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1940s Archive

In a Tibetan Lamasery

Originally Published March 1944

During the course of several Asiatic expeditions, it has been my good fortune to have had many adventures in eating. There have been highly “civilized” ones, such as shark’s-fin soup at the fashionable Hotel Cathay in Shanghai, rijsttafel at the Raffles in Singapore, and many less formal ones, in the way of raw fish with strange sauces and fried lotus root in a tiny Japanese inn, old eggs in a Chinese temple, and, once, fried cucumbers and coagulated chicken blood for breakfast in a cave on the Tibetan border.

I think that in all my explorations of eating by far the most extravagant was the winter in which I ate an estimated ten thousand dollars’ worth of rare pheasants. At least, after the expression of astonishment finally faded from the face of Robert Bean, curator of birds and mammals for the Chicago Zoological Society, when I told him about the tragopans, Lady Amhersts, and impeyans, and others the names of which I did not know, that had been served to me by my Chinese cook, he said, “Well, if they could have been brought to Chicago, I think ten thousand would have been a modest price for them.”

But of that there could have been no possibility, because the scene of my solitary banqueting was in far Western China in the Tibetan foothills, where I spent a winter in a crumbling old lamasery from which all the monks had fled during the rout of the defeated Chinese Communist armies. And war raged over China, so that travel with or without pheasants was well-nigh impossible. Besides which, any fancier of pheasants will tell you that these birds, which live at altitudes of 8,000 feet and more, are most difficult to transport alive from their mountains.

An expedition had taken me to Western China for the second time, and because of the war I could find only my former Chinese cook to accompany me; my Chinese guide and interpreter had disappeared, so I was at the mercy of fat old Wang, who regulated my life as well as the expedition. It was he who decided that we should camp in the lamasery, who chose the least ruined room for my living quarters, told me when I should call on the local mandarin and the native Prince of the district (making sure that I took my Chinese calling cards with me), gave me Tiger Balm when I had a cold. advice as to what to buy from the Tibetans who offered me coral and turquoise jewelry, and what to pay.

Outside the cubicle which was my bedroom, living room, and dining room, was a great open terrace that overlooked a wild valley through which rushed an icy aquamarine river. In one corner of the terrace was a tiny enclosure which had been a shrine of some sort, and Wang decided it would serve very well for the kitchen. There were painted gods of many varieties on the walls, and an ancient, spicy odor of incense. High up in a niche reposed what surely was not meant to be the god of my kitchen. When I asked Wang what it contained, he said tersely, “Tiger bones, goodee joss, Master.”

As I had left the war-torn city of Shanghai more or less as a refugee, with only two small suitcases and a typewriter, there was no question of taking anything in the way of tinned or preserved American food, as I had previously done. It would have been utterly out of the question on the long detour through French Indo-China and into the western hills, as transportation, to say the least, was varied, precarious, and very scarce. The only commodity we bought in the far city of Chengtu was dried milk; so we “lived on the country”—and very good living it was, too, both on the caravan journey and for the duration of the expedition conducted from the lamasery, which was headquarters for my hunters.

These hardy little hunters of the hills … my chief hunter was no bigger than a boy and was also the local priest … have never ceased to be a matter of wonder to me. In the preparations for the long trips which they made for me high into the snows of the mountains, sometimes to be gone for a week or ten days, they took with them as their only rations a homespun bag containing perhaps eight or nine pounds of corn meal, a lump of grey rock salt, perhaps a few bunches of bei-tsai, which is a Chinese green like a cross between romaine and cabbage, a lobo or two—reminiscent of both radish and turnip—and, if they could get it, a piece of fat salt pork. In the hills, rice is very dear and very scarce; so the staple food is good Indian maize. Many, many times I have watched the hunters, in camp after a long day's trudging up and down mountains, prepare their corn meal over a tiny blaze under an improvised shelter of bamboo. Not only did these people travel lightly as to food, but most of them carried no blankets, sleeping dose to the fire on snowy nights. Not one had a pair of socks, only straw sandals and thin blue cotton trousers and jackets.

One method of cooking their maize was to make a dough of it with water in which a lump of rock salt had been soaked, knead it into little balls, and cook it as a sort of dumpling with a few leaves of bei-tsai and a tiny piece of fat pork. Another was to bake it in a shallow, curved iron pan in the ashes of the camp lire until it was like hardtack, and hence would keep for many days and obviate the necessity for cooking on the trail.

In the lamasery, Wang cooked the meal into pancakes for me, or into “johnnycake” with native baking powder made up in the hills, or into mush with coarse brown sugar, or into dessert with eggs, walnut meats, and dried milk. We even had a version of Scottish scones which Wang called “skonks.”

The oven in which he turned out these delicacies was a little gem that had been lovingly and artistically made from a ten-gallon Socony gasoline tin. It had a tiny door and a rack, and it could bake to perfection over the little brazier which was Wang’s stove, and by which he squatted by the hour, his long blue gown tucked up under his knees, stirring some delicious mess with a pair of chopsticks. His fuel was charcoal, or slicks and twigs.

