For Losar: Beetroot Momos with Lamb

New Year’s Eve Night
Bright torches fly overhead
Sweeping evil far away

Losar, the Tibetan New Year begins in a couple of hours and living a very different life, I look back on my travels and remember what Losar celebrations are like.  Food and barley beer flow for days and even weeks and rituals of eschewing evil and beginning anew are performed across the Tibetan world.

If we were in Tibet, we’d be making the final preparations for a festival that mixes sacred and secular practices — prayers, ceremonies, hanging prayer flags, sacred and folk dancing, partying.

Lamas Play Tsam Mystery
Lamas Play Tsam Mystery

 

In the days before Losar, Tibetan households draw pictures of the sun and moon or the eight auspicious symbols on their walls with a paste made of flour and water.  In monasteries, several protector deities are honored with devotional rituals.  On the last day of the year, monasteries are elaborately decorated. In homes, cakes, candies, breads, fruits and beer are offered on family altars.

There is a wonderful and unique ritual that I love in the days preceding Losar that involves imbuing a dough effigy with the bad spirit that are afflicting family members, then carrying him out of the house to the nearest intersection – so the bad spirits leave the house and will be too confused by the intersection of streets to come back.  While this ritual is performed, guthuk noodle soup is prepared or served.  The interesting thing about the soup are the dumplings which contain often inedible objects meant to communicate a message about the person who draws them.  There are wool inclusions, those made of glass, or even coal.  You guessed it – coal is for someone who has a black heart.

To begin the new year, it is also traditional to offer sprouted barley seeds and buckets of tsampa (roasted barley flour with butter) and other grains on home altars to ensure a good harvest. Laypeople visit friends to wish them Tashi Delek or “auspicious greetings”.

The second day of Losar, called King’s” Losar, is for honoring community and national leaders. Long ago, it was a day for kings to hand out gifts at public festivals.

On the third day of Losar, laypeople make special offerings to the dharma protectors. They raise prayer flags from hills, mountains and rooftops and burn juniper leaves and incense as offerings. The dharmapalas are praised in chant and song and asked for blessings.

To celebrate Losar, I want to share one of my recipes for Tibetan momos with you. Momos are traditional dumplings stuffed with a flavorful mixture of meat or vegetables and spices that are enjoyed with sauces and condiments galore.  However, since I’ve recently joined the 5-Star Foodie Makeover Cooking Challenge group,  I, along with the other members was given the assignment of creating a dish with beets. So to combine the tow efforts, the dish I’m going to offer today is Tibetan Momos made with beetroot flavored dough!

I like the flavor of beets a lot and cook with them often. One of my favorite snacks is beet greens sautéed in butter with a bit of nutmeg and salt and pepper. However, I was a bit worried by the assignment, because many beet dishes are notoriously difficult to photograph – the problem is the color. As you know, beets share their dark purple to magenta color most eagerly with other ingredients, making a dish like a curry, or stew or even most salads too uniform in color to photograph nicely. In the Buddhist spirit, I decided to make the problem the solution and used beets to add color and a bit of flavor to dough for my Losar momos.

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Tibetan Momos in Beetroot Pastry
Momos are tiny round or moon-shaped pastries filled with vegetables or meat and vegetable mixtures that are usually eaten as a main course dish in a multi-course meal in Tibet. In the west, they can be enjoyed this way or served as appetizers or snacks. They are best when served with plenty of sauces, pickles and other condiments.

Beetroot Momos in the Steamer

Beets
3 medium beets, roots only, washed
½ – 1 cup water

Wrap cleaned beetroots in aluminum foil, place on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350 F oven for about 1 hour. When they are done, they will yield a bit if squeezed. When done, set aside until cool enough to handle.

Remove beet roots from foil and slip the skins off with your fingers. Wear clean gloves if you want to avoid stains on your fingers and nails. Chop the beets roughly and place in a food processor or heavy-duty blender. Add about ½ cup water and pulse until you have a puree. Add additional water and blend until smooth. Make sure solids are blended out or strain through cheesecloth to remove.

Dough
3 cups flour
1- 1½ cups of beet liquid.

Place flour in a bowl and add liquid a little bit at a time and mix with a fork or spoon until the dough comes together. The exact amount of liquid added will depend upon the thickness of the liquid, the fineness of the flour and the humidity etc. – so be careful not to add too much liquid all at once. Mix and add liquid until the dough is properly hydrated.

Mix the dough with your hands until it is uniformly mixed and colored. If necessary add a couple of tablespoons more flour so that the dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Knead for 5-10 minutes until flexible and then cover and set aside briefly to rest.

Place a handful or more of the dough on a flat floured surface. Flatten it somewhat with your hands and then begin rolling it out with a rolling pin. Roll it until you can begin to see the surface below the dough, but it shouldn’t be much thinner than that, or it may not hold the filling during the steaming process.

