With the snow falling, it’s not surprising that we’ve got Tibet on the mind at the Chilli Pickle. But there is a quite literally subterranean connection between India and Tibet: it’s the Indian tectonic plate colliding with Eurasia which is inexorably pushing Tibet up to ‘the roof of the world’. In stark contrast to its contemporary image, Tibet was a warlike empire for much of its history, but alongside raiders it sent salt and wool across the treacherous paths through Himalayas to India in the south. These paths were used by the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, when he fled in 1959. He joined a Tibetan diaspora in India that now numbers nearly a hundred thousand people, and has exerted its influence on the Indian diet. One of the larger Tibetan communities is found in the lush Doon Valley just to the south of the high Himalaya, where our Head Chef Sundeep Bhagat keeps a summer home.
Tibetan cuisine is adapted to the challenges of life in high, frozen, almost arid conditions. The traditional mainstay of Tibetan life is yak-herding, and butter is found in abundance in much of Tibetan food, including the traditional thick, salty tea. The need for protein and fats to keep out the cold, the few vegetables available on the plateau and the practicalities of a herding culture have also had an effect. In Tibet, unlike most other primarily Buddhist areas, prohibitions against taking life are not commonly interpreted to extend to meat-eating. The highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism, the 14th Dalai Lama, has himself struggled to adopt a vegetarian diet and it is rumoured that his doctors have repeatedly advised him to eat meat for health reasons!
All of this means that the Tibetans’ favourite way to eat meat is something of a guilty pleasure, and often takes a lot of asking to find. This way is the plump and juicy dumplings called momos. The most beloved filling is beef, and this particular version is associated with Tibetan new year or Losar, which falls between the 10th and the 12th of February this year. The equivalent Indian influence on Tibetan food is found in Sepen, the traditional accompaniment to momos – a thick red paste of red chilli, coriander, garlic and ginger smeared on to the dumplings.
The current climate means we’ve also succumbed to the universal instinct that the Italians describe as “metter su la pentola” or “putting on the pot.” Our momos are served with Thenthuk, a spicy Tibetan chicken and vegetable broth. Traditionally, as the broth boils, rolled wheat flour dough is added in pieces to form into small rough noodles: the principle is almost identical to Italian pastina in brodo. Our take on this universal dish is to pour the broth over three fresh momos – If you’re starting to feel snowed in, come and try it at lunch or dinner.