Cuisine: Flavors from the heights

I started reading Three Cups of Tea because somebody mistakenly told me it was a cookbook. Wrong. It’s a biographical tale of Greg Mortenson’s adventures written with David Relin, and a story of a true humanitarian journey.

A trained nurse and self-confessed climbing bum living in San Francisco, Mortenson went off one day to conquer K-2, considered by most professionals the toughest mountain in the world. He failed, but was rescued by a Pakistani guide who risked his own life in the process. He was nursed back to health by local villagers who befriended him and changed forever the direction of his life.

In the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary, Mortenson determined to bring education to the children in one small corner of the Karakorum mountains.

He has spent the years since then establishing 55 schools there and in the Hindu Kush, in spite of being kidnapped and facing illness and grave dangers in a part of the world controlled by the Taliban. He has proven that one man alone can accomplish miracles, even starting without financial backing. His favorite quotation from life in the mountains: Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.

The cups of tea refer to customs in the mountains. If you’re invited for a casual cup of tea, it’s mere courtesy. The second time is true Arab hospitality. The third time, you are an honored member of the family.

There was actually a good deal about food in the book. Since most of the cooking is extremely primitive, the recipes lose a bit in translation, but here are some of them.

Mountain tea

The villagers make strong green tea, then add salt, soda and goat’s milk. The final touch is a tiny pat of the precious fermented yak butter, a strong thing for Westerners to adopt. You also miss some of the impact of the hot water being boiled over a fire of yak dung, but most of us can probably live without that. Sugar is very scarce in the mountains, so the salty tea is preferred daily. For special occasions or festivals, they flavor the tea with cardamon and use some of their hoarded sugar or honey.

They make a delicious-sounding stew of meat with potatoes and onions. They love to make curries of goat, chicken or ibex, depending on what’s available. These are served with rice and often accompanied with turnip salad and cauliflower. For dessert, they might serve apricots, especially the nutty pit of the kernel.

Chapattis, a popular bread of India, might be served with the meal, or lentils can appear on the table as a starch. There is sometimes trout from nearby streams, and they grow onions, carrots, cucumbers, melons and grapes as well. Of course, there is always tea.

NOTE: The following recipes are adapted from the Pakistani due to the problem of obtaining some of the foreign ingredients locally.

Pilau Pakistani

1 Tablespoon butter

1 small minced onion

¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

1/3 cup dried apricot, diced

½ cup raisins

3 whole cloves

1 cup brown or white rice

1 ½ to 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock (see below)

½ cup shredded carrots

Cracked pepper

Melt butter in a heavy pan and sauté onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Add almonds along with dried apricots and raisins. Stir to coat with butter, then add cloves and long grain white or brown rice. Stir again, then pour in 1 ½ cups stock for the white rice, or 2 cups for the brown. Stir in carrots.

Cover pan tightly and set heat to very lowest point, cooking white rice for 20 minutes and brown rice for 40-45 minutes. Remove from heat and let rice stand 10 minutes before serving. Season with fresh cracked pepper. This will serve 6-8 people, depending on the rest of the meal.

Biryani Pakistani

This comes from the Persian word berya which means fried or roasted. The original recipe was spread around the world by Muslims and merchants, and is extremely popular in Asia today. Some versions use chicken, some are meatless. It sounds complicated, but it’s not, and it serves 10-12.

For the meat:

1 pound lamb in 1” cubes

2 inch by 1 inch piece of papaya

1 ½ cups yogurt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cardamon

½ teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon cumin

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon red chile powder

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 garlic cloves, minced

Cut meat into cubes. Place yogurt and spices in blender and process until thoroughly mixed. Spread on meat cubes in a large flat dish and marinate for 3 hours, turning a couple of times.

For the rice:

1 pound Basmati rice, washed and drained

Enough chicken or vegetable stock to cover rice to a depth of 2” in a large pot

5 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

2 pinches saffron threads

Salt as desired

Bring stock to a boil and add rice and all other ingredients. Bring back to the boil, stir once with a fork, cover pot and reduce heat. Cook only ¾ of the time specified by package directions, probably about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.

To assemble:

4 ounces clarified butter (you may use canola oil)

Handful of chopped mint

Handful of chopped cilantro

5 large onions, sliced thin and fried (or 3 cans or fried onion rings)

8 ounces mild green chile peppers, cored, seeded and sliced (Jalapenos will do)

Juice of a lemon

Remove meat from marinade with slotted spoon and place in a large oven-proof dish. Pour over it half the butter or oil and add layers of mint, cilantro, fried onions and peppers. Squeeze lemon over all, then spread rice on top. Finish with remaining butter or oil. Cover pot and place in oven at 350 degree for half an hour or more, until meat pierces tender. Serve with a cucumber salad and warmed pita bread.

You can follow this meal with a dessert of fresh fruit, yogurt and honey flavored with coriander or cardamon.


Marion Nicolay is a regular contributor to the Marco Eagle. Contact her via e-mail at

© 2008 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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