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What makes 'thukpa' the warmest winter dish

From flavour-packed stock to must-have vegetables, chefs decode the secret of umami-rich ‘thukpas’

“The secret to a good thukpa is the stock,” says Prashant Singh, Head of Operations at Yeti in Delhi. (Representational image: Unsplash)

The soulful nourishing thukpa used to be the food of nomads and refugees. It was popular in central Asia when nomadic shepherds, who owned goats, sheep and yak, travelled from place to place. “Thukpa needs little fuel and barely any ingredients. With just three components — carbohydrates from noodles, fibre from vegetables and protein from meat—it is a complete meal in itself,” says Tsering Narboo, who runs the Tibetan home chef venture Karakoram Kitchen in Gurugram. For flavouring, a generous sprinkling of freshly crushed black pepper is enough. A classic Tibetan thukpa will also have churpee (a hard yak or goat cheese) which gives it a umami kick.

As per Narboo, although most winter vegetables like carrots and peas go into it, radish is a must-have. These days, there are versions with bokchoy and spring onion too. Although thukpas with long Chinese noodles are the most popular, a traditional Tibetian thukpa, known as Thenthuk, has rectangular pieces of hand-pulled noodles. There is also a cold version of thukpa known as lamay, says Narboo, which has flat noodles topped up with vegetable and minced meat. One needs to stir fry the vegetables and meat slightly for additional flavour.

“The secret to a good thukpa is the stock,” says Prashant Singh, Head of Operations at Yeti in Delhi, a restaurant known for Nepali and Tibetan food. All the vegetables and meat are boiled in the stock and then flavouring is added with herbs. At Yeti, Singh says, Nepali herbs such as gundruk is added. “We source another herb named jimbu from Tibetans and this goes into the stock too,” he says. The trick to extracting maximum flavour from any herb is to add it a few minutes before the dish is taken off the heat. Along with taste, the aromas will draw you in.

Noodles cooked a little more than al dente and less than complete disintegration will hit the right notes in a thukpa. “One can use both long noodles and hand-pulled squarish noodles, and somehow, every time the shape is changed, the thukpa tastes different,” says Narboo. Depending on the consistency one prefers, adjust the water and cooking time.

The traditional Tibetan thukpa called Thenthuk. (Photo: Tsering Narboo, Karakoram Kitchen)
The traditional Tibetan thukpa called Thenthuk. (Photo: Tsering Narboo, Karakoram Kitchen)

There are modern variations of the thukpa as well. Sprouts are added to give it more body and toasted sesame seeds are sprinkled as a garnish. Delhi's Fab Cafe introduced a ‘healthy’ variation of thukpa with zoodles (zuchinni strings). Boiled eggs halves, different types of mushroom and chilli oil made with Guntur chilies of Andhra to bhoot jolokiya of Assam are added for extra zing. In pockets of the Northeast, such as Shillong, Tawang and Guwahati, bamboo shoot and tiny crispy fish go into the thukpa too, which gives it a regional flair.

Shilpa Shetty’s page on Youtube even has a quick cheat recipe with tomato puree.

But, to get a taste of the real deal, check out the YouTube account 'Taste of Himalaya'. In their recipe, they add sesame oil, sprinkle fresh coriander and a smidgen of soya sauce, which might be frowned upon by purists, but the outcome is delicious and no one is complaining.

It is said when the Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet and journeyed to India through the harsh Himalayan terrain, he subsisted on thukpas. In the Tibetan refugee camps which were set up till they reached Dharamshala, thukpa was cooked in the community kitchens to feed large groups of people. In a way, it is like khichdi, which can be made in large quantities with basic ingredients. Narboo says, “That’s the thing with thukpa, anyone can cook it and everyone can have it.”

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