When my copy of Taste Tibet: Family Recipes from the Himalayas by Julie Kleeman and Yeshi Jampa arrived, I read the whole book from cover to cover that same day! Not just the introduction sections but every chapter and recipe introduction too. Written in Julie’s voice with recipes by Yeshi, the book relates the personal stories of the couple and their life together, and of Yeshi’s childhood, and his family and community. This grounds the cuisine and puts it firmly within the context of Tibetan life, culture and place. The stories and cultural insights weave a thread through the book that is absolutely captivating.
Tibetan food is simple, nourishing and seasonal – a way of eating that is over 8,000 years old yet harmonises well with today’s focus on healthy, nutritional food and mindful eating. Within the cuisine there’s a strong respect for and full use of the ingredients, many of which take a lot of work to grow in the high mountains where Yeshi grew up. The simplicity of many of the recipes makes sense against the backdrop of the partially nomadic Himalayan lifestyle, and food is seen not only as fuel but also as a source of healing and connection.
After meeting Yeshi during her travels (the story of which is beautifully told in the Introduction), Julie and Yeshi married and settled in the UK, where they have two young children. The pair started out selling takeaway food from their home (in Oxford) before they launched their Taste Tibet food stall in 2014, housed in a replica Tibetan picnicking tent, and opened a permanent restaurant in late 2020. In 2021 they were a finalist in the the Best Street Food or Takeaway category of the BBC Food and Farming Awards – Taste Tibet serves a mix of street food favourites and several unique Tibetan dishes that are not readily found elsewhere in the UK.
In 2019, Julie won the Yan-Kit So Award for Food Writers on Asia, a prize that’s awarded every two years to an emerging writer who’s work can enhance and expand our understanding and appreciation of Asian food culture. The judges highlighted the originality of Julie’s proposal for a food and travel book that would marry detailed cultural exposition with the places and recipes of Tibet. Because of the pandemic, Julie and Yeshi weren’t able to take the 2-3 month long immersive research trip to multiple locations across Tibet that the £2500 prize was intended to fund. Fortunately, the award, announced at a larger event, still opened doors for them and that’s where the pair met their agent. With her support, Julie wrote an adjusted proposal for a book with more of a focus on understanding and cooking Tibetan food in the UK. Their pitch lead to offers from multiple publishers, and they chose Murdoch Books to help them bring to lifebthe book they hoped to create. The connections they made through the award also helped them to gain endorsements for the book from judges Fuchsia Dunlop and Ken Hom, among others.
The book’s Introduction provides a wonderful overview of traditional Tibetan life and culture. By way of stories about Yeshi’s life and family, we quickly learn how central family and local community are to the rural hamlets that live in the high mountain reaches of the Tibetan Himalayas. This cultural commentary is supported by fabulous travel photography (throughout the book) taken by Keiko Wong, a Chinese friend of the couple who was able to visit Yeshi’s village and capture images of his family going about their daily lives, of their home, food and cooking equipment, and of the mountain landscapes of Tibet.
Introductory chapters take us through Julie and Yeshi’s personal story; a precis of Tibetan food, how it fits into Tibetan daily life, and it’s medicinal role; a glimpse into the shifting landscape of Tibetan cuisine and culture; the etiquette or habits of the Tibetan table; and the practice of mindful eating.
As a child, Yeshi chose to spend much of his time herding the family’s livestock in the high reaches of the Tibetan plateau, learning to cook inside a yak hair tent at a young age. At the age of 19, he walked across the Himalayas to northern India with one of his younger brothers, who joined one of their older brothers working at Buddhist monastery Mundgod in Karnataka. Instead of heading home, Yeshi enrolled in a local school, learning to read and write Tibetan, as well as some basic English. After he finished at the school, he joined his brothers working at the monastery, where his older brother was by this time the head chef. During the years he worked at the monastery, Yeshi also did a lot of cooking, especially as part of his duties were to care for an elderly monk there. Tasked with keeping his ‘grandfather’ well fed, Yeshi learned about the nourishing properties of many ingredients.
He had been working in India for several years by the time he met Julie in 2009. Julie was visiting in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, a region of the Indian Himalayas as a tourist, seeking to photograph the Himalayan langur, a large, shy, silvery-coloured monkey that usually lives at higher elevation, but had descended due to the icy conditions that November. Meeting as they walked along the same mountain path, they got chatting and Yeshi invited Julie to his place for dinner. In the small single room he was sharing with a friend, he made Julie her first home-cooked Tibetan meal, beef thenthuk, a hand-pulled noodle soup which is a common evening meal in Tibet. Many more meals followed.