Use a saucer or a plastic lid from a can about 4-6 inches in diameter to cut the momo dough into circles. Place cut circles aside on a small plate. I like to roll and cut all the dough before proceeding to the filling stage. The consistency of the dough with beetroot liquid in them is different and more elastic than when the dough is made with water. You may have to work harder at rolling – but keep at it, it can be done.

Tibetan Garam Masala
This Tibetan version varies from the Indian version basically by the addition of the bay leaves and the coriander seeds. Variations of this around Tibet also use seeds from black cardamom pods and nutmeg.
¼ cup coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds
2 Tablespoons bay leaves
2 Tablespoons cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons cloves

Grind items together as grouped by consistency – i.e. cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon stick can be ground together. When all items are ground or cracked – mix them together and grind briefly just to blend further. Most flavorful when used right after grinding. Store in a jar with a good seal.

Filling
¾ pound of ground beef or lamb*
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground Szechuan pepper
2 teaspoons Tibetan Garam Masala
2 large onions, peeled and finely diced
3 tablespoons ginger, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon garlic, peeled and diced
A large bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
2 cups king oyster mushrooms or daikon radish, sliced or shredded
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 teaspoon beef or vegetable broth

Melt butter in a medium sauté pan and sauté ground or finely diced meat, 1 teaspoon of salt and the black pepper until it becomes opaque and starts to firm. It should be only partially cooked when removed from the heat and set aside.

Combine diced onions, grated ginger and garlic and mix well. Add sautéed meat and mix again. Add ground Szechuan pepper and Tibetan Garam Masala as well as the cilantro and mushrooms and stir well. Add soy sauce and beef or vegetable broth and mix well. Set aside to cool if necessary.

*To make vegetarian replace meat with 3-4 cups of shredded bok choy or cabbage

Making Momos
Take the dough circles and place about a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half of filling in the center of the circle. Draw filling out a bit so it is more like a line than a circle, but be sure not to bring too close to the edges.

Plated Beetroot Momo

There are many ways to gather momos. One way is simply fold one edge of the dough over to form a half moon shape, and another is to gather the dough up into a “top knot” on top of the filling as pictured here. Pick a way to enclose the filling inside the momo. If using the half-moon shape, use a fork to seal the edges tightly and shape into a slight curve. If using the “top knot” shape, this can be done with your fingers. If you mix and match shapes, steam them separately, because one shape may take a bit longer to cook than another.

In a wok bring about 2 cups of water to a boil. As the water is boiling, wet a bamboo steamer to prepare it for use. Let sit for a few minutes and then spray the surfaces lightly with cooking oil. Place momos in steamer compartments and set time for about 10 minutes. If using a multi-tier steamer, work from the bottom up creating multiple layers of momos. When the water is boiling place steamer with momos on top of the boiling water.

As they steam the momos will begin to glisten and some may become translucent – this is desired. Cook them for about 10 minutes and remove them from the steamer as soon as possible or they may begin to stick. Move to a rack to cool. Serve room temperature or reheated with a selection of sauces, pickles and other condiments. Can also be served with soup and bread for a light meal – momos are more filling than they seem.
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They are delicious, especially with the sweet and sour Tibetan tomato sauce that often accompanies momos.  Interestingly, my husband found that the beetroot not only offers color, but also a bit of flavor – especially when one eats the “top knot” of the momos that I made.  With other shapes, it will likely modulate and dampen the spicy contents just a bit to add sweet to spicy as one eats the savory treats.

(Words, photo of Beetroot Momos in the Steamer, adaptation of traditional recipe and estatic Losar verse by Laura Kelley. Photo of Lamas Play Tsam Mystery by Zzvet@ Dreamstime.com)

New Year, New Day

Old Man Practicing Calligraphy

The large brush laden with water is drawn from the bucket by the old, steady hand and moved in deliberate strokes across the pavement.  One stroke, two, three or more until the complete character develops.  Luminous lines, black on grey stone he moves onto the next character.  The words from the ancient Tang poem begin to take shape.  Even in the afternoon sun it is bone cold, but he keeps on writing.  Before he reaches the end of the stanza, the first characters have begun to fade.  When he comes to the end, more than half the poem is gone – leaving no trace.

All across China, one finds elderly men practicing calligraphy in this way.  In parks, on sidewalks in big cities and small towns, men armed with a bucket and a long brush incessantly trace out words from times long past.  Old poems, classical tales, and bits of history they learned as young boys or men – words flowing out of their brushes and fading almost as quickly as they were born again.

