Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Posts Tagged ‘Tibetan food

Tibetan Sushi

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freeing the fish

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Last week when I delivered a couple of my books to a store in Amsterdam with all sorts of things Tibetan, there was a Tibetan man, tall impressive, long hair in a fashionable bun. He was chatting with the shopkeeper about preparing food, actually preparing the fish from the tank at the shop keepers home into sushi. First jokingly then more seriously as it turned out he was running a sushi restaurant and he noticed the title of my book ‘Freeing the Fish’.
‘Freeing the Fish’ refers to the first story in my book and the practise in Lhasa for Tibetans to buy live fish in market to set them free in the river to save lives and gain merit.

We had a laugh about this coincidence and joked about his business. But the conversation turned more serious when the man who was even addressed as Rinpoche (a reincarnated Lama), explained that he would donate a lot of the money he earned with the restaurant. He indicated how fat the pile of banknotes would be that he would hand to monasteries and charity for blind people in Nepal. I have no idea why he chose to run this particular restaurant, he might have very good and valid reasons, but still there was an apparent sense of guilt. Luckily it seems possible to counterbalance at least some of the bad karma from running a Sushi restaurant by donating to monasteries. The principle of setting off good deeds against bad apparently is very common, at least it sounded very familiar to me.

I have met  Tibetans that eat fish, not so many years ago some (relatively) well to do Tibetans quite enjoyed the fish restaurants in the Chinese parts of Lhasa. They only stopped going there after the Dalai Lama had made some statements about eating fish. Some even ventilated their displeasure with the fact they could not eat fish anymore.

Maybe this is when the whole ‘Freeing the Fish’ practise really took on the scale it has now. I found this very interesting video on youtube showing how Tibetan businessmen donate a lot of money for buying the fish and make it into a special day to release the fish. Trucks filled with water and fish drive to the river where the fish is released from boats flying the Chinese flag.

I wonder if running up to Saga Dawa (Buddhist celebrations, remembering the birth of the historical Buddha), which is considered an auspicious time for releasing fish, the fisherman work over time to be able to fulfill the demand. Like eggs at Easter or turkey at Christmas. If the Tibetans are really opposed to fishing, and freeing fish is not just a way to gather good karma during festive days, maybe it would be better to not buy fish.

After deliberating on the freeing the fish practice for a couple of days, I still only know one thing for sure; Freak coincidences do occur in real life.
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Tibetans releasing fish in the river, Lhasa

Tibet Travel log 17: The cheap-meat-season

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After Losar, the Tibetan New Year which is celebrated this week, the cheap-meat-season will start.

At the end of the winter season when the grasslands are still frozen and covered with snow it is hard for the yaks to find sufficient forage, even the hay stored at the winter homes of the nomads will be in short supply.

The winter in 2010 was especially long and when I visited a nomad family in April of that year, a yak was dying every second day. It were mostly the young ones born during the previous season and the pregnant females. This family had about 75 yaks, so they were eagerly awaiting the start of the spring and the appearance of green grass. If the spring were to arrive much later it could make a big dent in the size of their herd.

Although sometimes spring arrives early, each year during March and April the meat is cheap. The meat from the yaks that starve is in abundance and not of good quality, it is very tough and only eatable when chopped up in tiny pieces. One is lucky to find a wolf-killed animal as the meat might still be decent. In the small towns where the nomads go for their shopping they try to sell the meat and yak-skin in the street. Cheaply.  Yak meat that would normally cost around 25 yuan per kilo, would now be sold for 5 yuan (about 0,50 Euro). The exception would be the time around Losar when meat is in high demand for the Losar celebrations and prices would go up.

The nomads do not only come to town to sell the meat, they also buy their groceries especially milk for the tea. At this time of year the yaks do not have milk, it is at least another month before the first yaks start to calve and that there would be a tiny bit of yak milk available for human consumption. I saw a small 250 ml bottle being filled drop by drop by milking several yaks in April. A small bottle of yak-milk at that time of year is a priced possession and precious gift, and being able to obtain the first lovely thick fat yak-yoghurt of the year is a happy event!

I am of course used to supermarkets where milk and meat products are provided all year around. So it was quite a surprise to be confronted with the seasonality around milk and meat supply for the first time. But it made some good conversations and the Tibetans were amazed by the productivity of the Dutch cows that give 15 to 20 liters of milk a day all year around. They asked me what the Dutch cows looked like. That was an easy question, I only had to point at the milk carton that featured a graphic drawing of a black and white cow in a very green meadow. They were very surprised, I think they never considered that cows could really look like that and they had to laugh when I said these cows would not survive a single week on the high grasslands in wintertime!
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Skinning a yak that died of exhaustion and starvation at the end of the winter season. The intestines and the little meat still on the bone was fed to the dogs (Kham 2010).

