Saturday, December 8, 2012

Around the World in 80 Dishes (Special): Tibet

As part of my Around the World in 80 Dishes culinary adventure, I decided that I would prepare four special challenges.  Each challenge would focus on a cuisine of a culture that does not have its own, formally recognized country.

The first special challenge takes me to "Bod," which translates to "Tibet" or the "Tibetan Plateau."  That plateau is a vast stretch of land that has an average elevation in excess of 14,500 feet that is surrounded by even higher mountain ranges.  Several rivers cut through the plateau, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Indus, Ganges and Mekong Rivers. 

This geography has a definite impact upon agriculture.  Subsistence farming is the predominant form of agriculture, with Tibetans cultivating the few crops that can grow at that elevation.  The principal crop is barley, which, unlike wheat or rice, can fare well at higher altitudes.  The barley is ground into a flour to make a dough called tsampa, which is used to make bread.  The Tibetans also raise yaks, goats and sheep, which are an important part of their meat-eating tradition.  The eating of meat is necessary for the Tibetans, because the meat provides an important source of protein and fat that is not only useful, but necessary for life on the high plateau.

This meat-eating tradition also presents a dilemma, which has been documented Julia Moskin in an article published by the New York Times.  The majority of Tibetans practice Buddhism and abhor the taking of life ... any life.  This presents a problem when it comes to their cuisine, because it is full of yak, goat, and mutton dishes.  The "unofficial" dish is called Sha Momo or "Meat Momo," which is a dumpling made with a minced yak meat mixture.  While the unofficial dish may be a carnivore's delight, the Sha Momo represents a dilemma.  Nevertheless, the Tibetans have resolved that conflict.  Known as the "karmic load," Tibetans recognize that the killing of one yak is the same as killing one fish.  However, a yak feeds many more people than a fish.  Thus, if a creature must perish so that people can eat, Tibetans choose the yak.  Thus, Tibetans are able to minimize the "karmic load" by feeding many more people through the killing of many less creatures.


Turning to the matter at hand, I decided that, for this special culinary challenge, I would make the "unofficial dish" of Tibet, Sha Momo. This is the first time that I made dumplings of this kind.  I have previously made Hushuur, as part of my challenge to make a main course from Mongolia.  Hushuur are a kind of "dumpling," shaped into half-moons and deep-fried.  Huushur are larger than Sha Momo and, looking back on the challenge, my Hushuur looked more like calzones when compared to the smaller, more refined Sha Momos.  And, I have to admit, the task seemed daunting.

Every Tibetan family has their own way to make momos; however, there are some general guidelines.  First, Sha Momos generally come in two shapes: round and the half moon.  I chose to make the round dumplings.  Second, the filling for Sha Momos obviously includes meat.  While I did not have any ground yak meat, I did substitute grass-fed, ground beef.  Third, momos can be prepared in different ways ... for a soup, steamed, or fried.  I decided to steam the momos.  With the parameters set, I moved on to making the momos from scratch....

 Recipe adapted from Yowangdu and National Public Radio
Makes 24 large dumplings or 32 medium dumplings

Ingredients (for the dough):
2 cups of unbleached flour or white all purpose flour
3/4 cup of just boiled water

Ingredients (for the filling):
3/4 pound ground beef (preferably chuck), coarsely chopped to loosen
1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1/3 cup chopped Chinese chives or scallions (white and green parts)
2-1/2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced and crushed into a paste
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns),
     toasted in a dry skillet for 2 to 3 minutes, until fragrant,
     then crushed with a mortar and pestle
2 tablespoons canola oil
6 tablespoons water


The dough after it has been kneaded.
1.  Make the dough.  Put the flour in the bowl and make a well in the center. Add 3/4 of a cup of hot water in a steady stream and use a wooden spoon to stir the flour. The goal is to evenly moisten the flour; and, it is okay to pause to stir the flour or to add water.  After the water has been added, knead the dough in the bowl to work out any lumps. If the dough does not come together easily, add water by the teaspoon. 

2.  Knead the dough.  After kneading the dough in the bowl, move the dough to a work surface.  Flour that only if it is necessary, and then use the flour sparingly. Continue to knead the dough with the heel of your hand for about 2 minutes. The result should be somewhat smooth and elastic.  Press on the dough and it should slowly bounce back, with a light impression of your finger remaining. Place the dough in a zip-top plastic bag and seal tightly closed, expelling excess air. Set aside to rest at room temperature for at least 15 minutes and up to 2 hours. The dough will steam up the plastic bag and become soft, which makes it easy to work with the wrappers. 

