Travel Advice Guide

Tibetan Food

China has always had an extremely refined cuisine renowned all over the world. However, in recent years, attention has been more and more focused on the origin of the products and there is a trend towards countryside cuisine. In hill or mountain regions close to major cities, restaurants sell local food cooked with local ingredients at sometimes horrendous prices.

On the other hand, I have heard only negative comments from Han Chinese who have travelled to Tibetan areas and tried the local food. There are some Tibetan specialties which are highly appreciated by Tibetans, but many of them do not value most of the Tibetan cuisine; they prefer Han or Hui food. What is more, Tibetans do not have any tradition of going out to eat in restaurants. However, I have heard some positive comments by Western tourists, and I can only confirm that the Tibetan cuisine is very similar in some aspects to the cuisine from the Alpine region or from Northern Europe.

Figure 16: The owner of this restaurant learned how to cook "shaguo" and dumplings in a Han Chinese restaurant and serves this food now "with Tibetan characteristics" in her own restaurant.

Promoting Tibetan cuisine will certainly require some "hybridization". It is well known that when the cuisine of a certain country is exported to another region, it will often change in order to adapt to the local customs. This process has already started for centuries in some Tibetan areas: the cuisine in Amdo and Kham is heavily influenced by Hui, Sichuan and Indian cuisine. Tibetans from these regions tend to have quite a low opinion of the Lhasa cuisine which has not gone through this process of hybridization.

In recent times, Tibetan restaurants have opened in some places. They tend to be quite expensive, but they are highly appreciated by upper-class Tibetans and by some tourists. Such trends should be supported by active "hybridization development". If Tibetans learn to cook Chinese food with Tibetan characteristics for their own consumption as well as Tibetan food with Chinese characteristic and with Western characteristics for tourists, this could become a substantial source of income and make the Tibetan areas more attractive to lowland Chinese and foreigners.

Another problem to be addressed is the lack of food which tourists can take away when they want to go hiking all day. Except for Tsampa (the Tibetan staple food made of barley flour, butter and water), most dishes are eaten hot. Farmers eat mantou (Han style steamed bread) with butter and smoked meat, but this is not easily available for tourists. Especially Western tourists are used to take their own food when they go hiking, and they are generally used neither to Tibetan food nor to Chinese food. Developing some kind of Tibet Burger and making it available all over the Tibetan areas could solve this problem.

Here again, I hear some people shout "heresy". However, there are some interesting precedents. In Xi'an, the "Xi'an hamburger" is available all over the city from street vendors. In its structure, it is somewhat similar to Western hamburgers, but it is through and through a Chinese product with ingredients you would not imagine in an "original" hamburger and notably with a high proportion of vegetables. Some people told me that it had a tradition of 2000 years; others told me that it was definitely inspired by its Western homonym. Anyway, the best "Western-style" hamburgers I have ever eaten were "made in China": since the Chinese are used to eating spiced and tasty food, the Western brands adapted their recipes and, at least in my opinion, improved it considerably. I am sure that Tibetan ingredients and spices can equally contribute to improve this product which has become part of world heritage.

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