A guide to Tibetan food in Ladakh

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I want to ask you a question:

”On a normal weekday for dinner at your home, would you eat a noodle soup as a starter and a plate of spaghetti carbonara as a main course along with some bread?”

That would be a lot of pasta, carbs and more carbs, right? Unless you are drunk, or haven’t eaten in days or just came from running a marathon, not a lot of people would like to eat those two meals together. Why? Basically because they don’t complement each other. Pasta with pasta? For dinner? No thanks. Who the hell does that? That would be the most common answer.

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, Tibetans in Ladakh eat pasta with pasta and more pasta. On my first day, with only looking at the menu I quickly realized that Tibetan cuisine is highly rich in carbs. No meat, no vegetables. Just pasta and flour. But what I didn’t know is that they even mix all these pasta dishes in one single meal. How did I find out?

I was in a homestay on my last day of trekking. At dinner time, the family I was staying with invited me to join them at the table. They were eating a dish called skyu, which is basically pasta. Quite a heavy one. It was 9:30 pm. I finished it and was completely full. Then the woman of the house stood up and brought a big pot with noodle soup. Without even asking she filled my bowl. All right, I thought she was just trying to be a good host. But then, she served it to the rest of the family. Everybody finished their plate and looked real satisfied. I kind of did it as well. Two heavy dishes of pasta. I didn’t sleep properly that night.

Why would they do that? In order to understand how our world works, we need to get out of our comfort zone and start wondering and analyzing why some cultures do what they do. Because you know what? Behind any cultural habit there’s always motive.

Tibetan food

 

A Guide to Tibetan food in Ladakh

Tibetans eat carbs to fight the extreme geographic conditions

Ladakhis are people who live at a very high altitude. The ones living in the capital live at 3,500m and there is an endless number of villages above 4,000m. Winters are long and harsh. Temperature doesn’t reach over 0Cº and Tibetans don’t have heaters. Most of them don’t have vehicles. They don’t have machines to work on their plantations. For centuries, these Tibetans have done things manually. Under such geographic conditions, the energy needed to survive and fight this climate is high. How do you recharge and recover it? With carbs basically. The reason they have a diet rich in carbs is just geographical and historical. For centuries they have needed them to survive.

A Tibetan shepherd living at 4,200m, Ladakh
A Tibetan shepherd living at 4,200m

And what about meat?

And why not meat? Well, basically because many Ladakhis are actually vegetarians and the ones who are not don’t eat much meat. Meat is expensive. A plate of noodles is not. They told me that they eat meat (yak and mutton) only during winter and on special occasions.

Why not more vegetables?

Ladakhis (and Tibetans in general ) only started eating vegetables recently. It’s very hard to cultivate and grow vegetables in such a cold and arid land, but lately Tibetans have improved and optimized their system and vegetable production has increased substantially.

Tibetan cuisine: Must try dishes

Momos: Let’s start with the classic one

The most internationally well-known dish of Tibetan cuisine are momos. Everyone likes momos. It’s a flexible dish that can be eaten for any meal and as well as a snack. Momos consist of a very thick pasta filled with either meat, vegetables or cheese. They may be steamed or fried. They can be found in almost any restaurant in Ladakh.

Tibetan momos
Tibetan momos

Skyu: Pure Ladakhi Tibetan dish

Tibetan food in Ladakh is merely a variation of the one found in Tibet, but there’s one dish which is exclusive from Ladakh called skyu, which consists of diced flour dough cooked slowly. Ladakhis translate it as flour stew. It’s made of the same pasta as the momos. It’s a very heavy dish and it’s perfect for hiking. You can only find it in some local restaurants.

Skyu, the most genuine Ladakhi dish
Skyu, the most genuine Ladakhi dish

Butter Tea: A tough one

I love trying new things and don’t like to judge, but seriously, this typical Ladakhi tea killed me. What is butter tea? It’s just regular black tea, but when served they drop butter in it and let it melt. I found this tea extremely disgusting, but I drank it anyways. As I said before, there’s always a reason behind any cultural habit. Ladakhis told me that historically, they used to add butter because it gives an extra source of calories, and calories are needed for high altitudes. Moreover, butter also helps to prevent chapped lips.

I also tasted it when I was traveling in Pakistan, in the northern areas.

Tea butter, a very old tradition in Tibet
Tibetan tea butter

Thukpa: An old winter tradition

This is a very traditional and old Tibetan dish consisting of a noodle soup with chopped vegetables. It’s clearly a winter soup, although they eat it on any day of the year along with skyu. There are a lot of thukpa variations. You will mostly find the vegetarian variant, but you might also find it with mutton or yak meat.

Tibetan thukpa, consisting of noodles and vegetables
Tibetan thukpa

Thenktuk: Like thukpa but with flour

It’s quite similar to thukpa, but instead of noodles, they put pieces of flour dough. The broth also changes and in my case it had way fewer spices.

Tibetan thenktuk, consisting of a flour soup with vegetables
Tibetan thenktuk

Tingmo: Pasta filled with pasta

Tingmos are difficult to find in Ladakh but you can be lucky and get one at some of the street food stalls in Leh. At first, you may think that these buns are filled with vegetables or meat. No, they are not. They are made of the same pasta as momos and they are filled with more pasta. Well, actually they are not filled with pasta. It’s just an enormous ball of pasta. They serve it along with vegetables and chilly sauce and you just dip it. I think this is one of the most popular snacks within Tibetan food.

Tibetan tingmo, flour buns eaten with chilly and veegtables
Tibetan tingmo

Breads: Khambir and balep korkun

In Ladakh, bread is a big thing, and it’s real good. Besides the Indian traditional bread such as chapati or paratha, there are the local breads called khambir and balep korkun. Both are very similar flat breads, but while the first one is cooked in an oven, the second one is cooked in a skillet. Typically, they eat it with eggs for breakfast.

Khambir bread shop, a popular Tibetan bread
Khambir bread shop

Conclusion

Let’s be honest with each other. Who hasn’t ever seen someone from a different nationality doing something strange and then you tell yourself: ”This dude is so weird”. Come on. Everybody has done it several times and I include myself. Please keep in mind that whatever strange cultural habit you see, there’s always a historical motive behind it.

Read more: Food in India – An advanced guide for foreign travelers

Tibetan food

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