Meat was very scarce in that far and almost uninhabited country; there was only a tiny collection of huts at the base of the rambling old lamasery, and the people were very poor. Wang, however, could usually manage a chicken every few days, a few eggs, dried bamboo shoots, and a casual roundup of odds and ends that he could always put together and make a delicious meal. There were chestnuts and walnuts (the walnuts had the deeper flavor of black walnuts rather than that of the English) from the surrounding hills which he served with chicken, and a little bei-tsai seasoned with soya sauce until it was fit for a king. Soy beans are one of the commonest of Chinese products and are used in many ways, including the delicious salty sauce universally known.

As news of the foreigner living in the lamasery spread, nearly every day saw a few picturesque tribes people straggling down the valley with something edible to sell. A Jarung man would put his hand into an inner pocket of his long homespun robe and proudly produce a packet of wild honey wrapped in leaves. Or a Chang woman, smiling shyly at me from tilted eyes, brought out from the pack on her back (in which she also carried her sloe-eyed baby) a kind of strange squash that I had never seen before, which was mine for a few cents. These women always worked as they toiled up and down the mountain trails. A little basket of raw wool hung from their belts, and deftly they shredded and twisted it into yarn, which, with a flip of the wrist, wound itself on the spindle that hung dangling and swinging rhythmically.

There was, of course, always tea, delicious pale Chinese tea, and I was seldom without a bowl of it. To drink unboiled water is an invitation to disease; so one becomes accustomed to tea instead of water. The Chinese country people make their tea differently from the way the city people do, and I think I prefer the peasant way that you sec in the village tea shops all over China. These shops are usually open to the street, and are the common meeting place for exchange of news and local gossip. The tea bowls in no matter how poor a place are always pretty, even though much mended (and to see an old Chinese carefully tying the broken pieces of a delicate bowl in place, and then riveting them together with tiny copper clips is an unforgettable experience). A pinch of tea is put in the bowl and boiling water poured over it.

In our kitchen in the lamasery shrine there was always tea for the “neighbors,” for the tribes people who came drifting in, or for any chance traveler. Never a day passed that my kitchen was not enlivened by the hum of Chinese talk over tea.

The feasting really began with the return of the hunters from their first forays in the hills. They brought me slabs of wild boar, venison, sometimes coral, which is a species of wild sheep, and partridge and pheasant. This border country between China and Tibet is sometimes called the “lost triangle of the world,” and abounds in strange animals that are to be found no place on earth. Within a week's march of the lamasery could be found giant panda, the little panda which the Chinese call “fire fox,” takin, the goat-antelope creature, serow, coral, the tiny musk deer, blue sheep, Ovis amnion and Ovis poli, rare species of mountain sheep. There are also sambur deer, tufted deer, black bear, and several species of small wildcats, as well as the beautiful snow leopard.

Pheasants abound in the bamboo jungles and are of many varieties—blood pheasants, white pheasants, Lady Amheists, Tibetan white-eared, impeyans, tragopans. My larder was never without dozens of these extravagant birds, including partridge, but by far the most plentiful were the beautiful tragopans. The plumage of the male is a scintillating symphony of color, orange and gold speckled with brown and black, and then generously dusted with silver, star-like markings. The hens, by comparison, are modest little birds with brown coats, but possessed of a valiant spirit.

Sometimes the hunters carried them in by the dozen packed in bamboo baskets, but at other times they brought them in alive tied up in empty corn meal bags. Wang made a pen for them near the kitchen, where he kept them well fed and watered until needed for the pot.

As they were usually brought in in pairs, it was interesting to watch the pride with which the brilliant male stood over the little female, guarding her, with a belligerent ruffling of feathers for anyone who approached, while she crouched at his feet. But the “female of the species” always survived longer than the male; for several times when I went to look at them in the morning, the male lay dead beside the said little hen. Wang explained that the male's pride was so great that he died of shame in captivity, leaving a bereft wife who seemed to be able “to take it.” After that, I gave instructions never to bring them in alive.

In spite of the fact that I watched Wang dozens of times in his preparation of pheasants, I am sure I could not duplicate any of the ways in which he served them … not even if I could get the birds in New York, and had the finest of kitchens and equipment with which to work. And Wang had only two small covered pots and an open fire to manage his culinary masterpieces, for the little oven was not big enough to hold a pheasant.

One of his methods was to brown the whole bird very carefully in hot fat, add a very small amount of water, and leave it nearly all day over the very slow charcoal fire. At intervals he basted it with a mixture of rice wine, soya sauce, and a hot, red pepper condiment, but how the bird ever acquired that shiny, lacquered look with the skin oven-crisp by dinner time, I never knew.

