We were finally in Tibet, the high point—literally and figuratively—of our three-week-trip to China a few years ago. We both were interested in soaking up the sites and culture of Lhasa, our one stop, and especially in sampling a new cuisine.

    The first significant challenge in preparing Tibetan cuisine hit me as we exited the plane: low oxygen levels. More precisely for cooking, low atmospheric pressure reduces the boiling point of water. The city of Lhasa itself is roughly 12,000 feet above sea level, although the top of the Potala Palace, the chief tourist attraction, is over 13,000 feet. At those heights, water boils at roughly 190° in uncovered pots; the boiling point at sea level is roughly 212°.

    As a result, cooks have perfected their cuisine over centuries for the necessarily long, slow cooking process. Vegetables have been limited on the high plateau of Tibet due to growing conditions; cabbages and potatoes are prime crops. However, carrots, mushrooms, and other veggies familiar to Westerners are also available, thanks in part to the greenhouses we saw coming into Lhasa from the airport.

    Our first meal in Tibet was breakfast. The Western hotel chain we stayed in seems to have adapted to the atmospheric pressure because our food options were thoroughly familiar. There was even a freezer full of ice cream, trucked up from the lower altitudes where it was made.

    tibet-dinner

    I started with yak-milk yogurt, which has a very high fat content, a very tart taste, and a pudding-like texture. I was able to add sugar, dates, nuts, and raisins, which surprised me as I had always associated those foodstuffs with desert cultures. Apparently they are the sweets of Tibet, often combined with rice and sugar to make dessert. Next on my menu was Tsampa, which was what I thought of as Tibetan bread, although the two aren’t exactly the same. Tsampa is made from roasted barley, barley being the area’s primary grain crop. Added to water, tea, or beer and mixed with butter and soft cheese, it is then rolled into a small ball called pak, best eaten with tea; but Tsampa can also be made into a porridge or what is our equivalent of sandwich bread.

    Tibetan-style tea became a food experience in itself. It is a very dark, strong drink, much stronger than what Western tastes are used to, brewed for at least ten minutes with a lot of leaves. I tried it black first, only to get a rather bitter tang along with a jolt of energy. A pinch of salt, another Tibetan addition to tea, made the brew a touch more palatable. Yak butter was the next step; a helpful waitress showed me the correct amount to use and how to stir the tea until the lump dissolved, but it was indeed a taste too far—or rather a texture too far, as I found the greasiness a bit off-putting. But for a nomad culture, the drink is a perfect combination of stimulant and nourishment between meals. I finally wound up adding lots of sugar and powdered milk, which is what Tibetans do in “sweet houses,” places to drink tea and meet friends.

    Tsampa, tea, and yogurt were really a very good breakfast. Or rather, I should say fortifying, as I had plenty of energy for the day and wasn’t particularly hungry until dinner. By the way, if you have heard the rumor that yak butter contains blood, it is just that, a rumor.

    Yaks are of vast importance in this country. They are probably the primary source of protein in addition to being pack animals, providing furs, and sometimes serving as pets. Goat and mutton are also available, and sometimes pork and chicken. Fish is traditionally not eaten for religious reasons.

    I chose to eat a yak steak one night at the hotel restaurant. Yak is unlike the other bovines, the cow and buffalo, that are consumed in the States. It is both milder and with a slightly sweet undertone that I found appealing.

    As it happens, the days we were in Lhasa coincided with a religious festival. The huge square in front of the main temple was filled with artisans selling local handicrafts, people in traditional costumes (ask before taking a picture), and food booths. Cheese balls made from yak milk threaded on ropes were quite common. I decided to try two types, one white and one smoked over yak dung. The former was very tasty—lots of fat content—with a texture similar to a hard, full fat cheese in this country. The latter had a rather heavy smoke layer; my husband found it interesting, but I didn’t.

    Our last night was a traditional Tibetan feast at a nightclub. There were skits, musical and otherwise, about Tibetan life. One was about the lonely yak herder who missed his girlfriend; substitute sheep or goat for yak to get a universal theme. It was all great fun, but I was more interested in the platters and tureens of food that kept coming until about halfway through the performance—at last, a wide selection of traditional Tibetan food …

    There were soups, mostly meat and potatoes, or meat and toothsome noodles, both with some cabbage. I couldn’t identify all the flavors in the soup; there was one dark, musky, quasi-pungent one that was especially intriguing. Some of the other dishes included meat and vegetable combinations very similar to stir-fry. I was able to identify a mustardy note in at least one dish—not surprising, as mustard seeds are common in Tibetan cooking. And there were curries.

    The tastiest dishes, though, were the Momos, which are essentially dumplings. If you like knishes or pierogies, you will relish Momos. The primary differences among them are the filling ingredients. For instance, one Momo had a filling made from a garlic-flavored plant similar to chives. Additionally, Momos are steamed or pan-fried and, of course, served with Tibetan sauces, especially fiery hot ones.

    My last foray into these unique foods was at the airport, where I perused the wares at a spice shop with such intensity that the tour guide had to drag me away so we didn’t miss the plane. He hurriedly arranged for me to buy a few things, most interestingly a bag of Tibetan saffron. It turned out to be the flavor I couldn’t identify when I ate at the nightclub.

    My exotic food experiences in Tibet can be savored back in Pennsylvania thanks to the several cookbooks available. Many of the Tibetan ingredients can also be found, although some cookbook authors have provided adaptations. Those readers interested in trying lean and mild yak meat can find it at Strip District Meats, and the Strip’s specialty food stores are great places to hunt for Tibetan spices and sauces. There are also several area restaurants featuring Tibetan/Nepalese (Himalayan) dishes, in case you want to sample first. Your palate will enjoy any option.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is a freelance writer for many publications, including The Strip! magazine. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in art history. She teaches adult ed in Mt. Lebanon and varied art topics for local Osher programs, and is a regular contributor to the Journal of the Print World.