Since the majority of the residents of Diqing, the main municipal area of Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, are Tibetans, most of the food enjoyed by the residents of Diqing reflect a Tibetan flavor, even where Sichuan and Yunnan dishes are made, though the non-Tibetan population of Diqing enjoy both Sichuan and Yunnan dishes, as well as Tibetan specialties. And of course there are Sichuan and Yunnan style restaurants in Diqing that serve dishes in the original style, as well as many of the more popular Tibetan specialties. The latter include zanba (a roasted highland barley flour as well as a dish), buttered tea, and barley beer. In addition, tourists have the option of overnighting at the home of a Tibetan, where one can try Tibetan specialties, as well as learn, first hand, of the local customs.
Food customs in Diqing, the seat of Zhongdian county (note that Diqing is sometimes called Zhongdian and at other times Shangri-la, and the county itself is also called both of these names), belong mainly to the Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibetan styles. Restaurants serving the same three food styles, or a blend of all three food styles, can also be found in Diqing. While the food of Sichuan and Yunnan tends toward the spicy hot, Tibetan staple dishes, which are often made with beef, are less spicy. In addition to the main Tibetan dishes, there are a number of Tibetan snack foods that can be found in eateries at Diqing. A favorite Tibetan foodstuff is zanba (see below), and a couple of favorite Tibetan beverages are buttered tea and barley beer, the former of which is also an optional ingredient in making zanba.
Zanba (Roasted Highland Barley-Flour Dish)
Firstly, there are three different variants of the zanba used in this dish: highland barley zanba, pea zanba, and a mix of the two. Zanba is the main dish of the Tibetan people, and is both nutritious and conveniently portable (can be taken anywhere), an important requirement for a people who live on a high plateau where neither naturally occurring food sources nor off-road restaurants :) are readily available. Therefore, when Tibetans go on a longer journey, they always bring along the fixings for zanba in their rucksack: a bowl, a bag of zanba, ghee (a residue from butter, made by heating ("clarifying") the butter, then draining off the clarified/ liquified butter (to be used for other culinary purposes), leaving a milk residue that does not need refrigeration thereafter), and water, or tea – or both.
The dish is prepared by adding some zanba flour to a bit of tea (alternatively, water) that is poured into the zanba bowl, then spiked with ghee and white sugar – and if the trip is short, or during the first part of a long trip, also butter/ clarified butter, the latter of which is also often used in tea for drinking, aka buttered tea. Enough zanba flour is added to the liquid ingredients and the ghee to make a dryish dough. The dough is then kneaded in the bowl and small lumps pinched off, then rolled into matzo-sized, ready-to-eat balls. If one has time to make a fire, and if one has brought along a metal pot for bonfire cooking, then the water/ tea can be heated, but this is a time-consuming luxury; the dish can be made by anyone, anytime, anywhere – and on the go – using the aforementioned basic ingredients with unheated water or tea.
Zanba flour itself is made by drying barley in the sun, removing the chaff from the grains by tossing the sun-parched barley in the air, then grinding the barley grains into a flour. Barley flour can be ground in small amounts by hand with a mortar and pestle, but today it is generally processed from start to finish at a large mill, driven either by wind or water. Zanba flour comes in two different degrees of fineness, coarse or fine.
Pickled Vegetable Soup
When visiting a Tibetan home, one of the dishes that you will most likely be served is pickled vegetables soup (in Russia, Jewish families often serve a similar, but served cold, vegetable soup during the summer that, instead of vinegar, is made with kvass, a weak beer-like beverage made from fermented wheat). Pickled vegetables taste great, retain an al dente texture, and can also regulate the appetite, since the vinegar base increases the secretion of gastric juices during digestion, which provides a feeling of "being full". The Tibetans also insist that their pickled vegetable soup can ward off the common cold.
Tibetans raise cattle for their meat and for their milk. Tibetans are especially fond of dairy products. Most livestock production in Tibet is on a small scale, where the individual herdsman milks his cows the old-fashioned way, with a classic milk pail. The milk is consumed as milk, of course, but is also used to make butter (and ghee), yoghurt and cheese, including cottage cheese. Milk is of course an important source of calcium for growing children, but it is enjoyed by Tibetans of all ages.
There are several restaurants and snack shops in Diqing, but we mention here the two which currently tend to cater most to tourists, compared to the other restaurants, but if you would like to rub shoulders with a more representative mix of the residents of Diqing, then by all means, try out Diqing's other restaurants!
Diqing Restaurant is the largest restaurant in the city. The chef at Diqing Restaurant was recruited from the heart of south-central China, where the cuisine traditions are world famous. The chef is also a man with personality, so he brings not only his culinary expertise to the job, but also a great deal of humor and warmth. Diqing Restaurant seats up to 600 people, including the banquet hall.
Contact Telephone: (0887) 822-9666
Hongmu Tasty Snack Restaurant
Hongmu Tasty Snack Restaurant serves a broad range of Tibetan snacks, and at very reasonable prices. The snack shop doesn't advertise its telephone number, but it can be found centrally in the city on Heping Road, near the Longfengxiang Hotel.
There are a number of hotels in Diqing, varying from 2-stars to 4-stars (the prices are accordingly 2-star to 4-star), that serve everything from Tibetan snack specialties to gourmet meals.
Note also that in nearby Tiger Leaping Gorge you can find a number of restaurants that serve gourmet meals, including local chicken dishes and fresh fish caught in the nearby Jinsha River. The restaurants of Tiger Leaping Gorge are a bit pricier than in Diqing, but if you wish to combine dinner with a stroll through the gorge (perhaps in reverse order), it is well worth the extra expense.
I updated this article on April 16, 2012
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