Memoir

How to travel the world through books and food: I went to Tibet with Sabriye Tenberken

Sabriye Tenberken's book,
Sabriye Tenberken’s book, “My Path Leads to Tibet” was originally published in German. This is the edition I’m currently reading for the 4th time.

Travel enriches our lives, helping us to find new perspectives, enjoy adventures, and gain a better understanding of current events, history, and relationships between cultures. But what if funds, time, health, relationships, or other commitments make it impossible to travel to your favored destination?

Today I’m starting a new blog series, exploring the world without leaving New England–reading and eating as an intrepid arm-chair traveler. Recently, the food at Lhasa Cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts, enriched my understanding of Sabriye Tenberken’s book, “My Path Leads to Tibet.” (Pronounce her name Sah-BREE-yah ten-BEAR-ken.)

Blinded as a child, Sabriye got her Masters Degree in Tibetan Studies in Bonn German. At the age of 22 she invented a Tibetan Braille script, and in May of 1997, journeyed alone to Tibet with the goal of opening a school for blind children there. Her memoir recounts her adventures and heroic accomplishments.

My interest in Tibet was ignited in 1989 when I read Peter Matthiessen’s account of his two-month search for the Snow Leopard in the Dolpo region on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas. Reading Sabriye Tenberken added fuel to the fire.

I’ve never searched for the elusive snow leopard, but every autumn I venture into the Appalachians of New England, to engage in a sport known in these parts as Leaf Peeping.

Tracy Lee Karner
The Connecticut River Valley seen from Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts.

After chasing early signs of a coming autumnal blaze in the Berkshires, my husband and I landed in Northampton Mass, the fascinating subject of Tracy Kidder’s book of literary journalism Hometown. We bought the perfect leather wallet for a great price at Harlow Luggage on Main Street, discovered Dobrá Tea,which immediately became our very favorite tea shop in New England, and from a superabundance of restaurants, chose to eat at the Lhasa Cafe.

We sampled salty butter tea, (intriguing!) devoured steamed Tibetan Bread (Ting-mo; addictive!), heard the otherworldly throat singing of Tibetan Monks, (relaxing!) viewed photos of Tibet (enlightening), and passed on the authentic dishes featuring Yak (a decision I now regret). You won’t find any seafood here because Tibet is entirely landlocked, in the middle of the Himalayan range in the center of Asia. In addition to Yak (imported from exotic Nebraska), you’ll find chicken, beef, and a range of vegetarian meals.

In a literal occurrence of food for thought, the meal caused me to open Sabrieye Tenberken book again. It’s been 3 years since I viewed the movie Blindsight (trust me; just watch it!), and longer since I’ve read her memoir, which I’m enjoying again. My tangible experience of the Tibetan culture–brought to western Massachusetts by the Tsering family–makes it possible for me to more deeply imagine Tibetan food, music and customs as described by Sabriye Tenberken in her amazing story (disclaimer — I haven’t read the English translation and cannot attest to its quality; the German book reads well).

Have you read a book that makes you want to taste the food it describes?

Have you ever sampled exotic food in order to enrich your understanding of a story?

In your opinion, how do food and words work together to make us more cultured?

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37 thoughts on “How to travel the world through books and food: I went to Tibet with Sabriye Tenberken”

  1. I do get intrigued with regional food after reading a book. I longed for German food after reading The Book Thief. I really wanted to visit Germany. My husband and I used to have a ritual of eating at a different nationality restaurant every month. I don’t know why we stopped. I still haven’t tried Indian food. I love Syrian and Greek and lots of others. I even found an Albanian restaurant. I’m putting Indian food on my list!

    1. Indian food is one of my favorites! My husband built a house for a couple from India, and they took us to a number of Indian restaurants and ordered for us, teaching us all the nuances. There is such a world of difference between really good and mediocre food. But, I have to say, I enjoy even most of the mediocre variety. Tip: The northern Indian cuisine is a notch up, in my opinion. And if you can find an Indian restaurant where the clientele is mostly Indian, the food will be better. Have fun!

      1. I need an Indian friend to order for us! Locally there are two Indian festivals each year. That would be a perfect place because you can buy small portions of lots of different things. I will keep my eye out for Northern Indian restaurants. Ummm…how can I tell? I can tell the difference between north and south Italy. Is it as easy as that?

