Top of the World Food

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Lhasa Moon is most likely on of the few Tibetan restaurants in Northern California. This quiet restaurant in San Francisco’s north side is a quiet retreat offering inexpensive and tasty dishes from the top of the world. Unfortunately this little gem is closing at the end of the month.

The menu has made some adjustments to accommodate Western tastes but after researching more about traditional food from Nepal it appears that the personality of the region’s food is intact. Understandably it is a challenge to get fresh yak meat in the States. As you might expect, as Buddhists are by choice vegetarians, there are many options suited for this dining preference. In addition in my quest for understanding the food and the country’s history I came across an April 2000, Asian Wall Street Journal article where the owner of Lhasa Moon, Tsering Wangmo:

“This kind of food you won’t find in Tibet,” she laughed. I felt vindicated in my withering summary of this faked Tibetan cuisine; the restaurants in the U.S., I thought, simply cater to an American palate. But her next words caused me to reconsider. “Tibetan cuisine went into exile with the Dalai Lama’s court; the only thing left to eat in Tibet is tsampa, yak meat and Chinese food,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

When the Dalai Lama left, the elite of Tibetan society went with him–taking along their cooks, their traditional recipes and a lifestyle that delighted in lavish entertaining. The historic exchange of Tibetan salt
for Indian spices narrowed to a trickle when the borders with India and Nepal were closed. Transport within Tibet was restricted, so that the low-lying regions that traditionally provided fruits and vegetables were
unable to trade their wares. Authentic Tibetan cuisine was marked by its subtle seasoning and liberal use of ginger, garlic and emma, a peppercorn-like spice with an electric zing, found only on the Tibetan plateau. Meat and vegetables were seared on high heat, much like Chinese stir-fry, though sauces were rare and never thickened. Curries were popular, but usually milder than their Indian counterparts.

Nepali food is more about fuel than gourmet. This is not to say that it isn’t tasty. Tibet rests at a high altitude, has a short-growing season and cold climate and is best for the grains barley and wheat. Wheat is used to produce a wide variety of breads, noodles, and pancakes. Barley, a mainstay food for most Tibetans, doesn’t yield enough gluten to produce flours for bread. Instead, it is eaten as tsampa either as a stiff dough or a congee-like gruel. It is also used to brew a barley beer.

After the Chinese Red Guard occupation of Tibet in 1949, the Chinese government made a less than successful attempt to convert large areas of the country to intensive wheat farming by resettling 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 which caused many Tibetans to flee their homeland. Shortly thereafter refugees made their ways to America.

The cultural ways of Tibetan Buddhist have a practical sense to them. For example slaughtering small animals such as chickens to provide a meal for a few when a larger animal such as a yak could feed so many more makes better sense. Fish is also rarely eaten in Tibet, although it’s available.

Common spices used are Sichuan peppercorns, fresh and dried chiles, ginger, tumeric (poor-man’s saffron) and garam masala for curries. Rapeseed or mustard, is grown all over lower Nepal, turning the fields yellow with flowers in springtime. Rapeseed oil is used for cooking, oil lamps, temple offerings, and massage. Fried foods are seasoned with garlic, onions, and fresh ginger. The dishes we had at Lhasa Moon were not overly spicy but carried a slight bite of heat.

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