Monday, February 18, 2013

Stellar Tibetan meatballs

Out in what one writer calls “China’s great back beyond” – the arid lands stretching from Mongolia in the north to Tibet in the vast southwest – leafy vegetables are in short supply, grazing lands are seasonal and sparsely covered with hardy grasses, and the meats are pretty much limited to lamb and mutton and goats, mainly because sheep and goats will eat just about anything as they are herded from one grazing ground to another by nomadic families. 

What that means is that folks in Tibet are pretty good when it comes to turning these animals into some spectacular dishes.

Another wonderful thing that has made Tibetan food into a hidden treasure is its historical relationship via the Karakoram Pass with its Kashmiri neighbors to the south. 

This can be seen very clearly here in the lush, warm spices that are first browned in oil to release their fragrance… fenugreek (see the top photo) and turmeric are not found anywhere else in China as individual flavorings (rather than in ready-made curry powder), and they are one of the many reasons the foods of Tibet are so unique.

If you enjoy gardening, try sprouting some fenugreek seeds in a small pot... the seedlings smell astoundingly like maple syrup!

Tibetan meatballs in a yogurt sauce 
Serves 4 to 6 

1 pound ground lamb or goat
½ teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
4 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
½ teaspoon powdered turmeric
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil

Veggies and sauce:
12 large Chinese black mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
Spices & onion in the oil
12 red radishes, sliced
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
½ cup filtered water
1 cup full fat yogurt
2 green onions, trimmed and finely chopped

1. Place the ground meat on a cutting board and use a cleaver or knife to chop it again until it is fine and fluffy; form these into 12 small meatballs. Place the fenugreek and oil in a wok or frying pan and heat over medium-high until the seeds turn a toasty brown. Add the onions and tumeric and cook them, stirring frequently, until the onions are browned. Remove the onions to a work bowl and add the garlic, ginger, and remaining oil to the wok. Stir these around over the heat to release their fragrance and add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs while swirling the wok around so that they brown all over. Scoop them out and place them in the bowl with the onions.

2. If you have lots of oil floating around in the bottom of the wok at this point, pour off all of it except for a light film. Toss in the mushrooms and radishes, and quickly fry them until the mushrooms are lightly browned. Add the soy sauce and water to the wok, and use this to deglaze the caramelized juices at the bottom of the wok. Return the meatballs and onions to the wok, bring the sauce to a boil, and then cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer the meatballs with the vegetables for about 15 minutes.

Radishes brighten up the dish
3. Bring the wok to a full boil and then remove it from the heat. Stir in the yogurt and adjust the seasoning. Pour the meatballs into a serving dish, sprinkle with the chopped green onions, and serve.


Get really good quality lamb here; goat is great, too, if you can find it.

Fenugreek and turmeric can be found in better Western-style grocery stores, but I like to get mine from busy Indian markets where I can savor all of the aromas and find something new to eat. 

Be sure to not let the sauce boil again once you have added the yogurt, as this will cause the sauce to break into white globs.

Serve this with rice or griddle breads to soak up all the luxurious sauce.

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