Unforbidden Food of the Forbidden Land

Today is the third day of year 2012. The Mayans may have predicted the end of the world this year, but for me, it is definitely a new beginning, a new journey and another quest to share my thoughts with friends and foes alike.

As I sit in the balcony of my house chilling (literally) in the winter winds admiring the lush green mustards fields in front I suddenly feel hungry which is nothing unusual for me, with the wintery feel , the mist and the  cold – the cuisine that engulfs my senses is Tibetan! A piping hot Thukpa laced with some super hot dried chilli flakes would be the perfect catalyst to tingle my senses as well as filling up my pot belly that gargles in hunger. And in my house of course, any desire for food is never left unanswered.

Thukpa - Tibetan Soup Noodles (Internet Image)

My home aside, one place where I love venturing into to satiate my craving for authentic Tibetan food is of course Majnu ka Tilla – Tibetan refugee colony. Though Majnu ka Tilla also has a fantastic Sikh history and promises a lovely Langar at the gurudwara, my senses simply dictate me to step into that small Tibetan galli(ally) and enter the portals of a world that only a select few in Delhi would relate to.

Majnu Ka Tilla - Tibetan Refugee Colony (Ashish Chopra Image)

Majnu Ka Tilla – the story in short

It is said that few hundred years back, there was a person who would be engrossed in meditation for days together in this area. He had become weak, but would not stop meditating. People around the region started believing that he had lost his mind and started associating him with the legendary majnu. One of the gurus of the Sikh faith visited this place and was touched by this person’s devotion and blessed him and said that he would be remembered by posterity. Later when the gurudwara was built in this location, it became popular as Gurudwara Majnu ka Tilla.

But today, Majnu Ka Tilla also has become synonymous to the Tibetan refugee colony and its culture around it. With the University of Delhi in its vicinity, MKT as the students like to refer to it as, has become a gastronomy hub for students from various parts of the country, especially India’s North East and of course the Tibetan community.

I go really far back with Tibet. How do I even start penning down my thoughts here?


Way back in college (Government College, Chandigarh), we seniors decided to question these two young freshers – Tsering Tashi and Gyari Kalsang as a part of the very traditional ritual called ragging. Apart from the usual questioning and mischief, the foodie that I always was, I asked them about Tibetan food. They gave me the first insight about traditional Tibetan food. Needless to say, they were (perhaps) compelled (morally?) to invite me to their house for an authentic Tibetan meal. Let me remind everyone, that momos had not become omnipresent in India as yet. Though I had eaten enough of momos during my journeys to the north Indian hill states, I had never tasted a shabalay before. That snack at Gyari and Tsering’s place blew my mind! Today Gyari is a member of the Tibetan Parliament in India and Tsering is closely associated with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

With His Holiness (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Journey Ahead

Needless to say, the spark had managed to ignite the fire within me to know more about the Tibetan community and culture. Over the next couple of years I spent a lot of time researching about the Tibetan situation – culturally as well as politically.  In 1989, I found my Golden moment. I had the opportunity to meet His Holiness himself at an International Conference for Human Rights. I was mesmerized by his presence and almost a child like aura. Blessed were my stars because that was not the only time I got the audience of the spiritual and political head of the Tibetan community in exile. We were to have many rendezvous later – some by chance, a few others, planned, sometimes formal, at times personal. I was naïve enough to propose to him that I would renounce everything and become a monk. He only laughed and told me one thing, “Ashish, you do not have to wear the robe of a monk, but discover the monk within you.”

What is Tibet?

I say what because Tibet is not just a region or its people; it has become a philosophy and a cause for many. But for the uninitiated, in Dalai Lama’s own words: “It was a beautiful country. Our village, which lay on a little plateau, was almost encircled by fertile fields of wheat and barley; and the plateau, in turn, was surrounded by ranges of hills which were covered by grass – thick and vividly green.” (My Land and My People – Memoirs of the Dalai Lama of Tibet)

In Conversation with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Ashish Chopra Image)

The Human Trail: When humans started inhabiting Tibet, it was already a highly isolated land surrounded by forests and snow-mountains. Gradually some people became chiefs and started leading their tribes. About 2000 years ago, these tribes came together and formed their kingdom with Nya-Tri-Tsenpo as the first king to be succeeded by forty generations of kings.  During the reigns of the first twenty-seven, the religion called Bon flourished in the country. However, it was during the reign of the twenty-eighth king Lha-Tho-Ri-Nyen-Tsen, that a volume of Lord Buddha’s teachings fell into his hands and Buddhism was initiated to this land. During the thirty-seventh king, Thi-Song-Deu-Tsen, Indian pundits and Tibetan scholars who knew Sanskrit were invited to translate the teachings of Lord Buddha. That was around 790 CE and the Samye Monastery was established and the first seven monks were ordained in Tibet.