        1. The northern Indians are fairly snobby about their cuisine and will publish the fact of their northerness on their menu somewhere. If it doesn’t say “northern cuisine” somewhere, it likely isn’t. The menus won’t be hugely different in scope, but the preparations will be more careful, and the flavors will be more complex and varied.

  2. This is the start of a fantastic series. I cannot wait to read more posts! I am extremely interested in diets – or more correctly eating habits – from different cultures and historical times. I suppose I look at food more from a social and health perspective (rather than culinary delights) and the role food plays in those perspectives fascinates me. My answer to your question – have you read a book (or watched a movie) that makes you want to taste the food – is YES, all the time. I cannot watch a movie or read a book which shows or describes people eating without thinking of the food and its cultural significance.

    1. I also am very interested in healthful eating — and I find that many cultures eat naturally more healthfully than we in the United States do; greater variety of natural, whole foods, lower fat, lower sugar, less meat and more fruit/vegetables. And I’m the same as you–once people start describing food, I seriously want to EAT it!

    1. That’s exactly the concept I’ve been Trying to pass on to my granddaughter, Diana! We even read Dr. Suess together today… Do you by any chance know what book that quote is from? I enjoy life, D., and can’t wrap my mind around living without food. Is that e en possible? ❤️

  3. Hmm.. this is going to be a fantastic journey, Tracy. What a great idea!
    I absolutely love the book & movie The Hundred Foot journey and although I know French cuisine and Indian food very well, the one thing I haven’t eaten yet and was so exotically described was ‘sea urchin’. Doubt I will ever get the chance to eat it here in TX but I’m intrigued..
    I’m adventurous and a “gourmande” when it comes to food, always want to try new things (doesn’t always turn out well, but at least I got to try it :D)
    In general, favourites are authentic Mediterannean cuisine and Thai food.

    1. Based on your recommendation, Karin, I’m finally going to get around to seeing the film. I’m wondering whether I can name a favorite cuisine…. I’d feel deprived if I had to give up any of them. Which is why I’m looking forward to the series. Next up is Ethiopian/Albanian.

  4. Ah, this is my kind of adventure post, Tracy, and you always do it so well. First, my aunt taught me to travel throughout history and time as well as geography via books, and as a 4th grade teacher she kept me up to date (when I was in 3rd grade) on her students’ favorite books. The second thing is that just last week I was at a lovely birthday luncheon for an 84-year-old friend, and Salty Butter Tea was served! It was good, but it became very popular after the caterers served the second cups with heated butterscotch rum. Considering how real Salty Butter Tea is brewed and how long it takes, it seems almost gauche to add warm butterscotch rum, but actually it was excellent! 🙂

    1. It’s so different and unexpected, it took me seven sips to decide that I like it. I can imagine that warm butterscotch rum would be a nice addition.

      Your friend must be quite an interesting person. At 84, not many people are interested in trying new/unusual foods. What kind of food was served with it?

  5. The food movie I love most is Babette’s Feast. I’ve shown it to several classes and then opened my kitchen to the students so that we could make our own feast. Sweet!
    The movie also makes me want to travel to Scandanavia. I look forward to your armchair travels blog posts. Great idea!

    1. I wish I could be your student, Shirley! I loved Babette’s Feast! I have a friend in Oslo who said I could stay with her whenever I visit. Now I’m itching to get over there (I’ll be looking for a book….!)

  6. I read the Snow Leopard at around the same time as you did, having just returned from a trip to Nepal. I could picture that final scene where he waited in that square for his Sherpa to turn up. That book was so powerful, those images have never left me. These days, armchair travelling is much more appealing so I shall follow your series with the same excitement and trepidation experienced doing the real thing!

    1. When I was in my twenties, I could sleep anywhere, and go long periods without sleep, without much ill effect. These days, I get weepy if I don’t have my own pillow and blanket. But, I never lost my urge to explore, so this series presented itself to me. I’m looking forward to globe-trotting, in a more comfortable (read middle-aged) manner. 🙂

  7. My kind of an adventure, Tracy when it is impossible to make a real trip. I’m looking forward to your future posts as a way of keeping in touch with beautiful New England.

