This August I spent a weekend at Mt Rainier National Park, as I’ve done for more than 15 years. It’s the most breathtakingly beautiful month for wildflowers, with broad sweeps of purple lupine and high-altitude magenta paintbrush. I love hiking there, and so do Sherpas.
Near the Nisqually entrance to the park, I stopped at Wildberry Restaurant which serves dishes from Nepal and Tibet. Fulamu Sherpa is chef, her adult kids Tashi and Ngima, along with nephew Lakpa, are cheerful, attentive hosts and servers. Her husband Lhakpa Gelu Sherpa is a mountain guide for expeditions to Mt Everest and other ascents around the world.
Ngima led me past posters of the Himalayas and a small Buddhist shrine to an outdoor table in view of rows of Tibetan flags stretched across towering fir trees. I asked him to help me order typical Sherpa food. When the thali platter arrived, I learned from him to tear off a piece of roti (flatbread) to scoop up the chicken in curry tomato sauce with some bhat (rice). Roti also scoops a combo of daal, bhat, and vegetables. To appeal to American tastes, Fulamu ramps down the spices in some dishes, and pickled vegetables are less tart. Oh, there’s also triple-patty hamburgers with fries and huckleberry pie.
From this family I learned that the Sherpa people left Tibet centuries ago, settling in the most mountainous region of Nepal near the base of Mount Everest. “Sherpa” actually means “people of the east.” Sherpas (with a capital S) are an ethnic group, and they use Sherpa as their last name rather than their father’s or family name. Men with incredible strength and stamina who assist climbers are also called sherpas (lower case s). They may be ethnically Sherpa or not.
Western Washington is home to many Sherpas, so after I returned from Mt Rainier, I trotted off to the Himalayan Sherpa House in Seattle for another delicious meal. Their version of Sherpa stew included lamb, potatoes, bits of whole wheat dough, and a broth flavored with coriander and cumin. This ample, steaming bowl is perfect for cool weather and replenishing energy. A favorite appetizer or snack is Mo:mo, steamed dumplings filled with vegetables or meat.
For breakfast, Sherpas often start their day with tsampa made from sprouted and roasted whole-grain barley, barley flakes, and salt. I tried some at home, which is quick and easy. All you do is stir in water, milk, or tea and eat it cold or hot. This strain of barley has a unique nutritional profile, releasing glucose slowly and steadily, making it ideal for long-lasting energy needed during stretches of physical work. Another use for tsampa is a Sherpa version of an American energy bar. It’s combined with “butter tea” (butter, tea, salt, milk or water) and a hard cheese like Parmesan, smooshed into a ball. Perfect to carry on a trail. Tsampa is made near Seattle by Peak Sherpa.
The Sherpas and Nepalese people I met the past two weeks are peaceful, compassionate souls. They were generous with their time talking to me, and they are generous with their support for education and aid for people back home in Nepal. As with other immigrants, to glimpse their culture, eye what’s on their table. Food tells a story about the land they came from and the adaptations they’ve made in their new country. Cumin, coriander, and turmeric reflect their heritage from Tibet. Tsampa reflects their lives in high altitudes and the sustenance needed to climb tall, snow-covered mountains. Renzin Yuthok of Peak Sherpa told me that among themselves, Tibetans refer to each other as “tsampa-eaters.” Food defines us all.
I’m grateful for the abundant hospitality of Sherpas and Tibetans from Nepal who call the Seattle area home. Before my next hike, my breakfast will be their tsampa!