Gallery of the Three Great Kings of Tibet displayed in Doll's Museum (Norbulingka Institute, Dharamsala) (Ashish Chopra Image)

Changing Times:

Till the fortieth king, Buddhism flourished in Tibet; but their ties with neighbouring nation China soured. They had frequent wars followed by multiple pacts of mutual peace. However, their mutual distrust remained intact. The forty-first king of Tibet spelt havoc. He tried to abolish Buddhism from Tibet. After his demise there were in fights and the entire country was split into various smaller territories. In 1253 CE, the High Lama of the Sakya clan became the political head of Tibet followed by twenty generations of Sakya monks and monks of Phamo Drupa lineage. Tibet in between had secular monarchy in the 15th, 16th and 17th century. It was after that, that the Dalai Lama received temporal power over the whole of the country and the present form of Tibetan Government Gaden-Phodrang was established. Between Chinese attacks and British infiltrations, from 1912-1950, Tibet enjoyed de facto independence. But it continued to remain isolated from the rest of the world.  His Holiness says: “If only we had applied to join League of Nations  or United Nations or even appointed ambassadors to a few of the leading powers, before our crisis came, I am sure these signs of sovereignty would have been accepted without any question.”

Tibetan Migration to India 1959 (Internet Image)

The Exit:

In 1949-50 in the Battle of Chamdo, China finally occupied Tibet. Between1950-59, several sporadic rebellions had taken place against the Chinese invasion. However the Lhasa Uprising of 1959 infuriated the Chinese and they started massive military crackdown of rebellions. In 1959, the fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso along with a few thousand Tibetans had to abandon the Potala Palace – the official residence of the Dalai Lama and flee Tibet. They entered India after a tumultuous journey and were given refuge by the then Prime Minsiter Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Welcomes His Holiness to India (Internet Image)

In a telegram delivered to His Holiness as he entered Tezpur (in Assam) said: “My colleagues and I welcome you and send you greetings on your safe arrival in India. We shall be happy to afford the necessary facilities for you, your family and the entourage to reside in India. The people of India who hold you in great veneration will no doubt accord their traditional respect to your personage.”

Back on Track – Food and Culture:

However, I have to tell you about another facet of Tibet – its lovely food.  Traditionally, Tibet was divided into three regions – Amdo, U-Tsang and Kham. Amdo is the region from where His Holiness comes from.

Amdo is known for its traditional cuisine. One of the dishes from Amdo which has become a favourtie dish of many Tibetans is thenthuk. This soupy pasta dish is uncomplicated – chunks of meat and diced vegetables chucked in to the stock along with wanton shaped noodles.

Shabalay (Internet Image)

However, my first love – shabalay is simply sinful. They are like meat samosas or patties. But the juice of the beef or meat that makes the filling also reminds me of a shepherd’s pie – only thinner in consistency, and the meat inside drier than a pie. In Delhi I have tried my shabalays everywhere possible – restaurants in Ladakh Boudh Vihar (Tibetan Monastery Market), Lajpat Nagar, Humayunpur, but eventually my heart and taste buds clicked on to this not so old restaurant in Majnu Ka Tilla called the Big Apple. Their shabalays are succulent and just of the right consistency.

Tingmo (Ashish Chopra image)

There are two versions of this dish – one is deep fried and another one is pan fried. Both renditions are of my liking and I shall refrain from picking favourites here. Another dish that I simply love is called tingmo – fermented Tibetan bread. I combine it with shapta– a traditional beef dish sauted with spices. A perfect meal.

