The time has come, the chowhound said
to speak of many things:
of ships and string and sealing wax--
and to wonder why Tibetan food tastes like it all.
I have just returned from three weeks in Tibet and write to arouse the curious and allay the hopes of many. Do not go to Tibet for the food. Do not go with high hopes. Be glad, if for no other reasons whatsoever, that the Chinese are in Tibet.
I spent three weeks in Nepal four years ago and loved the food. (Which is not, contrary to dismayingly popular opinion, all that similar to Indian. It is different, looks different, tastes different, etc., etc. But that is another post.)
I was not wildly optimistic before I went. In fact, I was wary, having read a great deal of what to expect (and also being fortunate to have tried a Tibetan cafe not far from my home, here in Chicago). In a nutshell (for those inclined to know the bottom line in advance): at its best, Tibetan food can be remarkably okay; at its worst, you don't want to imagine it.
I started to take notes and compile a list of menu items and names. And before too long, I stopped. Extensive choice is not a virtue of Tibetan cuisine; transliterations of Tibetan into English are, at the best, inconsistent. So.
I traveled with a group of about 13, organized and led by the Sierra Club. We stayed both in hotels and in tents. We ate in Chinese restaurants, Tibetan restaurants (I use the noun advisedly), and all variety of admixtures. Despite the recent mass migration of Chinese, Tibet remains an overwhelmingly agricultural nation. There are no sacred animals (like Nepal or India). Flocks, herds, and swarms of goats, sheep, and yak(s) are seen frequently throughout central Tibet (where I spent my time). Horses, pigs, and donkeys are not uncommon. Fowl of any sort is, surprisingly (to me at least), relatively rare. (The only cats we saw were monastery mousers; dogs are the common pets.)
Food in Tibet tends to be relatively simple and astonishingly, dismayingly bland. There are several staples, all fairly unexceptional: tsampa, momos, and rice. Although tsampa is THE staple food in Tibet, you will not often see it, and for good reason. It is "peasant" food that does not appear on restaurant menus; it is, however, often on tables in "ordinary" places like one might find salsa in Mexican places in the US. If it is there, you will see a largish canister filled with finely ground, roasted barley flour. Take a small handful, mix in a bit of your bo cha (butter tea--NOT rancid butter, but yak butter which has a distinct flavor of its own) or even soup. Roll into a small ball and pop in your mouth. Doesn't sound bad? What's not to like? Not much flavor. On the other, more realistic, hand, what is to like? Not much flavor. "Filling" is a good descriptor.
Momos are dumplings--filled with meat (usually yak), cheese (yak), or vegetables. Steamed or deep-fried. Can be wonderful; can be nauseating. I had both. But wonderful as they are, if you're lucky, making a meal out of them can become tiresome and boring in a matter of days (or less). Rice is rice is rice. One quickly becomes grateful for Chinese food. Or Nepali food--both of which are easy to find almost anywhere.
My favorite food in Tibet turned out to be yak. Fairly reminiscent of beef, but more lean and less flavorful. Consistency is different from beef (softer, if that makes sense), but not markedly so. The surprising thing (to me) was how bland it was. And yet, in knowledgeable hands, it can be quite good. I had some wonderfully spicy yak meat balls, a very nice yak burger, and some very good yak-filed momos.
About the only other food worth mentioning was fresh vegetables and yak cheese. Not a great variety of vegetables, but fresh carrots can be a godsend. As well as a spinach-like green. Cheese looked and tasted like a cheddar spin-off. Not quite cheddar but actually pretty good.
I did not starve in Tibet by a long shot. But I also managed to lose 10-15 pounds without trying. (Only four or five more trips to Tibet before my doctor is happy!) The sights--both religious and natural--are quite extraordinary. The people are some of the most genuinely happy, funny people I have ever met anywhere in the world. Always ready to laugh, friendly, photogenic beyond description (though, to be fair, the Kleenex people could become rich beyond their wildest dreams cleaning up the children). Go for those reasons, not the food.