guides from the late 1940s. I was delighted by the range and depth of the cuisine illustrated in Tsering's cookbook, and after cooking some of the food I can certainly see why her restaurant in San Francisco is so popular.

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