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  • Letter from Lhasa: A paradise for foodies

    2023-11-16 10:10:28By:Xinhua

    Pandor makes Tsampa, a traditional Tibetan staple food of roasted barley flour in Lhasa, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, March 11, 2020. (Xinhua/Purbu Zhaxi)
    LHASA, Nov. 16, 2023 -- Prior to my arrival in the Xizang Autonomous Region, numerous friends cautioned me that due to the region's high altitude and low boiling point, the local cuisine might not be particularly flavorful. And given the accelerated metabolism caused by higher heart rates, I was told to be prepared for weight loss during my stay.
    However, my experience in Lhasa has gradually shattered these misconceptions. As a city boasting a population of nearly 900,000, the culinary scene here is remarkably diverse and fiercely competitive. From the well-preserved traditional yak beef and mutton, delectable stir-fry dishes and sizzling hot pot to tantalizing Japanese and Korean cuisines, not to mention indulgent steak dinners, you name it, and you'll find it.
    From what I have seen, locals usually begin their day in a teahouse. The rich tea culture rooted in the traditional Tibetan diet revolves around the consumption of sweet tea or yak butter tea, which helps faster digestion of greasy food like mutton and beef. In Lhasa, a simple search for "teahouse" on Dianping, the Chinese equivalent of Yelp, yields an astonishing number of over 10,000 results, showcasing the city's vibrant teahouse scene.
    Having visited numerous teahouses myself, I can confidently say that apart from the high-calorie content, which can be necessary to maintain energy levels in high-altitude regions, the breakfast options have never disappointed me.
    A typical Tibetan-style breakfast offers a variety of choices, including Tsampa, Tibetan noodles, fried beef pie, yak butter tea and sweet tea.
    Tsampa is a dough made of roasted highland barley flour. Whether you visit a humble roadside teahouse or an opulent five-star hotel buffet here, you can always expect to find tsampa.
    I vividly recall my initial introduction to tsampa at a hotel, where a Tibetan friend kindly demonstrated the process of preparing the dough and generously shared a small portion with me. I was instantly captivated by the distinct aroma of grains. I remember my friend telling me that they also mix the dough with butter tea to enhance its thickness and flavor.
    Unlike in the past, when tsampa may have been the sole affordable food option for serfs before the region's peaceful liberation, people here now enjoy a wide array of choices. Today, dining tables on the plateau have a diverse selection of exotic dishes from around the world.
    The fast-food chain KFC, for example, has more than 10 outlets in Lhasa, according to Dianping. To my surprise, I found that the best-selling item in KFC restaurants here is not burgers or fries, but rather the popular "Family Bucket" meal.

    A KFC branch is pictured on a downtown street of Lhasa, southwest China's Xizang Autonomous Region, March 24, 2023. (Xinhua/Sun Fei)
    According to a manager of the KFC restaurant located across from the Polata Palace, Tibetans have a strong affinity for fried foods, and they cherish the tradition of picnicking in forests and alongside rivers during the summer for leisure time. As a result, combo meals have become a preferred choice for family or friends to come together and enjoy a reunion during these outings.
    If you think there is no fresh seafood in this landlocked region, you are obviously wrong. In fact, I have even included an "Omakase" restaurant on my list of must-try places. With prices ranging from 399 yuan (55.6 U.S. dollars) to 699 yuan and beyond, seafood lovers can relish the experience of savoring freshly flown-in items at the cafeteria located in a downtown villa.
    For dinner, local specialties such as Tibetan hot pot and stone pot chicken are greatly loved by both locals and visitors. Certain restaurants offer captivating performances, mainly showcasing traditional Tibetan singing and dancing, to accompany the delectable food and enhance the dining experience for patrons.
    Local colleagues insisted that I try Nepalese curry rice. I've been to some Nepalese restaurants and I must admit that each one has exuded authenticity, with some managed by Nepalese or Indians themselves. The aromatic blend of rich curry and flavorful rice instantly transported me to the vibrant culinary landscapes of Nepal and India, located not far from here.
    Many restaurants here also serve diverse cuisines from different regions of China, including Sichuan, Hunan and Guangdong. Based on my personal experience, the flavors of Lanzhou beef noodles and Sichuan hot pots found here are on par with those served in their respective origins. I just can't get enough of them!
    After a satisfying dinner, one must not miss out on the local snacks, with fried potatoes being the most highly recommended. Due to the challenges of growing green vegetables in the plateau's environment and preserving leafy greens, potatoes have become the go-to ingredient for snacks. The boiling oil ensures quick and efficient cooking.
    Besides, tourists often indulge in other coveted snacks such as spicy chilled noodles, yak yogurt, and popsicles, adding to the delightful culinary experience.
    If you are still concerned about Lhasa's low boiling point, about 85 degrees Celsius, there's no need to worry. Thanks to the improvement in people's living conditions in the region in recent years, traditional wood fuel has been replaced by gas, electronic butter blenders have gained popularity, and pressure cookers have become an essential kitchen tool.

    By: Cao Bin
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