Last Friday, June 4th, my sister, Jacquie and I were invited to have a traditional Tibetan breakfast with old friends of my sister. Their names are Genyen and Tashi Jamyaling (I hope I spelled them correctly). We arrived at their house in the Markham area of Toronto and were ushered into the immaculate living room. All the available wall space had 'thankas', a Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or mandala of some sort. The room had a really peaceful atmosphere and I had a yen to just sit there but we were ushered into the kitchen where breakfast was being served.
Out in the garden, they had hundreds of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. They criss-crossed the whole area from the fence on the left to the fence on the right. They were also bright and new so very colourful and eye-catching. Later on we spoke about them.
I had heard from Jacquie about Tibetan breakfast but was not sure what to expect. What I really appreciated was that Tashi, the husband, took the time to explain each step to me and showed me how to do things. I have been in many situations with foreign customs where the locals don't know or maybe don't care if you understand what's going on and you flounder around trying not to make a complete ass of yourself. This was the opposite and it made it a lot more fun than I was expecting. I have often felt tense in these situations in case I do something unintentionally rude or stupid.
First they served us 'tsampa', a roasted and ground barley flour. It looks just like wheat flour in the bag but the taste is something totally unexpected. The bowl is half filled with tsampa, some dried cheese added and then weak tea is poured on top. You can either mix it all up together to make a thick paste or you can scoop up the tea with a bit of tsampa in each spoonful. I chose to mix it all up and try it that way. I took my first mouthful and was very pleasantly surprised to discover that, rather than being glutinous like wheat, it was dry and nutty. The texture was soft but crunchy from the dried cheese, the flavour somehow benign and relaxing. It reminded me of the feeling of eating porridge, which is always feels gentle and healing. Other than that, the flavour and texture were not like anything I had eaten before.
|The Makings of Tsampa|
Tashi was surprised I liked it so much and then he went to the fridge and brought out a dish of some salsa he had made with tomatoes, onions, coriander and very, very spicy dried yellow chillies that he told us were from only one valley somewhere in India. Not being chicken when it comes to hot and spicy food ( we called it pili-pili growing up, to distinguish from hot heat; our parents both spoke Swahili so that's where that came from!), I took a big spoonful and Tashi showed me how to make balls out of the tsampa and eat it with the salsa. We used our hands for all of this, of course. The salsa was seriously pili-pili I can tell you but, wow, what a flavour. I have noticed that hot chillies tend to do a variety of things in your mouth depending on the type of chilli. This one even made my gum tingle! Despite the tingling and my lips almost going numb, I couldn't stop eating it. It was one of the most delicious things I've eaten in a long time.
On top of that, they served us some of the tofu stew they had had the night before. They were observing a month long vegetarian 'fast' in honour of the Buddha's birthday which, this year, happened to be the day before mine! The stew was also delicious, not spicy at all but very flavourful.
With the whole meal, we drank Tibetan tea, which my sister tells me one gets used to with time. I think she may be right but I still don't really like it. It's buttery and salty. An acquired taste. I must say, though, that it completely suited the rest of the meal.
|Sitatapatra - The White Umbrella|
While we were eating, I asked about the prayer flags in the garden and they told us the story behind these particular ones. I was wondering what the prayer on the flags actually said. It turned out that the prayer covered ten flags before repeating itself. It's called 'Dukgar' in Tibetan or Sitatapatra in Hindi, which means White Umbrella and represents the goddess with the thousand arms and thousand heads with small white umbrella at the top. The prayer was used by a Lama in Tibet to help create world peace. According to him, it is the only way we will ever have world peace and we need to spread the word by everyone having the prayer flags in their gardens and back yards. Tashi and Genyen had been at his monastery in Tibet and found him and some other monks laboriously printing the prayer by hand with giant stamps on very low quality material that disintegrated quickly. Tashi approached the organisation he was working for at the time, A German organisation called The Tara Foundation, about funding the mass printing of the flags. He laughed when he told us that the Chinese printers in the nearby town was delighted to take on the job and they did an outstanding job of printing literally millions of flags. On top of that, it turns out that Chinese business people will print anything that they're given very efficiently even if it's totally against Chinese government policy. One man ended up in jail, finally, after printing thousands upon thousands of copies of Tibetan material that the government deemed seditious. Tashi's comment was that the Chinese are so industrious that they are happy to create anything and do it very efficiently, if it will make them money. They don't ask questions. Perhaps they should!
Once they had printed the millions of prayer flags, they were flown to the US and other countries and distributed. I love this idea. The thought that this wonderful prayer could help change the world by the wind carrying it up to heaven, is simply beautiful. Tashi and Genyen gave me a set of ten flags to hang in my garden when I get back to Europe. If anyone wants some, let me know. You could make a donation to the cause and get as many as you want.
We left Tashi and Genyen's house feeling replete but very comfortable. I was dying to write this to tell you all about the flags and world peace.
That night, my sister and my niece, her boyfriend and my nephew were taking me out for my birthday. We had intended to go to one place on Queen St but ended up at Addis Ababa, an Ethiopian restaurant. I had wanted to eat Ethiopian food since I got here as I have missed it. The restaurant was expecting a huge group of 40 people so we were put on the stage area at the front and told that a band was arriving at 9pm so we might have to move.
For anyone who hasn't eaten Ethiopian food let me explain a bit about it. They make a bread called Injera which is made from barley and teff, a grain grown only in certain areas of Ethiopia. The dough is fermented and then the bread is cooked something like a pancake. The bread is spread out on a big dish and the various recipes you order are laid out on the bread. You use the bread as the utensil to pick up the food. A lot of Ethiopian food is spicy but not all of it. The whole meal was delicious.
At 9pm, we moved to another table and the place was packed to the gills. They then brought us the traditional coffee. First they arrive with coffee beans roasting on a small tray and they waft it around the table. They disappear off with that and come back later with a pot of coffee made from those beans, some small glasses and sugar and an incense burner with frankincense smoking. The smell of frankincense is, of course, familiar to people who go to Mass or other churches so it gives the whole experience the sense of ritual. Some people across from us were intensely curious about what was going on and one of them came over to ask what the smell was. It's very enticing.
A great day with so many culinary experiences. One I won't forget in a long time.