Key Ingredients:

Gyuma - Tibetan pork sausages (Ashish Chopra Image)

I gave a brief history about Tibet before getting down to food in order to understand the requirement of that region, availability of ingredients and above all the spiritual philosophy of its people. Tibet being a cold mountainous region, it is natural that its cuisine would have lot of ingredients from yak – be it yak milk, yak cheese or yak meat.  To preserve beef and mutton, the protein is sliced into thin strips and air dried. The cold climate kills all the bacteria in the process and hence the meat can be consumed straightaway.  Green vegetables are scarce in the hilly regions; hence you will see very less variety of greens used in a traditional Tibetan dish. Though, some of neat and simple Tibetan dishes can have tinge of greens like bok choi (pak choi) here and there.

Tsampa - Tibet's staple diet (Internet Image)

This however, brings me to the carbohydrate requirement of the people. Tsampa – a dish prepared from roasted barley flour (Pretty much like the Assamese pithagudi or xandohgudi except for the key ingredient – rice) fulfills this gap. It is simple to prepare tsampa and is consumed usually with salty butter tea or milk. However, as simple as it may be to prepare, the consumption has a peculiar style; some of the roasted flour is put in a bowl with butter tea. The concoction is then mixed by rotating the bowl with the left hand and mixing the contents with right. Finally roll the mixture into small lumps and squeeze them into your mouth with your finger. There you are consuming Tibet’s staple diet.

Butter Tea - tea, milk and salt (Internet Image)

Butter Tea and the Great Butter Festival: Tibetan people are very fond of their butter tea or po cha. This salty tea is consumed several times a day because it not only heats them up but also energizes people to move about in the hilly terrain.

The Great Butter Festival is actually a Butter Lamp Festival where the entire city of Lhasa would be full of butter lamps and butter sculptures like flowers, figurines, birds and animals. It is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month according to the Tibetan calendar. It is believed that the Great Butter Festival of Tibet started in 1409 when the founder of the Gellugpa Sect instituted the Great Prayer festival in Lhasa. This great Prayer Festival is known as Monlam.

Inside the Treasure House - a Time in Tibet

Catriona Bass in her book ‘Inside the Treasure House’ recounts her memories of the festival in Lhasa: Full moon brought Monlam to a close with the Butter Festival – “The Offerings of the Fifteenth Day”. The making of sculptured butter offerings originally comes from Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist animist religion, but the festival probably dates from the time of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama.

During the cultural revolution China abolished Monlam. However, in India and Nepal the followers of Tibetan Buddhism celebrate this festival with utmost devotion. In India, under the mentorship of the Karmapa, Monlam is celebrated every year.

Tibetan Butter Sculpture Prepared Specially for the Great Butter Festival (Internet Image)

Shoton – the Yogurt Festival: Also known as the Yogurt Banquet Festival, it is one of the most important festivals of the Tibetans celebrated to mark the end of the annual summer meditation retreat of the Buddhist monks. It Tibet, it was celebrated right at the end of summer when the grass was lush and the animals would produce milk.  Since yogurt was produced in abandon during that season in Tibet, the participants would offer yogurt to the retreating monks. This festival too originated in the 15th century at Drepung Monastery near Lhasa. Later it would be celebrated in Potala Palace (residence of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa), Norbulingka (Dalai Lama’s summer palace in Lhasa) where Lhamo troupes would come from all over Tibet to perform.

Lhamo (Tibetan folk Opera) performers during Shoton or the Yogurt Festival in Dharamsala (Internet Image)

The Tibetan community in exile in India celebrates this festival in spring. In Dharamsala six troupes from various places in India perform traditional Tibetan opera during this festival; though yogurt no longer plays a key role. I guess the Tibetans had to submit to the topography and environment of India.

Perfect Ingredients for Tibetan Cuisine sold in MKT (Ashish Chopra Image)

Coming Back to Majnu Ka Tilla: One of course sees the changing face of the Tibetan community in India which has blended traditional customs with modern day living. My visit to Majnu Ka Tilla is replete with vignettes of graceful Tibetan women in their traditional attire selling thukpa and momos in the monastery courtyard, cacophony of little Tibetan children playing around the giant prayer wheel, the wizened old lady with her motherly smile selling dried meat, a few others selling fresh green pok choi leaves – all I do at times is sit on a bench in front of that monastery and spend hours marveling at the beauty of this rich culture.

