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
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
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
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
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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