They say they do this to keep their minds sharp and hands strong.  Lately, I have been contemplating the spiritual or cathartic value of producing such transient and beautiful art with personal subjects.  It could be so liberating!  Because it is a public expression, sharing and communicating the experience stops it from being bottled up inside.  As the words fade, so do one’s attachment to the events or people that formed the basis of your composition.  Calligraphy therapy.

At this time of the New Year when we often contemplate our lives and make adjustments to try to live better or healthier, be kinder, more patient, less greedy etc., I thought that this image and concept might be useful to some of you.

Years ago, in graduate school I employed a sort of food-based catharsis with alphabet soup.  I’d spell the name of the person or thing out on the rim of the bowl and eat it last after all the soup was gone, chewing each letter slowly to make sure it was gone completely and would trouble me no more.  Not the most tasty way to eat soup, but a satisfying one if someone or something is vexing you. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Old Man Practicing Calligraphy by Chen Po Chuan @ Dreamstime.com).

Oceans of Time

A Rider in Ramses Palace

As another year draws to an end on the Julian-Gregorian calendar, it is time to bid farewell to the old and ring in the new; to forget the failures and sins of the past (at least for a few hours); and to pray to or resolve in some way to do better in the future. I woke this morning to find the forest blanketed in a few inches of surprise snow and look forward to a quiet, contemplative passage amidst this crystalline, whitewashed landscape.

A couple of hundred years ago, these rolling hills were pastureland traversed by streams. Now, our woods are made up of tall, deciduous hardwoods, a few gnarly, old pines, and some large hollies, bejeweled at this time of year in rubies and garnets. Fallen giants lay strewn like burnt matchsticks in the snow forming the basis for a rich, new forest floor.

Taking a great leap back in time, the great desert that today stretches from North Africa through the Levant made up part of the bottom of the vast Tethys Sea. Today, this area is covered with sand that ranges from warm, silky Saharan sand that allows one to silently pass to hard, calcium, salt-rich sand that crackles underfoot.

The sand all around can be transformed into clear glass, and great cities and dynasties can fall to dust. Transience . . . impermanence . . . No matter how hard we try for immortality, time, more often than not, has other plans.

On the blazingly hot August afternoon that I took this photograph, I watched the donkey trod slowly and methodically across the ruins of the palace, crunching eons of history beneath his hooves. The palace was once unequaled for its splendor and beauty – occupied by one of Ramesses’ sons and his court. Lives, loves, and intrigues were all played out within these walls that had long-ago fallen away. The path that led now leads to the souk was once a colonnaded reception hall for a prince who later became a pharaoh – a God descended. An Egyptian mud brick here, a piece of Greek pottery or Roman vessel there, the donkey was indiscriminate in his destruction as he strode on.

Some of the great empires and metropolises of the Silk Road have met the same fate as Ramesses’ palace, others have had modern cities grow up around them and eventually devour them, leaving a tourist attraction or a museum in place of a living, breathing humanity.

Modern physics teaches us that time is not linear progression, but rather like space it folds over on itself. So it follows that if you listen or look carefully, that you can hear and see the fragmented echoes of history in the present. China’s Jews may have vanished, but the coarse hair and Caucasoid facial features of their descendants remain. Similarly, the modern merchants who profit off of the sales of shark’s fin and bird’s nests for expensive, Chinese delicacies have forgotten that the great explorer, Zheng He brought these foods back to China from Southeast Asia. Readers of the Silk Road Gourmet, however, can feel and taste the remnants of China’s first great age of globalization in every bite.

Like the artisan restoring a lost mural, first the outline becomes clear and then one-by-one the details become evident as we find the past constantly informs the present. In the act of restoring the past, the man from the future also effects the past – at the very least by changing the knowledge and appreciation of it in the present and future.

If asked, “Who was the most important person of the 20th Century?” Most people would probably answer with the name of a prominent politician – perhaps Franklin Roosevelt or Mikhail Gorbachev, or a scientist like Einstein or an inventor like Bill Gates. Few if any would utter the names of Frank Fenner or DA Henderson who prevented the deaths of uncounted billions of people by conceiving and implementing the ring-vaccination that eradicated smallpox.

History is decided and redecided by each generation as it passes and is intimately bound with their perceptions of the present. As we determine history, we are also altering the past, in part by figuring the relative importance of individuals and events. But the past, even if we are not aware of it, is altering the present – events having provided one eventuality and not another in today’s world. And the present also determines the future – so all points on what used to be considered a timeline are always influencing each other.