First ever Tibetan Metal Singer - Rejoice! (Ashish Chopra Image)

As I go towards my favourite eateries through the narrow lanes, I see a poster promoting the first ever Tibetan Metal singer.  I also see octogenarians who probably have now given up hope of ever visiting the motherland they had to leave as a young boy or girl, again. I also bump onto a young Tibetan lad who works for a popular News Channel, filling in for his brother in a cool cafeteria that he runs.  I see monks wearing their snickers and craftsmen busy carving out prayer lamps.

Sometime one wonders where this Tibetan issue will converge. Then I am reminded of one thing. We are a blessed land – a land despite its own woes and strife has had the honour to support over 1.5 lakh Tibetans for more than 50 years. Blessed is this nation which has His Holiness making India his temporary abode and blessing the land with his spiritual aura. Tibetans have added a beautiful element into the culture of India. Most importantly, it has given young India its new found favourite snack – THE MOMO.

Momo (Ashish Chopra Image)

34 Responses to “Unforbidden Food of the Forbidden Land”

  1. Arindam ghose Says:

    Interesting bit of information and very crisply documented.Nice.

  2. manoj das Says:

    fantastic… waiting to see some of these in physical form..:)

  3. Very interesting article. I have been to the Tibetan market near Majnu Ka Tila. It is like a mini TIbet in itself. I am planning to visit Tibet also in a year or so. Hope I get the visa and other documents. I had checked the rate for flights and hotels at Yatra.com and they look reasonable. I have started dreaming about my trip to Tibet.

  4. brinda singh Says:

    Your write up reminds me of my days in Miranda house.We use to go to MKT almost everyday and savour those juicy momos.Ah! bliss.Loved your article.

  5. Diki Dolma Says:

    Thank you for writing so beautifully on our tradition and culutre

  6. you are most welcome Diki.Your culture is very rich and inspiring and the food is to die for so just decided to share my passion with my friends.

  7. great read…got to know so much about cultural confluence of the Tibetan cuisine. In one of my many endeavours at the little Tibetan Market near ISBT, it was interesting to see the political potpourri there with Ladakhis and Tibetans sharing same bylanes, culture, food and yet at cross roads with each other…..waiting impatiently for another post 🙂

  8. Ashish, you make me feel as if I have been transported to a new world – which has no borders, the culture and food binding people from different backgrounds. A great post, as usual, look forward to the next one as eagerly as I did for this one! My compliments to your great writing style and your passion to use ethinic food and culture to bring a refreshing change in this mad world which has forgotten the sheer pleasure of just being themselves and appreciating simple things in life.

  9. Thank you Dolly-Watch out for the next post coming very soon.

  10. Asenla Jamir Says:

    Great write.So you are not just a Naga food loyalist You like Tibetan food too.Which is better ours or theirs?Next time I want tibetan food in your house.

  11. Asen the language of food and music is universal and has no boundaries.Much that I am an ardent fan of Naga cuisine ,Tibetan food too has its unique distinct flavours.Dont ask a foodie to discriminate.I just love food period.For sure if you come home I will give you good tibetan food

  12. Tsering Topgyal Says:

    Well researched and written.Nice.

  13. Thank you Tsering la.Your name rings a bell somewhere.I am trying my best to recollect.

  14. I am not very fantastic with English but I get hold this very leisurely to read.

  15. Sonali Pandya Says:

    your blog makes an informative read .It is like an amalgamation of time and people.

  16. Great Ashish. Jealous of you! Take me anywhere you go next time. Would love to travel with you.

  17. Nimish Gautam Says:

    Very interesting. Must certainly visit MKT, the little Tibet in Delhi.

  18. Zenobia mailk Says:

    The Tibetan culture is thriving in India thanks to us Indians.We have looked after the Tibetans as our own and they are flourishing here.Lately the younger generation have started criticizing India.The same country which is giving them refuge.They should remember what their Guru has said
    Dalai Lama’s Instructions for Life
    Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.
    Anyways a very well written article .

  19. Thank you Zenobia for your compliments on my post.I respect your sentiments.

  20. Indepth understanding and analysis! very colorfull documentaion and nice pictorial journey. Quite an eye opener about tradiitional Tibetan food. We only knew Thupka and momos!