    1. Hi, Karen — I’ve enjoyed your posts and beautiful pictures of times you were actually body-traveling, and not just arm-chair musing. Will you be gallivanting anywhere during this next year? Or is the move enough moving around for a while? Best wishes for your new home in Florida!

      1. This is the time of the year we usually go to Europe but we couldn’t plan for this year as we didn’t know when the house would sell. Next year we will definitely be going back. Thank you for your kind words about my posts and your wish, they are very much appreciated Tracy.

  8. Sounds like a great series, Tracy. Because of my disease, certain foods are off limits, but through your posts, I can experience the food without the side effects. Our neighbors are Indian. We’ve attended several functions at their home….boy is their food spicy!

    1. Yes, it is — both spicy (full of numerous kinds of spices) and hot (sometimes really, really hot!) The home cooks tend to really heat it up; most restaurants will offer mild versions of a dish for those of us who don’t want to blow our heads off!

  9. What a fantastic idea! I’m curious how you will choose your books. I’m also pleased to read that you are a fellow ‘Vamonta’ As my mother likes to say, “I wasn’t born here but I got here as fast as I could.”

    1. Hi, Janet — I’ll choose my books through a combination of random coincidence, serendipity, and thoughtful choice. Now that I have this theme going, when I read a new book, if it makes me hungry in any way, I’ll seek out the food at a restaurant or in cookbooks and put together a post. Or, if I get hungry for a cuisine I already know, I’ll start looking for a book that is set in that country, or maybe I’ll remember one I’ve already read and review it. And, I’ll be looking for food and reading adventures from specific countries I want to “visit,” because someone has reminded me they’re on my list (as Karin reminded me of Thailand; and Shirley reminded me of Scandinavia and the fact that I want to read Babette’s Feast.

  10. What fun! I’m often in the mood for certain foods after reading a book or seeing a movie. I’ve been toying with making a vegetarian moussaka with lentils after reading The Bone Clocks. Recently after seeing the Chinese movie, Coming Home, we went out for steamed dumplings and tea.

    I came to your blog by way of Janet Givens. Here’s the weird thing– I mentioned to her that I had a friend who had actually purchased my latest encyclopedia. Well, about a year ago, that friend and her husband took my daughter and her wife out to dinner, and I’m pretty sure it was to the Lhasa Cafe in Northampton because afterwards we had a discussion of Tibetan food, and she was trying to find a Tibetan restaurant in Boston.

    1. So you know exactly what I mean, about wanting to eat what I read! And I, too, recently read The Bone Clocks.

      I don’t think there are very many Tibetan restaurants in New England, so it’s likely it was the Lhasa.

      Thank you for stopping by, Merril!

  11. Tracy … This is an intriguing idea for a blog. It combines my love of food and travel. I’ve either purchased many of my cookbooks in the hopes that I’ll get to visit that particular country or to re-visit – from my kitchen – the experiences I had when I was there. 😉

  12. Great idea.

    Did you know that ‘Happiness starts from the stomach’ and that too literally?
    According to Maharishi Ayurveda, there is not only a direct connection between the food you eat and your health, but food affects your happiness as well. You could even say that health and happiness have a common source in a single product of digestion — called ojas.

    Ojas is the physical equivalent of both bliss and immunity. It is what causes the eyes to sparkle, the skin to look radiant and the immunity to be strong. And it’s directly related to digestion.

    All the best you journey through the gastronomic frontiers!

    Shakti

    1. Thank you, Shakti! You’re a wealth of information. How kind of you to share it. All the best to you, too! (If you read my next blog post, dated October 20, you’ll see why I was unable to return your much-appreciated “visit” to my blog. All the best to you, too!

  13. I love the book Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. (Ignore the movie; it doesn’t do the book justice at all.) I’ve read the book once or twice in the past 15 years or so, but at least once a year I listen to it as an audiobook (often in January, so I can bask in a bubble of Tuscan sunshine during a snowbound Canadian winter). The way Mayes describes the food of Tuscany has me reaching for my olive oil and other ingredients. Food writing is at its best when you practically taste it.

    1. She’s an incredible writer. And yes, she has me tasting her world.

      I’m going to go off of social media tomorrow, Marlene. My post will explain a bit. Please email me and stay in touch; and I’ll tell you more about what’s going on.

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