Tibetan food is dear to our hearts—we’ve made our home in a NYC neighborhood with a large Tibetan population—so we’re pleased to work with Tibet Vista, a tour agency specializing in Tibet travel since 1984, to bring you a series of three articles on Tibetan food and travel. (See also parts two and three.)
All photos courtesy of Tibet Vista
The high-altitude environment of Tibet has shaped not only Tibetans’ lifestyle and culture, but also the food and drinks they consume. With an average altitude of more than 4,000 meters, food and drink must be high in energy content, and be able to sustain the rigorous lifestyle of the Tibetan people. Not only does this high altitude restrict the ingredients that can be grown, it also limits the tastes and expectations of the food and drink they consume. On a Tibet Nepal tour, you can enjoy both Tibetan and Nepali food on one trip.
The Unique Diet of the Tibetan Plateau
Tibetan cuisine is unique due to the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau, the harsh climate, and Tibetans’ traditional and religious beliefs and customs. The daily diet of the Tibetan people consists largely of meat and dairy products, high in protein, to combat the extreme climate conditions and the ever-present highland barley, one of the few crops that can grow well on the high plateau. In the high altitudes of Tibet, water does not boil fully, which means that some types of cooking are hard and time-consuming.
Tibetans have developed what’s known as the “four treasures” of their cuisine. These four basic staples of the Tibetan diet are the famous tsampa (roasted barley flour and tea), butter tea (po cha), high-protein meats, and noodles. The tea and tsampa are both high in nutrients, which give energy quickly and help keep the body warm. The meat is protein-rich, which helps keep the body energized, and the noodles are filled with carbohydrates from eggs, which help in keeping a stable level of body fat, essential in such a harsh climate.
However, these are not the only staples of the Tibetan diet. Meats include mutton, yak, and goat (Tibetans do not eat fish, a useful source of protein, as they believe the fish in the lakes of Tibet are holy). Cheese, butter, and yogurt are made from the milk of the dri (the female yak), and are eaten on a regular basis. Soups made from vegetables that are able to be grown are common, and although vegetarianism has been discussed repeatedly by the religious people of the plateau since the 11th century, it has never become popular due to the lack of vegetable proteins available in the region.
Crops grown at high altitudes must be hardy to survive the harsh climate. While some of the lower areas of the region are able to grow rice, bananas, oranges, and lemons, the majority of the plateau is unsuitable, and the main crop in Tibet is the famous highland barley. Grown all over the region, this resilient crop is a major part of the staple diet of all Tibetans, and is used to make the renowned tsampa, which is eaten at almost every meal. Mustard seed also grows well in the region, and is prevalent in a lot of Tibetan dishes.
Bread is another popular food in the region, and comprises the main part of the delicious sha phaley, a sandwich of meat and cabbage. Balep is another type of bread, often eaten at breakfast or lunch, of which there are many kinds.
Popular Foods and Beverages
Of all the Tibetan dishes that can be cooked for a family living on the plateau, some are more popular than others, eaten or drunk the most often by the Tibetan people. These more popular foods and drinks are found all over the region, regardless of local varieties of cuisine, and are the main staples of the Tibetan diet.
Butter tea—or po cha, as it is known in Tibet—is the most popular drink of Tibetans, and has been part of the plateau diet for centuries. Traditionally made from tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt, this tea is a major part of a Tibetan’s life. Tea is drunk all over Tibet, from early morning until it is time to sleep. Tibetans even carry their tea bowls with them inside their clothes; the bowl is a personal item typically made of wood. The national drink of Tibet, butter tea is drunk not only for its taste but also for its nutritious values, high calories, and hydrating properties.
The history of tea in Tibet dates back to the 7th century, when tea traders plied the route of the ancient Tea Horse Road from China. It finally reached national status in Tibet around the 13th century, and it’s been the most popular beverage there ever since. According to local customs, the tea is drunk in small sips, and after each drink the host will typically refill the bowl, so a guest will never be able to drain his or her cup. If a visitor no longer wishes to drink anymore tea, it is customary to leave the tea untouched in the bowl until it is time to leave, in order not to offend the host.
To make the tea, Tibetans boil the leaves in hot water for at least half a day, and this concentrate can be continuously boiled for several days, keeping a constant supply of the base tea. The tea is then skimmed off and poured into a churn that contains yak butter and salt. The container is shaken, and the liquid that’s poured out is a purplish color having the consistency of stew. The resulting liquid is then placed in clay pots that look a little like ancient Japanese teapots, from which it is then served.
