The Taste of the Mountains

Food Issue 172 Mar, 2016
Text by Astha Joshi

High up in the mountains, Sherpa food reflects the same qualities that define them - adaptive and innovative.

Whenever it’s winter, I crave for a hot bowl of shyakpa with carrots, potato, and meat. My first introduction to this Sherpa cuisine was with a misunderstanding. I had always thought the small, slightly oval strand of noodles, somewhat like handmade gnocchi was thenthuk, the Tibetan version of flat long noodles. A common city girl mistake, as thenthuk is popular and found in most restaurants in and around Kathmandu. 

My favorite part of this stew is the gentle balance between the soft texture of the noodles, coupled with vegetables like radish, carrot, potato, and meat. I especially like it with a pinch of timbur that really heightens its flavor. It is, unquestionably, one of my favorite winter foods. Growing up in Kathmandu, surrounded by so many cultures, I’ve made my own memories with the steaming bowl of shyakpa. I have sometimes wondered what a bowl of shyakpa would be like in the old days. 

And then I met Mr. Ang Tshering Sherpa, Chairperson, Climate Alliance of Himalayan Communities, and President, Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), who grew up in the Khumbu region of Nepal.  “Our staple food was potato, buckwheat, oats. The Sherpas’ started farming potato when the first seeds were introduced to the region in the early 90s. The seeds were brought to the region from Ireland, and now it is one of the main staple foods. You had limited choices up in the mountains, but even with that, we created many dishes.” 

At home, they used potatoes to make different dishes—potato pancakes, potato stew, potato noodles, and potato soup in the summer. Mr. Sherpa told me how potato pancakes were one of the most special foods that he really looked forward to during the summer festivals. “It was very easy to cut them up and divide them. Later, when we started importing rice from the lower region, it became a special food. Even thukpa and momo were dishes we only made during special times.”  Most of these dishes at his home were accompanied by somar, a soup made out of serkam, the milk residue left after churning butter. 

I have had somar, and I have to admit it has a really pungent smell that doesn’t quite help your olfactory senses, but the taste more than makes up for it. “It’s pungent because you have to make sure that the serkam is mold ripened. Milk was one of the most important dietary components up in the mountain. We made many milk-based products with it, butter, buttermilk, cheese, churpi (hard milk toffee). It was also an integral component of our trade,” he stated, recounting, “Everyone raised animals for their milk. I used to go herd our cows, yaks, and cross bred cows-yaks, called dzom up in the mountains, as high up as 5000 m in the summer.” 

Throughout my conversation with Mr. Sherpa, I realized that his experience with food was related to his home, family, his young village life, and also about how you created a humbling and exhilarating experience by using the things that were around you.