Written by Marieke ten Wolde

February 15, 2013 at 15:26

Tibet Travel log 16: Maybe raw meat is your cup of tea?

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In the responses to last week’s post about yak butter tea, where I mildly tried to promote the drink, most people seemed to agree it is horrible. So I thought I would try something this week that might result in the opposite reaction. Although the dried raw yak meat is not really distasteful, I really dislike it, I guess some (medium) rare steak eaters will probably think that yak meat is actually more their cup of tea.

I have made a few long road trips where at some point it seemed that everybody had a carcass hanging in the back of the truck or one thrown in the trunk of the car to take out a piece of bone and a knife to quietly take time to scrape off the last slivers of raw meat at every break. For a while I thought this was part of the driver’s culture as tea often seemed to be replaced by beer and ‘wine’ as well. But also in homes and tents as a special treat for the guests the bowls of dried meat have come out. Luckily I could mostly escape by drinking tea, but I guess meat-lovers might find this an opportunity to play with their pen-knife and chew.
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There seems to be more understanding for not liking meat then not drinking tea, tea is such an integral part of life that not drinking would be rude. For meat there are always alternatives available and the Tibetan hosts will rumble through their supplies, run down to a shop or borrow from their neighbours to find something the guest would potentially like. And there are many things to like, a few Tibetan dishes I would even count as my favorites: droma, momo (big dumplings), bread filled with meat, tukpa (thick noodle soup), the pickled radish etc (have a look here for some good recipes).
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This tray of treats was put in front of me in a black tent in Kham, sitting at the best spot on some old leather couch that was moved to the fire as a simple stool was not considered suitable for me. On the one hand it was very sweet and I felt very welcome, on the other hand it made me very uncomfortable. But the old people living there were so kind that I soon felt like a princess, still looking rough from the road with dusty hair in my old, dirty tracking clothes and big clunky shoes and when I think about the ‘hand-kiss’ the old man gave me before going to bed, I still smile!
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Butter tea, an acquired taste

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Making the butter tea in a monastery kitchen in Kham
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The British can word things very nicely. My (British) friend gagging, feeling sick and angry with me for a whole day because I made her drink butter tea (which strictly speaking was not even true but let’s not go into that), said butter tea was definitely an acquired taste. She made me laugh which I tried not to show, the timing would have been very bad, as she meant is was horribly foul-tasting with a disgusting substance and it obviously made her stomach turn.

But she was right in calling it an acquired taste, it took me a few years to find out.

According to Wikipedia an acquired taste often refers to an appreciation for a food or beverage that is unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it, usually because of some unfamiliar aspect of the food or beverage, including a strong or strange odor (e.g. stinky tofu, durian, kimchi, haggis, hákarl, black salt, stinking toe, asafoetida, surströmming, or certain types of cheese), taste (such as root beer, alcoholic beverages, vegemite, bitter tea, salty liquorice, malt bread, garnatálg or natto), or appearance.

It is not just bitter tea that should be in this list, butter tea also deserves a place.

Butter tea is made of butter and black tea with some salt added, sometimes the butter is rancid and I have found straw, flies and most worrying rather undefined things in my tea.

The first trick is to not think of it as tea, but rather some buttery soup.  Indeed when butter with blue veins inside is used it remotely tastes like Stilton soup, but that is probably also not everybody’s taste. The second trick is to softly blow the fatty parts to the other side of the cup and drink in small sips. Put the cup down after every sip and do not empty the bowl too much as that will trigger an immediate refill.

In some parts of Tibet the nomads drink up to 40 cups of butter tea a day. It is warm and hearty with a lot of calories so it keeps one going. When you are invited into a home, monastery kitchen, tent, or where-ever the hosts tend to take good care of you and you have to drink. Lots. And more. Another one. And the ‘last’ one… Maybe the Tibetans also know it is an acquired taste and they therefore try to give all foreigners a crash course, a sort of high-altitude training in butter tea drinking.

It took me over 5 years but I can now proudly say that I can drink and truly enjoy butter tea as much as the Tibetans do. I am still a bit a wimp though; I like to avoid rancid butter and flies. But in those many years in training I also found out that most Tibetans do not appreciate that either and in large parts of Tibet milk tea is actually preferred. But in the remoter nomad area’s you should really try.

Just ask around to find the best flask of butter tea in town (tent/hut), sit down, relax and enjoy!

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Lhasa tea house