For the past twelve years, I have been on a mission to sustain Tibetan culture and support the people in my community. I am from Pudgē Village, a rural place in a beautiful valley surrounded by the rugged mountains of Gansu Province in western China.
Many Tibetans today live semi-nomadic lives. We spend the summer months in tents on the mountains and the winter months in our house in the valleys. Most people in my community grow their own food, and we only go to the store twice a month. Hunger is not a problem here.
People grow barley—a part of our cultural heritage. Barley grows very well in the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau, and it is incredibly rich in nutrients. We get our meat and dairy mainly from yaks. They, too, thrive in the high altitude. As they spend their days grazing the green pastures, their meat and milk is organic and very healthy. Our natural mountain water contains more than 300 different minerals, and our traditional diet is very low in sugar. The only problem is a lack of vegetables, especially in the winter when produce is scarce.
The standard meals of a regular day in my area look like this:
- Breakfast: Yak milk or yak butter tea, tsampa porridge (roasted barley flour flavored with yak butter and tea), Tibetan cheese, and wheat bread.
- Lunch: Traditionally you may be on the pasture herding, so this would be a small meal or snack on the go, like tsampa and cheese. If you are home, it may be pan-fried vegetables with rice or bread.
- Dinner: Noodles with mutton, pork, or yak meat and vegetables such as green onions, spinach, or potatoes.
While Tibetan nomads have lived and thrived on this diet for centuries, modernization and globalization have introduced products and processes that threaten our traditional foodways. When a population loses its traditional diet, it also loses a part of its culture—from the knowledge of the environment and geography, where edible plants grow and how to prepare them, how to tend the soils and work the farms, and even the vocabulary of traditional indigenous foods.
I decided to address the issue by helping people embrace traditional Tibetan food culture and a healthy, nutritious diet. In 2014, I established a nonprofit organization, Shangri-la Gyalthang Culture Conservation & Heritage Academy, based in Shangri-La, Yunnan Province, where I now live with my husband and two children.
The past five years, I have taught nutrition in rural Tibetan villages in Diqing and Amdo, collaborating with schools, doctors, clinics, and villages leaders. My focus is on women and children: women are the pillars of the family, and children are the future of our society. Health education for women is empowering, but discussing women’s health is taboo in my community. (I remember not knowing how to deal with my first period, and I wasn’t even supposed to speak about it!) It is easier to talk to women about nutrition, and, since nutrition and health go hand in hand, I use it as a way into talking about other fields of well-being.
When I got pregnant with my first child, I had been a vegetarian for six years. My doctor recommended that I start eating meat again for the health of my baby and me. As I learned, a balanced diet is crucial for a healthy pregnancy. Our bodies need a variety of proteins to function well. Meat and fish have a good amount of different proteins all necessary for good health. Vegetables have proteins too, but you must combine them well and eat a lot of them to get all the proteins your body needs. So when you live in a place where vegetables can be scarce, pregnant women can benefit from eating meat.
It is important for me to work with the schools so that children can learn about health diets too. Recently, all the primary schools in my area started providing meals for students: a piece of soft white toast and a box of sweet milk. I also began noticing children with new ailments caused by junk food: cavities, overweightness, and even malnutrition. I work with the schools to identify meals that are more nutritious.
Among children, I see a rising tendency of perceiving Western junk food as “cool.” Parents, unaware of how unhealthy this food is, treat their children with soda, instant noodles, or processed sausages if they do well in school. Junk food has also made its way into traditional celebrations such as New Year’s, when parents will buy all kinds of processed foods and give the children candy as presents.
It’s a shift made possible by rapid economic development in Tibetan areas of China. Suddenly, we can afford to go to stores more often, and the stores carry new, foreign products. Now, many people rely on boxed or canned food. For many, buying processed food is a statement of success, and the people who still only eat what they produce are looked down upon—adding a sense of social pressure to adapting to a modern, Western diet.
What I teach is the values of traditional Tibetan ingredients, foodways, and herbal medicine as an alternative to the fast-food culture that is creeping in. The local products are natural, high in nutrition, not highly processed, and they are part of our cultural heritage. I also believe that local and traditional Tibetan food culture is better for our environment. In some areas of the Tibetan Plateau, like Diqing where I live now, is abundant in highly nutritious, wild edible plants are abundant; they used to complement the traditional diet, but nowadays they are forgotten or sold rather than eaten.
The first year I taught these nutrition workshops, people were very skeptical; some even got upset with me. The second year, I received somewhat more positive attitudes, and by the third year they actually began to listen and agree. To make it easier for everyone to understand, I teach about food in five different categories:
- Energy food: Carbohydrates like tsampa, bread, and rice noodles that provide energy in the morning and throughout the day
- Growing food: Proteins like meat, dairy, and fish to build cells, muscles, and bones, to grow and repair the body
- Protective food: Vitamins and minerals through vegetables and fruits to keep you from getting sick
- Glowing food: Fats in oil, butter, meat, and seeds to strengthen hair, skin, and nails
- Junk food: Fried foods, sweetened beverages and processed foods—I do not talk much about this
Due to my commitment to learn and teach in my community, I had the opportunity to travel to the United States as part of the Professional Fellows Program arranged by the Department of State. As part of this six-week exchange program with 300 professionals from around the world, I got to explore how U.S. nonprofit organizations work with nutrition. I spent a lot of time with Feeding America Southwest Virginia, learning and exchanging ideas on diets and nutritious foods for children’s lunch programs and after-school meals. It was interesting to see how they prepare meals with a starch, a protein, and a vegetable in each serving. Still, I am not convinced it was completely healthy.
It’s a fascinating challenge to navigate different understandings of health—across cultures, but even conflicting recommendations from doctors. At Feeding America, they promote drinking skim milk, but whole milk contains the proteins, vitamins, and minerals that our bodies need. Some believe a vegetarian diet is healthiest, but in my area it is hard to know if produce from the market is treated with pesticides or not. I wonder if it is better to not eat vegetables, if they are in fact heavily treated. While a small amount of meat can provide a balanced diet, animals are often treated with hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals, or fed garbage or parts of other dead animals.
There is still so much for me to learn about what is healthy. But if you live in a location that produces clean, nutritious food due to its special location, and when your cultural heritage consists of knowledge about how to grow or herd it, why eat anything else?
Samtso Kyi is the founder of Shangri-La Gyalthang Culture Conservation & Heritage Academy and former director of the Eastern Tibet Training Institute, where she oversaw the Advanced Beekeeping Entrepreneurship Program.