Another way of serving was to cut the cold breast of pheasant into fine, thin strips which he added to lobo and beitsai which had been lightly fried in hot fat so that they did not lose their crispness; then he seasoned the whole with soya sauce and sprinkled it with chopped walnuts. Or he varied this procedure by using, with boiled chestnuts, whatever bit of vegetable he might have on hand at the moment.

When Wang served food in his own way, he called it “Chinee speakin’ chow;” when he served me a whole pheasant with corn meal bread, he called it “Englis’ speakin’ chow,” which was, to say the least, imaginative, and might be almost any way.

As winter progressed in the lamasery, I sorely missed fresh food, for there was no fruit of any kind and vegetables were limited. Although the latitude of that country is subtropical, the altitude of the mountains makes green vegetation the year ’round impossible. I began to long for the luscious tangerines and fruit that grew on the plains about five days’ journey away. So Wang and I consulted, and decided to send two of the hunters on the ten-day journey.

Besides the fruit for me, there were a couple of things that Wang wanted … to send messages to his family, and a few to send messages to his family, and a few odds and ends of shopping that would be possible in the plains village. He suggested, too, that we might not have made sufficient joss to the gods of the mountains for the success of the expedition, and he thought it would be wise to buy in the little town of Kwanhsien a certain kind of red cock to sacrifice to them. Also wine for libations to the gods of the earth, and, of course, plenty of incense and paper money, all of which I agreed to as being very wise.

In those days of the hunters’ absence, I believe that my mind dwelt unduly upon the thought of a luscious fresh tangerine and other delicacies that they might have found, and it was with disappointment that the tenth day went by and they did not return.

Just at dusk of the eleventh they straggled up the crumbling, steep stone staircase of the lamasery (its age was estimated in the neighborhood of seven centuries) with all sorts of strange bundles in the baskets strapped to their backs, and the sacrificial cock—a magnificent one—tied on top. There were rice and ginger, a bit of dried sea food for Wang, shrimps and sea slugs; they had replenished our supply of coarse brown sugar and Chinese spices and condiments; there were the golden tangerines and, unexpectedly, sweet potatoes. They brought also a tin of kerosene for our lantern and some hard green pears. I could hardly wait for dinner.

But Wang, who was not only managing the expedition, but practically every detail of my life, said that first we must sacrifice the cock, because Whang Tai Hsin, my chief hunter and the local priest, was leaving early in the morning for the mountains. So as darkness deepened, Wang, Whang, several hunters, and I all trouped down from the lamasery, past the huddled huts at its base, and up a steep mountain trail, our way lighted by a flickering torch.

We came to a sort of grotto overhung by a forbidding, fire-blackened rock painted with cabalistic signs, with a sort of crude wooden altar before it. The torches cast weird shadows on the dark faces of the men and gleamed in their slanting, inscrutable eyes; the scene might have been something from an age gone and forgotten a thousand years. Whang of the gentle face and thin drooping moustache held the cock; he repeated certain phrases in a language that was not Chinese three times before the burning incense on the altar. He stamped first one foot and then the other three times. Then he stabbed the cock in the neck three times and allowed the blood to drip on the ground. Three tufts of the cock’s feathers were pasted with blood to the altar, and we poured three libations of wine to the gods of earth on the ground. Then we made little piles of paper money which were burned, and set off the firecrackers, and, the ceremony finished, we all trouped back through the darkness to the lamasery.

Wang had put two sweet potatoes in the ashes to bake before we left, so that, what with cold Lady Amherst pheasant, the potatoes, tangerines, and nuts, I should dine like a queen. After weeks of pheasant (even for breakfast), the thought of new food was exciting.

I broke open a potato and sprinkled it with coarse, unbleached salt (I hadn’t seen any butter for many a long month), and with expectations high, took a bite of it which I promptly spat out, choking. It reeked of kerosene.

And for dessert I had a tangerine which, in spite of its Standard Oil flavor, I managed to eat.

It wasn’t long after, that the expedition came to its successful conclusion (I still think the red cock did the trick), and there was all the excitement of packing for the long journey back to the great plains city of Chengtu and the 2,000 miles more to Hong Kong and Shanghai. As presents for my friends in Chengtu, I had nearly fifty rare pheasants, which required three men to carry them.

In Chengtu I reveled in the luxury of a hot bath, coffee, and buttered toast for breakfast, and a dean dress instead of dirty, ragged trousers. I dispatched Wang with the pheasants, and he returned with dinner invitations. And that night I again dined on tragopans, but in the beautifully appointed home of my American hostess, whose table gleamed with snowy linen and beautiful silver, and whose guests wore dinner clothes. There were delicate goblets with white wine. and the table was strewn with pink camellias, although it was still winter.

Since that night I have not eaten pheasant of any kind, and I doubt certainly that I shall ever again have the opportunity of eating ten thousand dollars’ worth in the course of a few months’ time.