So as you cross a major timekeeping barrier – like New Year’s Eve – realize that everything you’ve done, indeed, to some degree, everything you are and everything you will do is only partially under your direct control – that the past and the future are also in play. Relax, have fun and have a Happy New Year! (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

Welcoming the Year of the Ox

The Black Lion Approaches

With a loud drumroll and a crash of cymbals we welcomed the Year of the Ox. We stood enthralled as two enormous lions careened up the marble stairway, and paused to survey the lay of the land before continuing into the courtyard. One golden like the summer sun, the other as black as a new moon night. Both bedecked with mirrors and a single horn in the middle of their foreheads, they looked left and right and then boldly strutted up the opposite sides of the room roaring and rolling their eyes and challenging the evil spirits as they came. Whether the bad spirits found harbor in the palazzo courtyard or whether they were brought in by the people come to witness their dance, the lions frightened them away and allowed peace and good fortune to reign once again.

Having some experience tracking lions in real life, these lions were formidable – which in English means something akin to, “awe inspiring”, but in French is something more like Bill and Ted’s, “excellent!” Regardless of your point of cultural reference, these lions were both and more.

As they moved through the room, they paused to consider people and spirts before deciding to pounce or move on as they cleansed the room. Like real lions they were the apex predators in the room at least for that moment in time, but unlike real lions they did not blend in with their surroundings one bit. Real lions are hard to see sometimes even when you are standing right next to them as I found myself a few years ago in South Africa. I was the sole guest at a private lodge for several days and was taught by my guides to track.

 

Lion Tracks - South Africa

I was so good at it that I led both men right into a sleeping pride of the beasts – which of course isn’t a good thing at all. All I saw was fear in the eyes of white and black African alike as they silently motioned for me to make a steady but slow retreat. A pride of about twelve lions lay sleeping not 10-15 feet infront of us. I have no pictures of the moment, for fear of a shutter sound waking one of our slumbering sisters, but it was an incredible and exhilirating moment all the same. So perfectly adapted to the tawny hues of the wintry brush, they were impossible for both native and novice to see until we heard them heaving and huffing as they slept on that hot morning.

No, the Chinese lions undulating up and down the courtyard to the ebb and flow of the cymbals and drums today were not in the mood for camouflage like their African cousins, they were on the hunt to destroy or drive out the last of the bad spirits in time for us to welcome in the new year.

Funny, this need for redemption and new beginnings we have, isn’t it? Whether it is leaping over flames or diving into ice-cold water or attending a religious service or individual contemplation, most cultures have this common bond of rituals to mark the passing of chaos and the rebirth of peace or cosmos.

The Black Lion Arrives

To lift one’s eyes and to say, “Today, I will start anew,” in accordance with some regular astronomical event is a fascinating characteristic that is shared by so many people. But what drives this need? Is it custom, or habit or simply that we get so easily sidetracked from the lifestyles that we have each chosen as “right” for us? Whatever the reason, year after year in culture after culture billions of people seek to begin again.

Of course there is the guilt factor that we have lived our lives incorrectly and somehow need to atone for those bad choices. Do bad spirits really accumulate over time like bad choices and need to be cleansed by a ceremony like the Southern Lion Dance we saw today? Be careful how you answer, because it is a bit more tricky a question than it seems.

Say yes, and pitch your tent firmly in the flow of tens of thousands of years of human cultural evolution. You are a cog in a giant wheel, one man or woman amongst minions who all follow (or try to follow) the ways or teaching of someone or something better than yourself. Say no, and stand firmly in the rational, existential present and reject that spirits or guilt or shared cultural values have have any power over you or your individual destiny. You have no master, divine or otherwise and have only this life and the knowledge that your senses acquire for you to work with.

I have lived a long time and enthusiastically embraced both answers at different times in my life and have found that after the perfume of the censers fades or the stench of the galoise grows faint that there is another choice possible that blends the ideas of the past with those of the present in compatible ways. What really matters is where one’s epistimological pole is set: in the world and in the senses or from beyond one’s immediate surroundings.

The Golden Lion

I think it is possible to be the master of one’s own life but still leave the door open wide enough to allow for input from elements beyond the ordinary reach of the senses. I may feel that I have sussed my world, but I acknowledge that my world may have other plans. For me this leaves the door open for the unexpected, for revelation and for wonder.

And it was wonder and joy on the children’s faces that I saw this afternoon as they watched the lions slink and roar they ways around the room. And when the golden lion let loose his gift of oranges at the end, so many little feet ran forward and little hands reached out for the prizes of that mystical, magical beast.

So, am I cleansed? By writing this yes, absolutely. I am enough of an artiste that I both seek and revel in the redemption that an act of creation brings. Did the lions make this so or would I have written this piece after say, jumping into the frozen lake behind our home instead? My words and thoughts would have been different if did anything else today, so in a way, yes, the lions did bring the writing and the cleansing into being.

In a few minutes it will officially be the Year of the Ox. This year is a year in which it is said that prosperity may be found for those who work hard and perserve. It is also a year in which those who are tolerant and patient may be favored and rewarded for their rightiousness and resoluteness.

OK, the contemplations over . . . let’s feast! (All words and photographs by Laura Kelley).