All photos courtesy of Tibet Vista
For people who love food, one of the main reasons for choosing a Tibet tour is the culinary culture there. We’ve covered the basics of Tibetan cuisine already; now we’ll go into the dishes you can expect to eat at restaurants in Tibet. Thanks to the close geographical proximity, Tibetan food reflects influences of Indian, Chinese, and Nepalese cookery in its main dishes. However, partly due to the high altitude of the region, rice is not easily cultivated in Tibet, and therefore is not, unlike many Asian countries, a staple food there. Barley, yak and goat meat, butter, and dairy are some of the main components of Tibetan cooking.
Despite that heavy influence of neighboring cuisines, you can detect a unique distinguishing taste in the food here that can be native only to Tibet. The small shops along the highway are dominated by noodles and dumplings. Many dishes are filled with high-caloric components designed to give warmth in the cold, unforgiving climate. Local beer and butter tea are popular drinks among locals and travelers alike.
Here are five of the most popular, must-try local dishes in Tibet.
Tsampa is the most consumed food among locals and is considered to be the national dish. Made out of roasted barley flour and butter tea, tsampa is something Tibetans eat almost every day. People here have been consuming tsampa for so long that they’ve been called, simply, “tsampa eaters.” It is a staple enjoyed by nomads, monks, and pretty much everyone in between—a food that surpasses gender, age, faith, and region.
Tsampa is more than a dish for Tibetans; it is a unifying factor. Requiring minimal utensils, few ingredients, and very little time to make, it suits the altitude and the weather perfectly. The most common way to eat tsampa is by mixing it with butter tea in a bowl and forming it into small oval balls.
Tsampa also holds a religious significance—monks throw it into the air during rituals as an offering to the gods. You will find that while traveling in Tibet, tsampa is almost unavoidable. It would be a real shame to travel to Tibet and not have this iconic dish.
Momos are Tibet’s own version of dumplings; they are often called the unofficial national dish of Tibet (and unlike tsampa, momos are known and loved far beyond Tibet’s borders, being popular in various forms within India, Nepal, Bhutan, and even New York City!). They may look like regular old dumplings, but they are quite distinct. Made out of wheat flour, they can be prepared in different ways—steamed, fried, or boiled—and while they can be filled with different meats or vegetables, they’re always accompanied by a special delicious hot sauce made from tomatoes, chilies, and garlic. The chili sauce provides the necessary punch for your taste palate.
Like tsampa, momos are a street-food favorite in Tibet. They are found pretty much everywhere, from small highway restaurants to big hotels. Eating hot Tibetan momos with chili sauce is probably the most enjoyable thing to do in the cold weather here.
Balep is a kind of bread that’s usually consumed for breakfast and lunch. Each region has its own version of balep with a unique style. There is Amdo balep (basic round bread), sha balep (fried meat pies), numtrak balep (deep-fried bread), and shamey balep (fried vegetable pies). They are made out of barley, wheat, or flour.
Balep korkun, the kind of round, flat bread made in Central Tibet, is the most popular, however. It is very easy to make; all you need is water, flour, and baking soda. You can add some butter or applesauce into the mixture for extra flavor, too. It’s a dish that can be made quickly and is very filling. If you find traditional Tibetan dishes to be too spicy or saucy, you will be eating a lot of this!
Contrary to popular belief, Tibetans consume a lot of meat—just about as much meat as vegetables. And much of that is yak, the most popular meat eaten by Tibetans. It’s eaten in various forms—boiled, dried, stewed, steamed, roasted, cooked into curries and fillings, and sometimes even raw. The juicy meat is nutritious and lean, with a slightly sweet flavor. It may be the first time you as a traveler encounter so much yak meat, but what’s traveling without trying new foods?
This meat is considered an economical by-product of the yak as compared to its milk, butter, and wool. Yak butter is another main ingredient found in many Tibetan dishes; yak butter tea is perhaps the most common drink in Tibet. As is our next pick…
Chang, Tibet’s own version of beer (or barley wine), is the most widely consumed alcoholic beverage in Tibet. Made with barley, millet, or rice grains, this drink can keep you warm in the land of snows. It is not just consumed as a symbol of celebration; Tibetans also often offer chang as a welcome drink to guests, it’s drunk during religious occasions, and it’s even used while settling disputes.
Chang consumed with chicken or yak meat can be quite satisfying. It is very popular in Lhasa and many neighboring communities as well. Lhasa beer—a bottled beer—is popular across Tibet, and beyond, as well.
We hope you don’t visit Tibet only for the adventure or the spirituality but to immerse yourself completely in its unique culture—including culinary—and enjoy it thoroughly.
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About the author: As the forerunner of Tibet inbound tourism since 1984, Tibet Vista (also known as CITS Shigatse Tibet) is a Lhasa-based Tibet tour operator, specializing in small group and private package tours, Tibet train tours, and Tibet travel permit applications. In 2005 Tibet Vista officially engaged in online Tibet tour operating. Now, with 4,000 clients worldwide each year, we offer free Tibet tour consultancy and help individual overseas tourists both in mainland China and abroad to travel to Tibet via the Qinghai-Tibet Railway and domestic flights. During the past decades, we have successfully organized more than 100,000 tourists to visit Tibet. Contact us and customize your Tibet tour for free.