  21. Jimsi Tassar Says:

    Lip SMACKING!!
    Absolutely relished this special concoction of Tibetian culture, politics, history and Buddhism. And with the seasoning of your undying humor, adding the required flavour for the perfect treat to the pallete! Quite an enriching food for the soul, and the mind!
    I wonder as well about the Tibetian struggle, and reflecting upon the words of H.H, it is definitely such a shame that, how we humans have managed to recognize everything on a base so superficial, that we forget to live and let live, and recognize another human being and overlook their very efforts to survive and judge everything according to what is favorable for one, and not the entire mankind. Quite an irony that, humans managed to get everything regulated, but still behave worse than animals. ( No offence to animal lovers here)
    [Hinting on the pressing necessity of being the member of UNSC and UN to be recognized as a state ]
    Ash, I wish our technology in today’s time was so high end that I could smell and pluck those yummy shabaley from my laptop’s screen. But yes, your words have manage to get me salivating reminding me of my last interaction with a plate of Tingmo and Shaptha. I sometimes get confused if its a gastronimical journey you guide us through or a torture, on realizing how far away I am from a plate of piping hot pair of shabaley.
    Also Indians have so well accommodated the Tibetians. We have veg and paneer momos getting steamed in the same steel container with Mutton and chicken, in every corners of North India.
    Did I tell you that I read a menu of a Mizo hotel In South delhi which had Pork Biryani as one of its item??
    For a second, forgetting all the rules and customs of food habits and “donts”, I smiled reflecting on one fact, that food and culture unites . 🙂

    I confirm to the sayings of many that,’Food and sex satisfies all satiates all senses of men”. However, bending a little towards the former, I would like to conclude saying, “A man cannot think in an empty stomach”.

  22. Beautifully written…

  23. What I enjoy most about Ashish’s articles is actually hard to pinpoint. I imagine I’m embarking on a culinary journey when I begin, but somewhere down the way, I realize the historical significance of it all. If that wasn’t enough, the rich cultural tapestry he weaves into his stories warms one’s heart and instigates an inherent curiosity for all things beautiful and mysterious. Tibet is often referred to as the ‘Roof of the World’ and I’m certain that a personal journey to those parts would not have been able to do justice like Ashish’s story does. The only thing that gets my goat is that I’m left wondering and waiting for the next tantalizing tale at the end of it all… What’s next on the itinerary, my friend?

  24. Hiya, I am really glad I’ve found this info. Today bloggers publish just about gossips and internet and this is really frustrating. A good blog with interesting content, this is what I need. Thanks for keeping this website, I’ll be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Can’t find it.

  25. ashish jain Says:

    its your passion fr writing that impresses me more thanyour passion fr food.not every1 can write an article of this length with so much involvement.

  26. sujata gupta Says:

    great insight into the Tibetan culture and culinary tradition.Worth a read

  27. Amit Dahiyabadshah Says:

    An exceptional appetite wedded to good taste and ahealthy curiosity are the ingredients of Your Blogs Ashish Chopra. Thank you for this well researched, informative and appetising article. Keep up the good work and hey lets explore opportunities to support the Tibetans through their cuisine and spiritual perception.

  28. Anjali sood Says:

    good article and interesting insight into Tibetan culture and cuisine

  29. The chicken Thupka which is served in manju ka tila and the one served in safderjung in Delhi is very different but the recipe does match it brith place…..

  30. Great job with the writeup! Do try the cold mung bean noodles (la phing) in the colder months. They are served in little stalls next to the monastery. And the skewered buff sold in the lanes in the evenings. Good to know we share love for tingmo and shabta!

  31. tibettenzindolma Says:

    At the mention of Thenthuk I was surprised since I thought only momo was a hit number and people hardly know of the other cuisines 🙂
    A beautiful blend of food and history.. Such a nice work. Cheers!

  32. Well written Ashish, really enjoyed reading the post. 🙂

  33. Betsy Erhardt

    One of course sees the changing face of the Tibetan community in India which has blended traditional customs with modern day living. My visit to Majnu Ka Tilla is replete with vignettes of graceful Tibetan women in their traditional attire selling thuk…

  34. you possess a wonderful blog here! if you’d like to have invite posts in my small weblog?

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