The filling before the liquid is added.
3.  Make the filling.  Combine the beef, onion, chives (or scallions), ginger, and garlic in a bowl. Stir and lightly mash the ingredients together with a fork or spatula.  In a separate bowl, stir together the salt, Sichuan peppercorns, oil, and water.  Pour the liquid mixture over the meat mixture and then stir with the fork or spatula to blend well. There should not be any visible large chunks of meat. To develop the flavors, cover with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes. The recipe makes about 2 cups of filling. (I had extra filling after I completed making the momos.)

4.  Make the dough wrappers.  Remove the dough from the bag. Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and cut it in half. Put half back in the bag, squeezing out the air and sealing the bag to prevent drying.

Cutting the pieces for the wrappers.
Roll the dough into a 1-inch-thick log, and then cut it into the number of pieces required by the recipe. To cut even pieces, quarter the log first; the tapered end pieces should be cut a little longer than the rest. Weigh each piece of dough to be super precise, if you like. If your dough pieces are oval shaped, stand each one on a cut end and use your fingers to gently squeeze it into a round. The resulting squat cylinder resembles a scallop. This bit of advance work makes it easier to form a nice circle in the remaining steps.  (The forming of each piece into a round is not necessary, but you have some additional work when it comes to flattening the piece into a thin circle.)

To prevent the dough from sticking and to flatten it a bit, take each piece of dough and press one of the cut ends in flour, then flip it over and do the same on the other end; the dough will be sticky.

A small pan works well when flatting the pieces.
Next, flatten each piece of dough into a thin circle that is about 1/8 inch thick, either with rolling pin or with a heavy, flat-bottomed object.  Put the floured disk between the plastic squares and press down with the rolling pin or a heavy object to produce a circle about 1/8-inch thick. You may have to press more than once. Gently peel back the plastic from the wrapper.  Set aside the dough circle.  Repeat this process with the remaining dough pieces, setting each one to the side of the work area as you finish it. It is okay to overlap the wrappers slightly, but I tried to avoid any overlap of the dough circles because the dough was still a little sticky.

To finish the wrappers, take a wrapper and place it on the work surface, flouring the surface only as needed to keep the dough from sticking. Imagine a quarter-size circle in the center. This is what the Tibetans call the "belly" of the wrapper. the goal is to create a wrapper that is larger than its current size but retains a thick belly. This ensures an even distribution of dough after the wrapper's edge has been gathered and closed around the filling.

It is hard to see the "belly."
To keep a thick belly, use the rolling pin to apply pressure on the outer 1/2- to 3/4-inch border of the wrapper, as follows. Try to roll the rolling pin with the flat palm of one hand while using the other hand to turn the wrapper in the opposite direction. For example, as your right palm works the rolling pin in short, downward strokes from the center toward your body, the fingers of your left hand turn the disk counterclockwise about one-quarter of a turn between each stroke. Keep the thumb of the rotating hand near the center of the wrapper to guide the rolling pin and turn the wrapper.

If the wrapper sticks to the work surface or rolling pin, pause to dust the wrapper with flour and then continue. If you cannot get a wrapper thin enough on the first try, set it aside to relax for about 1 minute, and then roll again. Should the wrapper tear or be hopelessly misshapen, roll up the dough, let it rest for a few minutes, then press it again and roll it out. Resembling a flat fried egg, the finished wrapper does not need to be a perfect circle. Frilly edges are fine. The finished diameter of the wrapper depends on the dumpling. Wrappers are moderately thick and suitable for boiled, steamed, pan-fried, and deep-fried morsels.

As you work, line up the finished wrappers on your work surface; if you need extra space, use a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and dusted with flour. A bit of overlapping is fine, but avoid stacking the wrappers. When a batch of wrappers is formed, fill them before making wrappers out of the other portion of dough, or the wrappers may stick together as they wait for you. Alternatively, I filled the wrappers as I finished them, which provided more room on the work surface. 

The filling.
5.   Fill the wrappers.  Before assembling the dumplings, line steamer trays and/or a baking sheet with parchment paper. (If you are making the dumplings in advance, or plan to freeze them, lightly dust the paper with flour to avoid sticking.)

For each dumpling, hold a wrapper in a slightly cupped hand. Scoop up about 1 tablespoon of filling with a bamboo dumpling spatula, dinner knife, or fork and position it in the center of the wrapper, pressing and shaping it into a mound and keeping about 1/2 to 3/4-inch wrapper clear on all sides. Use your fingers to pleat and pinch the edge together to enclose the filling and form a closed satchel, or simply fold over to form a half-moon.

