Monday, April 22, 2013

Where Tibetan history & potatoes intersect

Tibetan food has been influenced by many cuisines over the centuries, located as it is at the edge of one of the great ancient Asian crossroads. I say "edge" because that is a very important concept when it comes to Tibet, the true hermit land for most of the last millennia.

You see, the Silk Road never made it through Tibet. This enormous and arid place is circled by a natural barrier consisting of the Earth’s highest mountains to the west and south, while the Kunlun and Nanshan Ranges to the north tack Tibet firmly to China at the edge of the vast Gobi. And so, the Silk Road split off into northern and southern routes that bypassed the massive ring of peaks around Tibet’s great central plain.

Because of this unique terrain, Tibet remained hidden for most centuries. Before this, Tibet's people had a fearsome reputation as warriors who had conquered parts of China and both Nepal and northern Burma. But then Buddhism wound its way north from India and over the narrow passes into the heartland of Tibet, and its gentle teachings softened this warlike people to such a remarkable degree that by the tenth century they had closed themselves off behind their mountain passes, and few non-Tibetans other than Chinese officials were thereafter allowed into their hidden world.
Yukon gold wedges

And so, while traders and explorers were kept from stepping foot into this mysterious land – a preference that was underscored in spite of pacific Buddhist creed by executing trespassers with little mercy – the Tibetan people sent their own traders down the winding passes into their neighbors’ territories to obtain whatever ingredients could not be locally grown or made.

This story is a roundabout way of introducing why there are so many warm Indian spices here, for the fragrance of India hovers over many of Tibet’s most beloved dishes.

Rather than using generic curry powder, the people of Tibet often mix together these spices individually to lend unique aromas to each recipe, employing whatever seasonings best complement the main ingredients. And, like good Indian cooks, the spices are first lightly fried in oil or butter to deepen the flavors and release their fragrance. Fenugreek in particular needs to be toasted in warm oil or butter to remove its bitterness and allow its aroma to bloom.

In this beautiful dish of curried potatoes, we see three more imports, but this time around they are from the Americas: potatoes, tomatoes, and chilies. It is hard to imagine Tibetan food without this New World trifecta, but the Tibetan people have adopted them and made them integral components of their local cuisines to such a remarkable degree that they seem almost native to the Himalayas.

Tibetan curried potatoes 
Shogog khatsa
Serves 4

1 pound thin-skinned potatoes, like Yukon golds
Filtered water as needed
½ large onion or 1 small onion
4 cloves garlic
1 Roma or other meaty tomato
Tibetan comfort food
¼ cup peanut or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger
3 dried Thai chilies

1 tablespoon peanut or vegetable oil
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons filtered water

1. Rinse the potatoes and then cut them into wedges that are about ½ inch on the outside. (You don’t have to peel them unless you want to.) Place them in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer; cook the potatoes until they are cooked through but not falling apart, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain in a colander and cover with a clean tea towel to keep them warm.

2. While the onions are cooking, cut the onion into ½-inch or so dice and lightly mash the garlic cloves. Cut the tomato in half and squeeze out most of the seeds before cutting the flesh into ½-inch or so dice. Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat and add the ginger, chilies, onion, and garlic. Fry these gently until they just begin to brown, then add the tomato and continue to cook these together until the tomato is soft. Place these vegetables (but not the potatoes) into a small food processor or blender and puree them.

3. Rinse out and dry the wok; heat the oil and fenugreek seeds in it over medium heat until the seeds have turned a nut brown. Add the butter, paprika, turmeric, and cumin, and gently fry these spices together until they smell wonderful. Pour in the water and the puree, mix these together, and then fold in the potatoes. Gently warm the potatoes in this sauce until heated through. Serve hot.


The most important steps to this ingredient have to do with toasting the spices. The fenugreek has to be toasted first, as otherwise the seeds will be hard and bitter.

Fried onions are always good
At the same time, you have to keep a close eye on the ground spices to keep them from burning. I do this by never raising the heat above medium and stirring the spices almost constantly. As soon as they are toasty and fragrant, I remove them from the heat.

A wonderful book about Tibet and the people who tried to ferret their way into this hidden land – “secret agents and soldiers, adventurers and fortune hunters, missionaries and mystics” – is Peter Hopkirk’s Trespassers on the Roof of the World (Tarcher, 1982).

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