World of Mouth: Don’t lose out on Losar!

The column that brings you food festivals from around the world; this week why are the Tibetan monks creating sculptures and illuminating lamps with yak butter?

yak butter burning lamps (photo credit: Courtesy)
yak butter burning lamps
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
Food is fantastic for eating but in many cultures, the people have found that it also works great as an artistic medium. In the past several months, this column has featured festivals where sculptures are made from onions, turnips and radishes. Tibetan monks, however, have found that yak butter works best for them when it comes to creating original works of art. On March 19, their work will be on display at the annual Chunga Choepa (Butter Lamp Festival) in Llasa. During Chunga Choepa, yak butter is not only used to make the sculptures, it is also used as a source of light since the festivities are illuminated by yak butter-burning lamps.
Chunga Choepa marks the tail end of 15 days of Losar (Tibetan New Year), the most important festival in Tibetan Buddhist culture. Naturally there is also plenty of tasty food and drink on hand during Losar, this time for eating rather than sculpting! The main events of Losar take place during the first three days of the new year according to the Tibetan lunar calendar. Starting on the first day, people drink a special beverage called Changkol, a Tibetan beer made from chaang (rice wine) and barley.
To eat, many Tibetans will prepare guthuk, a noodle containing nine different ingredients including dried cheese and various types of grain. Soups are popular as well, one of the most common being thukpa, a soup made with egg noodles, various vegetables, and spices. Another common Losar practice is to make a sort of fortune-telling soup which contains balls of dough with objects hidden inside them. The objects are said to signify something about who you are- for example, charcoal would indicate that you have a black heart while chili pepper would mean that you’re talkative. Other dishes might include Droma, a stew containing rice, potatoes, coriander, onions, paprika and garlic; or Dresi, a sweet saffron rice.
Of course no celebration is complete without sweets and during Losar, the most popular is a fried cookie called Khapsey. These cookies are rather time-consuming to make and therefore, are usually prepared several days in advance of the holiday. Khapsey are usually made with water, flour, butter (or oil) and sugar. They are molded into various shapes (the most common being one called the “donkey ear”) and then fried in hot oil.
When not drinking Changkol or eating Guthuk, Thukpa or Khapsey, you’re more than likely to find Losar celebrants enjoying a nice cup of tea, made with yak butter of course. A versatile product if ever there was one!
Chances are that you probably don’t have any yak butter in your fridge, but this recipe for Vegetable Thukpa from Rimi of the food blog Sauce, contains ingredients that are easy for anyone to find. Happy Losar!
Tibetan Vegetable Thukpa
Ingredients:-Chicken, pork, seafood of preference- chicken and pork should be marinated in lime or lemon juice and salt for at least 30 minutes.-Shallots ( chopped) OR basil.-Beans of any kind--chopped.-Spinach-Carrots--diced-Onions--chopped-Garlic+ginger--peeled and minced.-Noodles of any kind (egg noodles are traditional)-Coriander+cumin powder (twice as much coriander as cumin)-Salt, pepper, sugar to taste.-Soy sauce to taste.-Any other vegetable you fancy.-Dry red chilies marinated in vinegar (optional)-Turmeric (optional)
NOTE: this can very easily be vegetarian-friendly by eliminating the meat and instead adding chunks of potatoes or tofu.
Directions:1.  Precook your noodles and drain.
2.  Heat about half a tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan or a deep wok. When the oil is hot, reduce heat to medium and toss in the meat. (If using seafood, fry it lightly and move on. If using chicken or pork, fry well with frequent tossing till the meat changes color thoroughly. If using tofu, add it after the hard vegetables and fry for a minute.)
3.  Add the chopped and diced vegetables in sequence, hard vegetables first (carrots, beans), onions and minced stuff next, leafy stuff after that (chopped spinach) and delicate ones (shallots) at the very last minute.
*If using red chillies marinated in vinegar, make a paste of the chilies, a teaspoon of vinegar, a dash of salt and a teaspoon of a flavored oil, like sesame or olive oil.
4.  When the vegetables are well fried, add the drained noodles and toss like mad till it's all been mixed together very well.
5.  Now add as much crushed black pepper as you can stand, salt, and a pinch of sugar. Mix in well.
6.  Sprinkle in the cumin, coriander, a tiny pinch of turmeric and mix in well.
7.  Add soy sauce to taste and pour in just enough water to cover noodle by ½ inch. Cover and simmer for five to ten minutes, depending on how thick you want your Thukpa.
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