Tibetan Food and Chilli in the Himalayas

My journey along the Tea-Horse-Road ended – aside from the trip onwards, on the trail of the golden chilli – in Xianggelila, “Shangri-la” – and with Tibetan food.

Here, where Yunnan is Tibetan, it was the same story yet again: There was not so little chilli to be found at the local market.

Asking people about chilli in the cooking, dishes with chilli, though, produced misunderstandings. “No, no, the food here is not spicy!

The food is not spicy, indeed. In rather typical Chinese manner, it contains or comes with quite a bit of chilli, anyway.

This first restaurant my companion-colleague and I went to was much-visited, but the proprietor only seemed to have moved here to use the chances that tourism development has been opening up.

The dishes offered on the menu were all variations of a few themes, something battered and fried, something with steamed egg…

That made it all the more obvious what differences existed, when some of the meat on offer was yak meat, of course, some of the ingredients that could be had with the egg were different kinds of mushroom.

And in all the mess of things, and among the condiments on the dining tables, chilli was around.

One, battered and fried, fatty cured pork.

Two, “grass flower” fried with some meat, garlic(ky) greens, and dried chilli.

And some of that steamed egg, with matsutake mushroom.

The next restaurant, Darlo Tibetan Restaurant, also in the touristy, restored old town, was rather more authentically Tibetan. Up some stairs, it is less easy to just stumble upon, but all the better.

Here, I was a bit amused about the lack of spicy foods, the supposed dearth of chilli. Not least with one of the first dishes on the menu, and one of our first orders:

“Dried” (I think we could call it dry-aged or dry-cured) yak meat, fried… with quite the amount of chilli.

Interestingly, this is recognizable as Qiubei chilli, the type being grown in the east of Yunnan, in the landscape of Qiubei, which is much more like that of Guizhou (and at much lower elevation).

The chilli itself is not too spicy, and this preparation gives the meat a nice chilli aroma and just a touch of heat.

Yes, not spicy food. You don’t eat that chilli. But, not exactly a dish where the chilli does not play an important part!

These fried mushrooms were there for the contrast, truly not spicy. That’s just needed, too – and especially in Yunnan, kingdom of fungi.

Tibetan (Amdo, they say on the menu) momo… and here it goes again with the chilli. Sure, you could just eat the dumplings by themselves. The usual way to eat them, though, is with the chilli oil that accompanied them here, too.

Even the Tibetan staple of tsampa, barley flour rolled into balls with some yak butter, would usually be eaten with some chilli preparation, by the way.

“Tibetan pizza,” they call it on the menu; the Chinese doesn’t say much more than that it is some kind of pastry, and I can’t read the Tibetan… but being who I am, I found it interesting that the filling was one of meat and capsicum (some kind of non-spicy, though maybe still not bell, pepper).

Yunnan, and especially mountain areas, are big on dairy – and even my colleague absolutely wanted to try some of that. And let me tell you, this yoghurt was some of the best, richest, I’ve ever had anywhere. (The odd-looking black things in there? Raisins! Great ones at that!)

Uptown, where it looks more like any other Chinese city – or would, if it weren’t for some touches that show the Tibetan side of it – we went to one more Tibetan restaurant. (Hey, you did have to choose them like that. We also saw places offering Chongqing hotpot, for example!)

This place would provide some interesting experiences…

It starts with these curry potatoes. Crisp-fried, aromatized with… well, I’ll say some run-of-the-mill pre-made curry powder just like the one from any supermarket anywhere.

Finding this taste in China was more unusual than finding great Chinese food in Vienna; this alone could well make for a story of how tastes and products travel. Not a story I will tell, though.

Such cured meat, served as a cold cut, can be found many places. Here, we finally tried it out. And, surprise!, it came with a chilli sauce.

This was too funny. I tried coaxing the ingredients out of the owner. “So, there is chilli in that, some chives,… yes?”

He just confirmed that, kind of, didn’t seem inclined to share anything. Then suddenly came the blurted-out, in English: “Barbecue sauce!”

On the side of the cold-cut beef, some liangpi. These “cold noodles” come with a sauce of a bit of chilli, garlic, usually cilantro – and here, quite surprisingly, they came warm.

We would have liked some vegetables, too, asked about the water spinach that was recommended by other diners – and our waitress shot the idea down. “Nope, not good now, it’s not the season for that!”

That’s seasonal eating as it should be; don’t give the customers what they want when it’s not the right time for it!

Instead, we just ordered some of this corn bread – and I’d have loved to just lie in it and eat away. Except, in typical “poor people’s food”-fashion, it was mighty filling by itself already.

Here, finally, we also went and tried some butter tea. Tibet and no butter tea, that didn’t fly.

They offered savory or sweet versions; we went for the sweet. I’d never have expected myself to not dislike butter tea (I do actually have issues with butter and cheese; just dislike them in most forms and shapes).

This was not bad at all, though. Like a cleaner rich version of milk tea!

Follow here for a look at the local “wet” market in Shangri-la!

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