Learning Holiday: Cooking Tibetan Treats In McLeod Ganj

The past and present meet over home-made bread.  
Thukpa Tibetan food McLeod Ganj
Tuk means noodles, and thukpa is a hearty noodle soup served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Photo: Luis Martinez/Axiom/Design Pics Inc/Alamy/Indiapicture

Half-moons, tear-drops, and round shapes. Translucent wrappers stuffed with chicken, spinach, vegetables, potato, or cheese. Deep fried, pan-fried, or steamed. After two days in McLeod Ganj, the hilly Himachal Pradesh town as famous for its momos as it is for being the home of the Dalai Lama, I had exhausted every possible variation of the Tibetan dumpling. While walking along Jogibara Road, one of McLeod Ganj’s main streets, I saw a worn-out poster for chocolate momos. This was new. It was a poster advertising Tibetan cooking classes. To try this particular momo, I would have to make it myself.

That evening, I walked to Sangye’s Kitchen. The sign outside read: “Ask me anything about Tibet, let’s enjoy conversation.” Sangye’s three-day Tibetan course would include making noodles, soups, and breads—and chocolate momos. I decided to enlist for the course.

Sangye greeted me with a warm smile when I stepped into the tiny room for my first class. I sat on a plastic chair around the main table. Other travellers—three backpackers from Europe and a family of four from Israel—filled the rest of the seats.

Tibetan steamed dumplings Food

Savoury momos are best eaten with chilli sauce though the chocolate ones are a dessert. Photo: Brian Yarvin/Alamy/Indiapicture

Day one was for momo-making. On the menu were spinach and cheese, vegetable, and chocolate dumplings, made of refined wheat flour dough and steamed. Making momos, I learnt, is rather time consuming. Sangye told us that in Tibet, families gather in the kitchen to joke and gossip while filling up the pockets of dough. Men typically cut the vegetables and meat while women do the rolling, stuffing, and steaming. A good momo has a thin skin wrapper and is juicy on the inside. For this, fatty pieces of meat are chopped into bits, as grinding them makes the momos less juicy. I learn how to enjoy the perfect momo: Take a small bite at one end, suck out the juice, drop in some chilli sauce, then eat the rest.

We began our class with the dough. “Use only your fingertips to mix,” Sangye instructed, “there is no need to mess up your entire hand.” As I worked on getting my dough to a soft, elastic mass, I looked around at the walls. Posters calling for Tibet’s freedom, photos of the Dalai Lama and monks who had lost their lives protesting Tibet’s occupation covered the walls. A corner shelf held a shrine with more photos of the Dalai Lama and a young monk who has been missing for over 20 years. There were offerings of biscuits, small glass bottles of Coca Cola and Fanta, and sweets.

Tibetan bread food

Since modern ovens are not used in Tibetan cooking, bread is baked by burying the dough in embers, or cooking it with dry heat in a covered pot. Photo: Melinda Chan/Moment Open/Getty Images

“This is my own secret recipe.” Sangye chirped bringing my attention back to the class. I watched as he stuffed the last of the momos with cocoa powder and sugar. The momos were steamed and 15 minutes later, we had a feast. A Tibetan rhyme appropriate to the situation translates to something like “Making momos is a lot of work, eating too many will make your stomach hurt.” Given the number of chocolate momos I ate, I deserved to get a bellyache the next day.

Tibetan cooking class McLeod Ganj

Sangye speaks of Tibet fondly as he teaches cooking using his mother’s recipes. Photo: Natasha Sahgal

Luckily my stomach stayed strong on day two, which was soup day. We made a classic thenthuk, a broth of vegetables, meat, and hand-pulled noodles, which is typical dinner fare in some parts of Tibet. We made the noodles by stretching out the dough and dropping flat, one-inch long pieces into the boiling stew. The result was a warm, wholesome meal in a bowl.

On the third day, while waiting for the class to fill up, I finally built up the courage to ask Sangye about his journey from Tibet to India. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do or what the proper etiquette for bringing up such a sensitive topic was, but Sangye was unfazed. He told us that he walked from Kham, in eastern Tibet, to Nepal in 1997, when he was 13 years old. His family could only afford to pay a fixer for one person’s passage, so Sangye was sent without his parents or two siblings. For over two weeks, the group of refugees walked across snowy mountains with nothing but tsampa (roasted barley flour) to eat. Every evening they would melt some snow, mix it into the flour, and make little balls of dough to share. Battling frostbite and an inexperienced guide, who ran away mid-journey, the group finally made it out of Tibet into Nepal.

Tingmo steamed bread

Tingmo is a steamed bread that Tibetans usually serve with soup or gravy. Photo: Natasha Sahgal

From Nepal, Sangye was sent to a refugee centre in Dharamsala, where he slowly settled in. In 1999, he came up with the idea of starting Tibetan cooking classes in McLeod Ganj. At the time, he had no way of contacting his family. They did not even know if he had made it across the border alive.

The serious atmosphere in the room during Sangye’s story was broken with a fun session of kneading dough. As we set about making Tibetan brown bread, cookies, and bhalek, a kind of stuffed white bread, our energetic chef promised a prize to anyone who could spot his oven. We looked around his kitchen, filled with basic vessels, vegetables, and a gas stove. Nothing resembled an oven. Sangye pointed to the gas burner and an aluminium vessel, like the one I use to brew tea. “That is my oven,” he said proudly. He coated the bottom of the vessel with oil, threw in the circular stuffed dough, and covered it with a steel plate. As we struggled to make khapse (Tibetan cookies), the comforting smell of baking bread filled the room. And 20 minutes later, we were surprised to find a perfectly risen loaf of bread.

Sangye’s face lit up. “I love bhalek because it reminds me of my childhood,” he said. “Every morning, my mother would make one large bhalek, but every day the filling would change. I still remember holding my food in a bag and swinging it the whole way to school.” Sangye walked across the room while swinging an imaginary satchel. His eyes twinkled. “I used to really look forward to lunch, to know what the day’s surprise filling was.”

Khapse Tibetan cookies

Tibetan cookies, or khapse are prepared for special occasions like weddings and the Tibetan New Year. Photo: Natasha Sahgal

In 2004, seven years after leaving Tibet, Sangye finally spoke to his mother on the telephone. The first time they were both on the line, no one spoke a word—they just cried. Three years later, he received the news that his mother had died. It was too risky for Sangye to visit Tibet for her funeral. The kitchen filled with a sudden heaviness, with not a dry eye in sight. “But I learned everything I know about cooking from her, and I think of her every day when I teach,” he smiled, his energy rising again. He carefully cut the bread into slices. The crust was crisp and golden, and the warm spinach filling was mushy and savoury. We devoured the loaf within minutes, and felt quite content and full. Just as I imagine the young Sangye must have felt at lunchtime at school.

Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “Treats and Tales from Tibet”.

The Guide

Sangye’s Kitchen is on Jogibara Road in McLeod Ganj (9816164540; ₹250 per class per day; classes held daily 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5-7 p.m.; class timings can be adjusted to suit individual schedules).

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    Natasha Sahgal is a traveller and writer. Her itchy feet take her around the world, making friends wherever she goes.

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