Today, February 18, His Holiness the Dalai Lama will meet with President Obama. The meeting’s getting some attention in the world media because of the traditionally poor reaction China has any time political leaders meet the Tibetan leader. While most of the time these meetings are low key, it will be interesting to see what will happen in today’s meeting, since President Obama’s administration made a point of scheduling and announcing this meeting with the President, instead of simply ensuring that the president happen to “drop by” during a previously scheduled meeting, as has happened before.
- The Economist has a perceptive analysis of how the “Tibet issue” plays in the context of current U.S. – China relations.
- The office of HH the Dalai Lama of Tibet
- The Tibetan Government in Exile
Since I can’t think of anything new to say on this issue that I haven’t already said, I’ve reposted a piece I wrote about a year ago where I cook a meal inspired after blindly pulling a book from my bookcases. I promise not to recycle material too often, unless it’s really good stuff.
Cooking the Book: My Land and My People
I enjoy cooking. But I need a bit of help sometimes – not with the cooking itself, but with deciding what to cook. Most of the time, my family isn’t any help. “Any requests for dinner?” “Not really” is the general response.
So tonight I got a little annoyed and thought, “how can I both solve the frequent problem of deciding what to cook for dinner while at the same time providing myself with fodder for a few hundred words of gently humorous yet thought-provoking prose for my readers?” As luck would have it, I was standing next to one of our bookcases, and inspiration hit me. I would close my eyes, pick a book, and cook a meal inspired by that book.
Sounds like a good idea. Plus I couldn’t come up with any better options. So I closed my eyes, reached into the bookshelf, and picked. I looked at the title.
My Land and My People, by his Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I know just enough about Tibetan food to know that I don’t know how to cook Tibetan food. Tibet is not a part of China, and its cuisine is not a part of Chinese food. Primary foodstuffs for Tibetans include tsampa, essentially dough made of with yak butter, roasted barley flour, and water; mutton or beef, and butter tea. I’ve had friends who’ve traveled in Tibet, and they report without hesitation that butter tea is not created for the western palate. The consumption of meat in such a devout Buddhist country might surprise people, but Tibet’s climate makes vegetable production difficult and caloric needs high.
Nevertheless, I decided that meat would be a no-no for this meal. This was based on the assumption that the Dalai Lama would be a vegetarian. However, doing a little research I found out that he does eat meat on alternate days, primarily on the advice of doctors who advised him to do so after a bout with Hepatitis B in the 1960s. Still, I had cooked a Portuguese-style hash that included linguica this morning, so I decided to avoid meat. I cook vegetarian at least a few times a week, so I have a pretty hefty supply of grains and pulses on hand at all times. The one Tibetan dish I recall eating at a restaurant in Boston was a roasted potato dish, but we were fresh out of potatoes.
Having no immediate direction except the need to create a complete protein and avoid creating a Chinese-style dish, I diced an onion, put it in a pan to sauté, and went to raid the fridge for all fresh vegetables. I found the following:
- bell peppers
Blast. Stir-fry would have been the obvious solution to this dilemma, but my sautéing onion had already committed me. Luckily I had a pair of sweet potatoes and some red lentils, so I decided on a savory stew, the potatoes and lentils giving a high calorie count.
I sautéed the onion until golden, then added diced sweet potato and lentils, let it cook for a few minutes, then added vegetable stock, covered, and let cook. I expedite the cooking of rice by using our microwave’s rice cooking program, so I set that up and started it.
As I waited, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and adding liquid as necessary, it occurred to me that Tibet, to most westerners, is something about which we think little and know even less. Until recent years, the dominant image of Tibet was that presented in Lost Horizon, which says more about how westerns want to see Tibet than about Tibet itself. There was a high point of interest a few years ago surrounding the film Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, but that died down. Until a few weeks ago, who in the mainstream media was talking about Tibet? Why are we, as a nation, unable to cultivate a righteous anger over Tibet? Do we perceive it as such an intractable solution that we retreat into our projected images of Tibet? Is the “real Tibet” lost to the west?
I tasted it around a ½ hour later. It had no flavor whatsoever. I attempted to compensate by adding salt, cardamom, and a bit of curry powder, in homage to His Holiness’ host country India. I thought about adding fruits such as apples, raisins, and nuts, but decided against it as these ingredients would make the dish much too similar to a straight-up curry I had made the previous week. I finished it with a butter swirl, which made sense both aesthetically given the prominence of butter in the Tibetan diet and gastronomically as the “mouth feel” of the dish lacked the richness I had desired.
The final dish had cooked down more than I had anticipated, so I served it in soup bowls, with a serving of rice added on top of the dish. A simple salad went alongside.
Success? Depends on your take. We all ate it, even going back for seconds. Is it Tibetan food? Not in the slightest. Its orange color certainly reminded me of a monks’ robe – but the yellow colored robes of the monks in Thailand, not the deep maroon colored robes of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The flavors of sweet potato and lentil, along with curry, gave me a feeling closer to a West-Indies style dish than Asian. But it did remind me of the Tibetan nation and people and of their struggle to preserve their identity and culture in the face of overwhelming challenges. Not bad for a night’s work.
In case anyone is tired of recipes by real chefs on reputable websites, I’ve put together a recipe for the dish I created.
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 sweet potato, cubed
- 1 cup red lentils
- ½ cup celery, diced
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- 1 Tb. oil
- 1Tb. curry powder
- salt and pepper to taste
Warm oil in pan. Sauté onion until soft, then add potatoes, celery, lentils, and curry powder and sauté over low heat for a few minutes. Add 1 cup or more of either vegetable stock or water and simmer for about 40 minutes. Serve with rice.
If I were to make this again, I’d add a drizzle of a yogurt-based sauce to it before serving. I’d also serve it with a dark bread of some sort.