The single most popular food on the plateau, tsampa is the only food that is eaten by Tibetans at every meal. Made from roasted highland barley flour and tea, tsampa is easy to make, once you learn the finger dexterity needed to make it. To make tsampa, you simply leave some tea in the bottom of your bowl and add a dollop of tsampa flour to it. You then gently mix it together with your forefinger, and then knead it with your hand, twisting the bowl constantly to get all the bits of tsampa from the sides. Once you have a round, dumpling-like object, you pop it into your mouth and wash it down with more tea.
The whole process requires manual dexterity, and lots of practice, before you can make the dumplings into the same size and shape every time. As well as being a major part of the Tibetan diet, it is also a huge part of Tibetan Buddhism, with tsampa being thrown into the air during many of the Buddhist rituals, especially at the time of Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
There are many other ways in which Tibetans use tsampa. As well as being a delightful addition to a meal and a great traveling snack for long journeys, it can be eaten with cumin as a local remedy for toothaches and sores. Tsampa is also known to have high-energy properties, so is used by Tibetan athletes as a rapid energy booster. The roasting of the barley flour helps to break the tsampa down into an easily digestible form, and its calories can then be more quickly incorporated into the body. It is also used in the making of tsampa porridge, which is often eaten for breakfast.
Chang (Barley Wine)
While the younger generations of Tibetans are happy to drink Tibetan beer, chang, or chhaang, is the most popular alcoholic beverage on the plateau. Unlike beer, chang is normally drunk at room temperature, or even piping hot when the weather is colder. Similar to beer, it is made from barley that is boiled in a barrel known as a dhungro. Once boiled, the barley is left to cool, yeast is added, and the whole thing is left to stand for several days. Once it has fermented, the Tibetan brewers add water, and the chang is ready to drink. Chang has been brewed in the Himalayas for centuries, and is often consumed in large quantities at weddings, funerals, and Buddhist ceremonies and festivals.
Dried Yak Meat
Yaks are long-haired relatives of the bovine family that are indigenous to the Himalayas. Found all over the Tibetan plateau, and often bred by nomadic herders in huge herds, yaks are one of the staple meats of Tibet, and the female yak, the dri, is the main producer of dairy products. More nutritious than the lowland beef from other breeds of cows, yak meat is high in essential proteins and nutrients that Tibetans need on the high-altitude plateau; it’s rich in calcium, phosphorus, hemoglobin, and other nutrients.
Drying yak meat is normally done in the winter, when the cold dry winds whistle across the Tibetan prairies, the traditional nomadic lands of the herders. Specially built rooms or tents are used to dry the meat on ropes strung across the interior, and the traditional flavor of dried yak meat is produced by the cold, dry winds of the plateau. Considered to be one of the best foods one can offer a guest, yak meat is a tasty delicacy that is eaten at any time in Tibet, either as part of a meal or as a snack.
Similar to the gyoza of Japan and the baozi of China, the momo is a traditional Tibetan dish that’s believed to be the origin of all other dumplings of this kind. However, it is also believed that the Newar people of the highlands of Nepal brought both the name and the recipe to Tibet during the ancient Newar-Tibetan trade fairs. The seasonings were modified to allow for the available ingredients of the plateau, and yak meat was used instead of water buffalo.
Momos are basic steamed dumplings with a filling. Made using a simple dough for the wrapping and a mix of meat, vegetables, and seasonings inside, the momo is one of the tastiest of Tibetan dishes, and making them is an art. The dough is rolled out and circles are cut from it, then the meat filling is dolloped in the middle. It is then covered with the dough in a circular or crescent shape and steamed, often over whatever soup the Tibetan cook is making. The momos may also be fried once they’re steamed and served with spicy sauces.
This spicy mung-bean noodle dish is popular in Tibet as a cold summer food. Often made with red chili peppers, green onions, and cilantro, and served with soy sauce, the noodles have a texture that is slippery to the touch. Especially refreshing on warm days, this spicy dish actually originated in Sichuan cuisine, and is rarely made for eating at home. In Tibet, especially on the streets of Lhasa, laping is a popular street food that takes more than 12 hours to prepare.
The laping, or mung bean noodles, are prepared the night before and left overnight to set. The mung bean starch is mixed with water and heated until it thickens like Jell-O. It is then transferred to a clean bowl and left alone. Once set, it is removed from the bowl and grated on a very large-holed Tibetan grater. The sauce is made from garlic, green onions, cilantro, and soy sauce, and then mixed with the laping noodles. Delicious!
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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.