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Cheap Eats:
Tibetan Lamb Stew

Tibet was amazing. My head still spins when I think of all I saw—and how much more I could have seen had there been more time.

The landscape of Tibet, while harsh, is tremendously beautiful. Mountains are the most obvious feature, forming the backdrop for everything. The primary color of the region is tan-to-gold, from the arid mountains to the sand that runs up walls, fills gaps, forms dunes at the mountains' bases to the golden grasses and scrub that spread away from the precipitous walls. The off-white houses are sand-blasted to a tan that melts into the background. But there are other colors. The lakes reflect the vividly blue sky, and greenery and even flowers cluster around their shores. And Tibetans have introduced color wherever possible, from brightly painted roadside Buddhas to cascades of prayer flags, which one begins to see well before reaching Lhasa.

We took things slowly at first, as we adjusted to the 12,000-foot altitude. (This was the first time I'd ever seen a hotel room that came equipped with emergency oxygen.) But soon, we were off exploring, filling our days with amazing sights and experiences.

We visited the gorgeous Potala Palace, which was started in the 7th century. Our guide, Rinchin, told us about the various Buddhas and Dalai Lamas, while guiding us among worshipers, incense burners, and vast bowls of burning yak butter. Lots of very steep stairs, but I made it to the roof, which was wonderful, both for the view and for its own richly-ornamented beauty.

The Summer Palace—Norbulingka—was the last place the Dalai Lama lived before starting his exile. Musicians played in the park, hats out for donations. A little girl studying English asked for help pronouncing some of the words, and then practiced on us. Again, we wandered through astonishingly ornate rooms, being told stories of Tibetan history and legends.

At a private home, we were offered tsampa and yak butter tea. Tsampa—roasted, ground barley—was good, but yak butter tea (black tea churned with salt and yak butter), while not hideous, is just a bit too odd to adjust to quickly. As with many Asian cultures, homes involve outer walls that enclose courtyards. A blank wall stares into the dusty, cobbled street, and all rooms face into the tidy little garden at the center of the enclosure.

Jokhang Temple and the Barkhor Street Market were real highlights. It is almost beyond words to describe the experience, walking through the dimly lit temple, surrounded by Tibetans in costumes that identify their families, regions, or ethnic group, breathing the incense, listening to the chanting and the clacking and shuffling of the pilgrims prostrating themselves outside, walking by walls of candles, walls of bronze prayer wheels, walls of elaborate art. Finally making it to the roof, we had an incredible view of the Potala Palace in the near distance, of the pilgrim-filled square below, of the bustling market that runs all the way around the temple.

In the market, as in other Tibetan Buddhist sites, one walks in a clockwise direction—because though it is an active market, it is also the route of pilgrims going around the Jokhang Temple. Wonderful things are to be had in the market, authenticity made obvious by the fact that most of those shopping there are Tibetans. Fabulous jewelry, ornaments, coats, sacred art, prayer wheels, all are to be had, as are T-shirts for the tourists.

Yes, we saw signs of the occupation—ruined temples, military convoys, places where jewels had been pried out of shrines. Chinese money is used, and Tibetan money is sold to collectors. At the school for orphans and homeless children, the pictures on the wall are of Mao, Lenin, Stalin. Yet the script they study is Tibetan, the arts they study are Tibetan, the language they speak is Tibetan. It feels like Tibet is surviving.

Food in Tibet is not as elegant or complex as food in China. It is largely the food of survival. However, I had wonderful meals there. Curried potatoes showed up on a lot of menus, as did delicious fried green chilies. Tsampa mixed with a little sugar and water and formed into a loaf was delightfully cake-like. Yak steaks are tough but wonderfully flavorful. Yak cheese is pungent, but works well as a garnish (the dried cheese, however, is awful). And lamb is relatively common.

If you get to Lhasa, I highly recommend the Tibet Lhasa Kitchen and the Lhasa Snowland Restaurant, both of which are Tibetan-owned and offer really good local food and enthusiastic service. At Snowland, Indian food is offered, but we ordered Tibetan. We were brought plates of white rice, and we ladled the soup-like stews—yak stew with potatoes and lamb stew with turnips—over the rice. I figured it would be easier to get lamb here in Chicago, so that's the stew reproduced below.


Tibetan Lamb Stew

3 to 3½ lb. bony, flavorful lamb parts (see notes)

12 cups water

4 cloves garlic, chopped

3½ to 4 lb. turnips, peeled and cut into chunks

2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

½ cup chopped cilantro

cooked white rice

Put the lamb and water in a large (8 quarts or more) pot and bring to a boil, skimming off the scum as it forms. When scum stops forming, add garlic, salt, pepper, and turnips. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 1½ hours (turnips should be really soft, and the lamb should be coming off the bone).

Skim excess fat off the top of the stew. (If you're really concerned about fat, you can cool the stew, which makes removing the fat much easier, then reheat before serving.) Just before serving, stir in the cilantro.

Serves 8-10.


Notes:

Lamb is not cut up quite the same in Tibet as it is in the U.S., so it's hard to parallel—or even say—exactly what cuts go into this stew. Also, the rangy, scrub-fed lambs of Tibet are heaps leaner than American lamb. That said, I found that lamb shanks and a couple of shoulder blade chops worked well. We had a few ribs in our bowls in Tibet, but the riblets I've found locally were very fatty, so I recommend not using them—except that they are probably the cheapest cuts of lamb that you can buy, if your budget is tight but you love lamb. Your local grocery story may not have these cuts; a real butcher or an ethnic grocer may be a better bet.

Also note that this recipe could probably be cut in half, if you don't want this much stew. I just got carried away buying lamb and turnips. (However, it does freeze well.)

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