Monday, February 26, 2007

Raw meat salad and yak butter pancakes- Food in Lhasa

Alex and I shared an obsession with food. I had come to Lhasa in part because I wanted good food. Alex had spent most of his time over the past month trekking and needed good food even more than me. Lhasa is hardly a world culinary capital, but it did not disappoint.
Lhasa probably has one of the more diverse food scenes of any small Chinese city. Obviously there’s a lot of Tibetan food, and migrants from China run a lot of Sichuanese and Chinese Muslim restaurants. There were also more than a dozen restaurants that had Nepali chefs and sometimes owners, which served both western and Nepali food for Lhasa’s legions of foreign tourists. There was even a Korean restaurant, opened by an ethnic Korean from northeast China. Many Chinese cities also have foreign restaurants, but even in Beijing it is hard to find a non-Chinese restaurant that is both as cheap and as good as those in Lhasa.
The big feature for me and Alex was the Nepali food. I doubt I could find Nepali food of Lhasa’s quality even in Beijing, regardless of price. Alex in particular got to know the Nepali chefs and bosses pretty well, from asking them to make special Nepali dishes. One of them finally said to him, “Alright, if you want real Nepali food, I’ll get my chef to make you a Nepali raw meat salad!” Alex agreed and asked if I wanted to come along. The salad was pretty good, and had a smooth texture and curry-like flavor. We drank some 100 proof Chinese liquor (Erguotou, for those who know it) to kill any germs in the meat (which I think was beef). Neither of us got sick.
Another of the bosses suggested that we try aristocratic Tibetan food, and arranged for us to go to a restaurant in a distant corner of Lhasa. Aristocratic Tibetan food was nearly wiped out by the Chinese, since all the people who ate it were lamas and rich people and were forced into exile, imprisoned, killed or made to do forced labor. It was a good deal better than the usual Tibetan “cuisine,” which seems to only use yak meat, yak butter, barley and potatoes. I particularly liked the grilled yak lung, which had a puffy, crunchy texture. Later Alex went to another “aristocratic Tibetan” restaurant on his own, where he got a lot of raw meat. This time he wasn’t as lucky and was sick most of the next day.
Of the Chinese food I particularly liked one stand that sold Sichuanese “sandwiches.” Skewers of meat, mushrooms and vegetables were lathered in chili oil and roasted. They were then placed into buns that had also been coated with chili and cooked.
Eventually Alex and I even hijacked a kitchen in one of the Nepali-owned restaurants. I made pancakes and Alex made omelets. Getting ingredients was a little tricky. The cheese Alex got for his omelets didn’t go too well- it was hard, wouldn’t really melt, and was sweet. I had to use yak butter instead of regular butter for my pancakes, but thankfully it didn’t give my pancakes the pungent, nasty taste it gives yak butter tea and tsampa.

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