Julie points out that even after 20-odd years travelling, studying and living in China, and having visited the Tibetan region many times, she did not begin to experience and appreciate real Tibetan food until she met Yeshi.
Fast forward several years and the couple are married with two children, living in Oxford, and running their Taste Tibet business, part of their shared dream to put Tibet on the food map.
Although there are some similarities between Tibetan food and Chinese (with noodles, dumplings and lots of small dishes featuring in most meals), Tibetan cuisine has more in common with the food of Bhutan, Nepal and parts of Northern India. There is a liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns (known as yerma), as well as ginger, garlic, and coriander. Barley is a staple crop, growing very well at high altitude (unlike rice), and is used in many ways, including bread. Tsampa (roasted barley) is eaten in one form or another by most people every day.
The traditional Tibetan diet also features a lot of dairy, another key difference from a typical Chinese diet. Additives are rare, with a preference for local ingredients such as natural salts and berries used to add flavour and seasoning. Hearty stews and soups that are both warming and energy-dense are needed in the harsh, cold environments of this mountainous region.
Diet is intimately linked to the landscape, with the majority of ingredients grown locally and eaten in season, with some items traded with other villages that grow different produce. Rice, tea and vegetable oil are among the few staples that must be purchased. In recent years, greenhouses have increased the growing season and range of food that can be grown up in the high mountains, though some prefer to stick to what they know and have grown for generations.
Meat and dairy are usually from yaks and sometimes also from yak-cattle hybrids, sheep and goats, all of which have the large lungs needed to survive and thrive at high altitudes. Yaks are traditionally both beasts of burden and sources of dairy, but when they reach the end of their life, they are slaughtered and their meat cured to preserve it for use through the winter. Their skin and bones are all used; there is no waste – true nose to tail consumption.
As well as a deep respect for the ingredients, Tibetans also grow up with an understanding of how diet is intrinsically linked to good health, and that a good diet is essential to sustain life. Each person must strive to keep their bodies in balance according to their own disposition. Living so far from hospitals and access to Western medicine, there is great importance placed on the healing properties of different foods, with a categorisation of hot, neutral and cooling foods that is much like the Sattvic or yogic diet I learned about from my mum and our family in India.
Having known very little about Tibetan life, food or culture, I drink in these informative chapters, and especially enjoy the introduction to the Tibetan table. Sitting on the floor or at a low table is prevalent, with everyone eating from the shared dishes assembled. Tibetans eat from small bowls that are traditionally carved from a single piece of wood, and many will keep one bowl for life, carrying it with them wherever they go. I appreciate the custom of only taking into one’s personal bowl a small amount at a time, so that no-one takes more than they can eat, and no food is wasted. It is customary to offer food to others before yourself, and eating is a quiet and contemplative affair, with each person quietly savouring their food. Each meal is preceded by a prayer and offering to Buddha – there is reflection too on how the generosity and work of others has provided the meal, and an appreciation of basic Buddhist tenets on helping others, accepting what is offered, and living in the moment.
That said, while Buddhism is the main religion of Tibet, a common mistake or assumption is that the Tibetan diet is vegetarian. In fact, a diet heavy in meat and dairy is essential in providing sufficient nourishment to fuel the active lifestyle of Tibetans living in a cold mountain climate. For some Tibetans, the core diet is changing in response to the increased use of greenhouses in recent years (which expand both the season and range of vegetables grown), and for those Tibetans resettled (whether forcibly or voluntarily) from their high-mountain villages, a move away from their nomadic lifestyle has also changed what they eat.
Alongside the cultural introduction to Tibetan life, there is much practical guidance too; there are “recipe notes” covering key cooking techniques and equipment at the end of the Introduction – and an Ingredients glossary and guide to pronunciation, at the end of the book.
You won’t need any fancy appliances to make Tibetan food; Julie lists useful items such as chopping boards and rolling pins, mixing bowls, cooking pans (including a wok), a steamer (or steaming baskets that sit above a pan), a measuring jug and spoons, a mortar and pestle, a kettle, and the stove itself. Most ingredients are readily accessible, with a few (such as Bassar curry masala, black cloud fungus, mung bean starch and Sichuan pepper oil) that may need a visit to a specialist shop or online retailer.
