Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Day in Tibet - The Dalai Lama and Tibetan food


Last week, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to New York to give a talk on the Four Noble Truths, a basic tenet of Buddhism. Frank and I went to see him speak at Radio City Music Hall. I'd seen him speak several years ago when he did a free talk in Central Park - it was an amazing and inspiring experience, so I was excited when Frank managed to get tickets for this event.


I was excited to see the Dalai Lama because I had been wanting to ever since I went to a Free Tibet rally in Washington DC almost ten years ago. I became interested in the philosophies of Buddhism after reading The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation: As Taught by S. N. Goenka earlier that year. Which, by the way, is a great beginner book if anyone is interested in learning more about Buddhism or just wants a little more zen in their busy, hectic, over-crowded, noisy, cockroach-infested lives (apparently I need to dust my copy off).


I have to say, we were both a little disappointed with the actual event. While it was cool to see him again, our seats were pretty far back and we found the lecture to be almost too textbook-y. Although he did intersperse his comments with funny anecdotes, it was difficult to hear him (a problem that was exacerbated by a woman who was seated very near to us using an automatic translator - a VERY LOUD automatic translator) and we quickly grew frustrated.

Even though the Dalai Lama's lecture itself didn't exactly inspire us, we were inspired by the throngs of Tibetan people that both attended the lecture and showed up at Radio City to try to catch a glimpse of His Holiness. There were hundreds of people there wearing traditional Tibetan clothing (layers of heavy silk) - in the 90 degree heat. To wax political for a moment, their dedication to holding on to their unique culture in the face of unchecked oppression by the Chinese government is nothing short of incredible.

Seeing the Tibetan people in their traditional clothing piqued our interest in Tibetan culture in a larger sense. We knew that Tibet is a mountainous country, but beyond that we had little experience with the culture. We decided to change that immediately.


There are three Tibetan restaurants (that I know of) in New York City; Cafe Himalaya (on 1st St. btwn A & 1st Ave.), Tibetan Kitchen (on 3rd Ave. at 31st St.), and Tsampa (on 9th St. btwn 2nd & 3rd Ave.). That weekend we decided to go to Tsampa and learn a little more about the culture and food.


We walked into Tsampa on a busy Saturday night. We were seated right away at small wooden table, lit by a single tea candle. Our wooden seats were cushioned by decorative woolen rugs. The overall effect was dim, warm and austere. Right off, Frank ordered bocha, which is Tibetan tea. Being from the South, when I think of tea, I think of a nice tall glass of sweet tea. So when Frank offered me a sip, the last flavor I was expecting was...butter. That's right - traditional tea in Tibet is served hot, and prepared with the usual black tea, but instead of a nice heap of sugar and maybe splash of cream, it's flavored with unsalted butter and salt. In my mind, that's a preparation for a baked potato, not tea, but Frank drank it down happily. He was even a little let down when he discovered the milk in the tea was cow's milk, and not the traditional yak's as he had hoped.

We began our meal with momo, a dumpling that is the most popular dish in Tibet, according to our waiter. They were fairly typical of Asian dumplings in shape and filling. Their shell was a little...earthier, almost whole wheat, or something. They were smaller than Chinese dumplings, but very filling.

We followed that up with our entrees - I got something called Ngo Ngopa, a vegetarian dish comprised of sauteed kale, collards greens, and shitake mushrooms. Frank got Shende Ngopa, which was a pan fried rice with basil and ginger. Both of our dishes were so flavorful that it prompted us to ask our waiter to explain the typical spices in Tibetan cooking. He was actually from Tibet, so we ended up talking to him for quite a while. He told us that the primary spice in Tibetan cooking is pepper. Since Tibet is so mountainous, the soil isn't the best for growing stuff. The main staples of their diet are meat and dairy (yak dairy!). He pointed out that, while no red meat is offered on their menu, it's rarely absent from meals in Tibet.

We noticed several things on our own. First of all, the food on the menu had a heavy curry influence. Tibet's geographic closeness to India is no doubt responsible for this. Also, the food had a delicate balance of key flavor, much like Thai cooking. The main characteristic of the food was its heartiness. Even my vegetarian dish was a MEAL meal. There was nothing dainty about this mountain fare.


Although my Tibetan meal was tasty, I would recommend going in the winter months rather than the 90 degree day in July that we chose.

And not to get all philosophical on you but, when going to see the Dalai Lama my biggest mistake was seeking out some sort of enlightening experience. Most of the best discoveries in my life have been made when I least expected them.

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