Saturday, November 29, 2014

Eating dal bhat in Mustang, the country of Tashi, a young buddhist monk.

The only available road to Lo Manthang is this ancient mountain path

"Tashi Delek" is a documentary about a teenage monk Tashi in Mustang, the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo. Tashi Delek is a traditional way of greeting. The film is in the final stage of production and the small team of creators is looking for support at Kickstarter. The documentary is directed by an Estonian director Peeter Rebane, music by a Brazilian composer and solo guitarist Eduardo Agni.

I am extremely pleased to share an interview with the producer of the film, Priit Rebane. I hope that the culinary excursion will create appetite for you to see the documentary and support it. 

Priit, What is the typical food on the table of the people of Mustang?
Priit: Local people typically eat only one type of food, which is dal bhat, rice with lentil stew. If available, a little bit of cooked spinach or some other greens is added and sometimes you even get some marinated vegetables like carrot or radish. Occasionally the meal contains a scoop of cauliflower or potatoes in a curry sauce.  A bit of chili or pickle is usually available to spice it up if you wish since the lentil stew is usually quite mild.
It is customary to eat dal bhat two times a day. In the morning before going to work they eat a large portion and in the evening they eat the same food again. There is no significant lunch as such. And the same happens every day and every week. Very simple basic food. 
In the mountains people also drink tea with milk or yak butter. The latter is a  traditional Tibetan tea. It is made with greasy yak butter, savoury and really tastes like salty broth with tea. It was a bit unusual for us, but obviously a cup of such brew contains a lot of energy.

A beautifully arranged dal bhat, clearly displaying all the ingredients

It is my belief, that up in the high Himalayas this dish was traditionally made with  barley instead of rice. We had a chance to try such a version once. Barley or tsampa is a grain that grows high up in the mountains. Rice doesn´t. However, these days rice is clearly a lot cheaper, it is often imported from China.
Rice is grown down in the valleys. In the Kathmandu or Pokhara valleys there are rice fields and on the edges of the rice parcels lentil is grown. This  means that they grow everything they need  locally. Life in the villages is based on a self sufficient goods exchange economy without much money involved. If someone works for you, you pay him in foodstuff or owe him a day of labour.

A street view of a village at 4000m

So, people eat a predominantly vegetarian diet. Yaks, sheep or goats provide some milk, meat is rare. According to Buddhist tradition fish is generally not eaten and there isn´t much fish in the mountains anyway.
There are also Tibetan momos that remind you of large ravioli, usually made with a vegetarian filling. Sometimes a bit of  meat or even mushrooms could be added. The momos are very tasty.

What did the film crew eat when you were working there?
Priit: Normally we ate the same food as the people of Mustang.
Nowadays it is possible to have a slightly more diverse menu in the inns and guesthouses, but your best bet is local food - they know how to make this well.
A couple of times we did offer our local crew to try something else, but  their answer was that they prefer their dal bhat and they didn´t want anything else. 
So we got used to dal bhat and had it once or even twice a day. Tasty and nutritious food, not too heavy or spicy either.
Jamyang, one of the two monks in the film, having dal bhat at a local inn

We preferred to have some alternative foods for breakfast when possible. Usually we had thick barley porridge as our breakfast meal and it was really good, just like we know it in Estonia too. Once it was served as "a Do It Yourself kit " with barley flour in one bowl and a cup of hot water next to it.
Up to about 2800 meters it is possible to grow apples and in these lower villages apples were ripe in October. Fresh apples on the tsampa porridge tasted good.
Boiled or fried eggs in the morning was a luxury we as tourist could enjoy with our porridge and tea. 
Sea-buckthorn grows very well at 3000-4000 m altitude and we  had some fresh buckthorn juice which contains a lot of vitamins and antioxidants. If not available fresh, they had made syrup out of it and we mixed it with hot water.

Please describe the local way of cooking.
Priit: Guesthouses are typically inns along the  mountain path at about one day walking distance, like it used to be in medieval Europe. There is a big kitchen with a stove or fireplace. In some inns they have started to carry liquid gas tanks up on horseback and use that for cooking. It is not easy to find wood in the high mountains, almost nothing grows above 2500 m, no trees and almost no bushes. 
Local fields, where they exist at the bottom of a valley, are irrigated by glacial water streaming down from the snowy peaks. Due to global warming, there is less and less of this water today and many fields are now deserted as a result.

Kitchen of a guest house in Tsarang, Upper Mustang

The people of Mustang use dried yak manure to make a fire and cook food. They cant´t heat their houses since there is no wood to burn. Thus there are no ovens, just a fireplace on the earthen floor to cook food and boil water. Smoke goes out of the window or the door. In winter it can be very windy and freezing cold. Temperature drops below -20 degrees Celsius.
Living conditions are very limited and medieval, seems like going back in time 400-500 years. It really makes you appreciate more all the comforts that we have in the modern world and not take these for granted.

Priit, thanks a million for taking us on this wonderful culinary journey to Mustang, the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo. 

Picturesque and harsh landscapes at the outskirts of the city of Lo Manthang

Dear reader, I hope that you found this interview exiting and eye-opening.

You can see the official trailer of the documentary here.
The link to more information and the director explaining the story on how the project started is here:
Tashi Delek - Story of a young buddhist monk
Take a few minutes to enjoy the talent of Eduardo Agni, the Brazilian composer behind the music of the documentary, in these two examples of his previous work: RED and ANOTHER SILENCE 2. It is awesome.

The project needs support to be finished at the highest quality so that the story of Tashi Delek can be enjoyed by us who will most likely never visit the far away Mustang.
Please share this with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or e-mail and if you feel you want to be part of making the documentary happen and you feel this project is worth a contribution of 5, 10, 25, 50,... USD in return for various rewards like a free HD download of this documentary or HQ soundtrack, your contribution on Kickstarter will be most deeply appreciated. Thank you!