Over 80 recipes are shared in the book, featuring restaurant favourites such as Taste Tibet momos (both beef and veggie), Tibetan dal, several of Yeshi’s curries and stews, and homemade flat-breads and pickles, alongside recipes for hand-pulled noodles, simple stir-fries and side dishes, and a number of recipes featuring Tibetan staple, barley.
Recipes are divided into chapters for Breakfast; Cold Dishes; Rice and Stir-Fries; Noodles, Soups and Stews; Dumplings, Pasties and Bread; Sauces and Dips; Street Food Favourites; and Sweet Tooth. Virtually all recipes come with bright, inviting images of the finished dish, or steps in its preparation – and there are extra images to help with shaping dumplings, steamed bread and biscuits.
The Tibetan way of life is further revealed in many of the recipe Introductions, not only placing ingredients and dishes in context but sharing memories that Yeshi associates with so many of the dishes.
The first recipes we make from the book is Shogo Momos (steamed dumplings filled with spiced potato), and Tomato Sepen (a tomato and chilli dip) to go with them. Pete makes the filling and dough, and then we sit together to form the dumplings – Pete rolling the discs of dough and me filling and shaping each dumpling. Cooked in our bamboo steaming baskets, the dough puffs up into thick, fluffy wrappers and the filling softens, the flavours of spices melding into the potato, spinach and spring onion. One steamed, we enjoy them with the intensely fiery sepen; a recipe we know we’ll be making often as a condiment to all sorts of meals.
Next Pete cooks Tibetan Meatball Soup along with Giant Fluffy Sharing Bread and it’s another dish I want to eat again and again. A short list of simple ingredients including ground beef, an egg to bind, and coriander leaves, onion, garlic, salt and Sichuan pepper go into the meatballs. The soup is nothing more than the broth created by cooking the meatballs in water. To make the soup, meatballs and their cooking liquid are supplemented by baby spinach leaves and coriander leaves. This is such a warming and comforting dish, a perfect soother if you are feeling cold, sad or poorly.
After this, it’s Bhatsa Marku (Tibetan Gnocchi with Meat), another superbly simple dish. The gnocchi are made of flour, salt and cold water. Once cooked they are combined with lean beef steak, chestnut mushrooms, spring onion greens and butter. That’s it – nothing else! It’s one of those dishes you might think seems bland on reading the recipe because there are no spices, no soy sauce, no condiments, or such. But the flavours of these ingredients, especially the beef, mushrooms and butter, give you all the tastiness you need! Add another to the growing ‘make again and often’ pile.
There are so many more recipes I want to try soon including Breakfast Tampa (roasted barley flour, butter and cheese mixed with a little hot water and pressed into solid pieces ), Mooli and Yoghurt Salad, Yellow Laphing (grilled yellow jelly noodles), Stir-Fried Sweetheart Cabbage, Beef Shaptak (stir-fry), Beef and Bacon Noodle Soup, Beef Thenthuk (beef hand-pulled noodles, the first dish Yeshi made for Julie), Sabtuk (nettle soup), Labu Shaku (Tibetan lamb soup), Beef Momos, and Khabsey (ceremonial biscuits).
Taste Tibet provides the whole package – a heart-felt, personal and fascinating guide to Tibetan culture and lifestyle, an understanding of the place and importance of food within daily life and its role in health and wellbeing, beautiful and intimate travel photography that brings Julie’s words alive, food photography that showcases each recipe, and a great selection of simple, nutritious and delicious Tibetan recipes that are straightforward to replicate at home.
Recipes From Taste Tibet
We are delighted to share these four recipes from the book, with permission from publisher Murdoch Books [first recipe posting tomorrow].
- Tibetan Meatball Soup
- Dad’s Tibetan Rice
- Tibetan Vegetable Thukpa (Noodle Soup)
- Tibetan Sepen (Hot Chilli Dip)
If you decide to buy this book after reading our content, please consider clicking through our affiliate link, located below.
Kavey Eats received a review copy of Taste Tibet: Family Recipes from the Himalayas by Julie Kleeman and Yeshi Jampa from publisher Murdoch Books. Book food photography (see recipes) by Ola O. Smit; Book travel photography by Keiko Wong. Additional images provided by the authors.