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Tibetan Food Today

The Tibetans have lived from generation to generation on the Qinhai-Tibet Plateau, known as the "Roof of the World," a place high above sea level where the weather is cold and oxygen scarce. In the past, eating was a way of life due to limitations on natural resources and backward economic development. At present, along with development in the economy and popularity of scientific knowledge in Tibet, Tibetans can now pay attention to nutrition, hygiene and scientific diet therapy.

More than a dozen years ago, before winter fell, Han cadres and workers in Lhasa were busy digging vegetable cellars to store the "Old Three Vegetables" - turnips, potatoes and Chinese cabbage, while Tibetans were busy purchasing and storing huge chunks of beef and mutton.

At present, vegetable cellars in front of or behind houses in Lhasa have been replaced by vegetable baskets in housewives' hands. After work, housewives are heading to markets to buy live fish, fresh pork, beef, mutton and vegetables of various kinds. In the past, Tibetans were likely to say, "I don't eat vegetables, I want meat." At present, they have changed their lifestyle and have started eating vegetables, leading to the establishment of over 10 vegetable markets in Lhasa with a daily non-staple food supply of 85,000 kilograms, of which 35,000 kilograms are vegetables. Private peddlers saw the potential of the market in Lhasa and transported vegetables and seafood from Sichuan and coastal cities by air. A cadre who came from Sichuan to work in Tibet said in surprise, "It is amazing that I can get the same vegetables in Lhasa as in Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan Province). Moreover, I can get melons or fruits like white grapes, hami melons from Xingjiang and seedless oranges from Nepal, which cannot be found in Chengdu."

Qoinpe, a Tibetan cadre, always told every host he met, "I don't eat grass." However, vegetables are a must on his dining table now. He said, "In the past physical examination every year, the doctor often wrote in the suggestion column 'low-fat foods.' Since last year, he stopped writing the same thing."

Fostering the habit of a scientific diet has been spread from cities and townships to the vast farming and pastoral areas. Even in northern Tibetan areas where beef and mutton have served as staple foods for hundreds of years, vegetables and fruits are becoming more and more welcome. At the free market in Nagqu Township, stands of vegetables and fruits are much more than those selling beef and mutton. Farmers in Yongda Township of Doilungdeqen County changed the old way of simply planting qingke, a kind of highland barley and wheat, and now cultivate nutritious South American corn, which not only adds another staple food, but also supplies markets in Lhasa.

At present, farmers in the suburbs of Lhasa grow vegetables in greenhouses. Even in the cold winter, people can still have fresh vegetables. Dinba, a farmer in Dagze County, said whenever he came back from Lhasa he used to bring several kilograms of vegetables from Chengdu. "Things are different now," he said. " I cook several vegetables at home for a meal and take vegetables with me when working in the fields."

Buffets, a scientific and hygienic way of eating, have become more and more popular in farming and pastoral areas in Lhasa recently. Basang Yuzhoin, a farmer in Chengguan district of Lhasa, treated guests who came for her daughter's wedding to a buffet. Over a dozen courses were cooked exquisitely; half of them were vegetables, winning high evaluations from the guests. Basang Yuzhoin said, "Traditional turnips cooked with beef and mutton braised with potatoes no longer fit the taste of modern people. A buffet is welcomed by villagers because one can choose what he wants, it is up to hygienic standards, and has no waste."

There are not only abundant forests but also edible plants in the forest areas in eastern Tibet. At present, many wild plants, including edible fungus, have become reliable sources of considerable income for local people.

Along with development in medicine and health care, Tibetans are getting to know heart and blood diseases caused by high-fat foods like beef, mutton and butter and are more interested in low-fat high-protein foods. In the past fish was regarded as an embodiment of dragons, a mythical animal in ancient China. So eating fish was considered a taboo. Dainzin, an old man in Jungba Village near the Lhasa River, recalled when he couldn't make a living before 1959, he wrapped fish in cloth and hawked in front of his house, calling in a low voice "turnips, turnips." Those noble men in Lhasa who were tired of eating beef and mutton didn't care about the taboo and changed their extra food for fish. Now it is popular to eat fish among Tibetans. The supply of live fish couldn't meet the demand in markets. As a result, Hungba Village has become a well-known prosperous fishing center.

In the vast countryside of Tibet few people ate chicken, and some even freed roosters in mountains, thinking it was unworthy to "kill a life for a handful of meat." At present, chickens, eggs, pork, beef and mutton have all become farm food. A farmer in Bomtoi Township of Dagze County made use of a brook in front of his house to raise thousands of Beijing ducks, bringing him lots of money.

In fact, along with changes in diet, some habits, including eating raw meat, have been replaced by scientific, nutritious and hygienic diet therapies. This is an important step among Tibetans heading for modern civilization, as well as a factor in promoting the quality of the nationality.

According to statistics from the health department in Tibet, life span on the plateau has been increased from 36 years before 1949 to 65 years at present. It is not only because of the development in medicine and health care, but also because of magnificent changes in diet therapy as well.

Written by our column writer Ye Qinfa.

Also read Tibetan Artist Nyima Tsering.


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