In the alternative, you can place the dough circle on the work surface and spoon a tablespoon of the filling into the middle of the circle.  You want the filling to sit on the "belly" of the dumpling.  You can then use your fingers to pull the sides up, pleat and pinch the edges of the momo together to form the satchel (or  fold the dough over to create the half-moon).

If you are steaming right away, place each finished dumpling in a steamer tray, sealed side up, and 1 inch away from the edge if you are using metal steamers. Repeat with the remaining wrappers, placing them in the steamer about 1/2 inch apart. If you don't have enough space on your steamer trays to steam all the dumplings at once, or if you are not steaming them right away, place the waiting ones on the prepared baking sheet, spaced a good 1/2 inch apart. 

Ready to steam.

6.  Steam the momos.  Steam the dumplings over boiling water for about 8 minutes, or until they have puffed slightly and become somewhat translucent. Remove each tray and place it atop a serving plate.


One of the sauces or condiments that are served with Momos is called Sepen, which is a Tibetan hot sauce made from dried red chile peppers.  I tried to determine which chiles are used in Tibetan cuisine; however, apart from stories about the use of spicy chiles, I was unable to find the exact chiles.  I decided to use dried Sanaam chiles, which are grown and cultivated in nearby India.  Sanaam chiles have about 40,000 Scoville Heat Units. These chiles are definitely spicy, which falls within the description of the chiles used to make Sepen. If you do not like spicy foods, choose a pepper that has less Scoville Heat Units, like a guajillo, Anaheim or serrano chile. 

Recipe adapted from Lonsang Wongdu and
available at the New York Times

1 cup whole dried small red chile peppers
1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
     (optional, you can substitute black peppercorns)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro stems and leaves
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced ginger

1.  Rehydrate the peppers.  If possible, soak chiles overnight in plenty of cold water. If time is short, cover chiles with boiling water and soak for 20 minutes. Drain and discard soaking liquid. 

2.  Blend the ingredients.  If using peppercorns, coarsely grind in a mortar or spice grinder. In a blender or mortar, combine all the ingredients with 2 tablespoons of water and grind until smooth (the seeds of the chiles will remain whole). The finished sauce should be as thick as ketchup; thin with water as needed.


Finally, to round out the meal, I decided that I would make a beverage to enjoy either with the Momos or afterwards.  After doing a little research, I chose a recipe for Po Cha or Tibetan Butter Tea.  This recipe is basically a black tea with a little butter and milk.  This recipe is similar to the Suutei Tsai or Mongolian Milk Tea that I made as part of my challenge to prepare a main course from Mongolia. 

Ordinarily, I am someone who does not like milk or anything in my tea.  However, I have to admit that the addition of the butter and milk to this tea was actually good. 

Recipe from Recipes Wiki
Serves 4

5 to 6 cups of water
2 bags of black tea
1/4 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/2 cup of milk or 1 teaspoon of milk powder

1.  Prepare the water.  Boil the water, then turn down the fire.  Add two bags of tea in the water and boil again for a couple of minutes.  Take the tea bags out.

2.  Prepare the tea.  Pour the tea, salt, butter and milk into a blender.  Blend the mixture for two or three minutes.  Serve immediately.

*     *     *

In the end, my challenge to prepare a Tibetan meal was a success.  I was able to prepare the Sha Momo, and, they were very delicious.  I have to admit that I deviated a little from the recipe, especially when it came to assembling the momos, because I found it easier to prepare the momos placing them on the flat surface rather than stuffing and sealing them in my hands.  I also think I could have rolled out the skins a little more because the sides on a few were perhaps a little too thick. Still, for a rookie, I think I did a great job.

As for the rest of the meal, it was also an outstanding success.  The Sepen was a great condiment for the Sha Momo, as the heat from the chilies enhanced the flavor of the meat, garlic, and ginger flavors in the filling of the dumpling.  The Po Cha offered a smooth, milky escape from the heat of the Sepen.  It is the perfect beverage for the meal because, after cooling the heat from the chiles, the Po Cha allows the diner to start the process all over again.  (I should add that I found a recipe for a Tibetan rice beer, but, I did not have enough time to make it. That will have to wait for another day and another post.)

Notwithstanding my own personal critiques, I still think I successfully completed the challenge.  I now turn my attention to the next chapter of my culinary adventures, beginning with my 21st challenge, which will require me to make a main course from the cuisine of .... 


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