On the high plateau of Tibet, food and drink is a lot different to what most western people are used to. With a different culture and way of life, Tibetan food is as unique as its people and its landscape. Tibetan food is a direct reflection of the region and the people, with a little influence from neighboring countries like Nepal and India. Tibet is well known for its yak meat and butter tea, and its staple at every meal, Tsampa.
If you are traveling to Tibet to take one of the many available tours, it is recommended that you try some of the local food and beverages, and taste the food of this unique culture at the roof of the world.
Food Products of Tibet
Barley is one of the staple foods of Tibet. It is the most cultivated product in the region, and is used in almost everything that is cooked in Tibet. Rice, while used in most of Tibet, is only grown in the lower areas of the region, and is imported to the central and western areas. Meat products such as yak, mutton and goat are valuable additions to the food for the proteins, and dairy products are very popular, especially yogurt. It was only recently that vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes were introduced into the central and western parts of Tibet as staple vegetables. The cultivation of these types of vegetables is hard in those areas, so any vegetables are exported for the lower eastern areas. Greenhouses have made it possible to grow more vegetables in the central area, but are still not a popular option due to the expense of building.
Tsampa or Tsamba
With the main produce being barley, the Tibetan staple, Tsampa, is eaten at every meal, and is also used as a traveling food. The barley grown on the plateau is a type of highland barley, specific to higher altitudes, and more hardy to survive the harsh conditions. The barley is sun-dried and ground into flour, then mixed with butter, sugar and tea. Once it has been mixed to a stiff dough, it is moulded into balls and eaten uncooked. Tibetans will always take Tsampa with them when they travel, as they can make a tasty meal from the Tsampa, and a few other ingredients, without the need to light a fire for cooking. Tsampa is a nutritious food, as is most of the food in the region. With a high altitude, the diet of Tibetans needs to be full of nutrition and protein for good sustenance. Tsampa can also be used to make a porridge, with vegetables and beef or mutton.
Yak Beef and Mutton
Beef in Tibet is eaten often, and the meat comes from the native yak. Along with mutton – meat from adult sheep – they comprise a major part of the Tibetan diet as they are high in proteins to help fight the extreme weather conditions. Beef and mutton are both used in stews made with vegetables, or fried, braised, boiled and roasted, although the staple recipes either steam or boil the food. Yak beef and mutton can also be found dried in a form of biltong or jerky. The dried meat can be hard to chew, as can any traditionally made jerky, but it has a delicious flavor, and can be useful when traveling long distances.
Thenthuk, Sha-balep and Momos
Thenthuk, or Thukpa, is a traditional Tibetan noodle soup, which is used to keep the nomadic herders warm in the cold climate. It is common in Tibetan cuisine, and is made from noodles, flour dough, vegetables and mutton or beef. The soup is made first, then the dough is mixed and added in chunks, like western stew dumplings. A modern day option for Thenthuk is to just use vegetables. Another popular dish in Tibet is “Sha balep”, which literally means “meat bread”. It is more like a meat or vegetable pie, and are savory and incredibly delicious. While some people do eat them for breakfast, they are mainly eaten at lunch or dinner, and often with a basic soup. Momos are the Tibetan version of filled dumplings, which can be steamed or fried, similar to siomai or Japanese Gyoza. Traditionally they would be filled with ground meat, but variations have sprung up over the years to include more elaborate fillings.
Dairy products are also staple foods in Tibet. Made from the milk of the “dri”, the female yak, Tibetans regularly eat butter, cheese, milk curd and yogurt. Tibetan yogurt is different from most yogurts in the rest of the world, as the milk it is made from has a high butterfat content which makes it creamier. Yogurt in Tibet is an essential part of the diet, as it contains natural bacterium that help with digestion and healthy growth. The milk curd, or milk sediment, is made from the solidified sediment of boiled dri milk, and is used in traveling, as a snack or fried.
Tibetans are also fond of different types of sausages, known as “gyurma”, including blood sausage – akin to English Black Pudding – and a liver sausage. The blood sausage is made from yak’s or sheep’s blood, mixed with roasted barley flour as an extender. Traditionally, they would use the intestine for the sausage skin.
Chicken Stone-Pot Soup
In Nyingchi Prefecture, in eastern Tibet, a particularly delicious dish is the chicken soup cooked in a stone pot. This famous Tibetan dish has a delicious taste, and is a nutrient-rich broth for cold days. It contains ingredients that are mostly only found in Tibet or China, including the hardy Tibetan chicken, which has adapted to the harsh, low-oxygen climate of the plateau. The other main ingredients to this popular dish are: conic gymnadenia tuber – from a local Nyingchi orchid; radix-polygoni multiflori, (fleeceflower root); rhizoma gastrodiae, another orchid; ginger; ginseng; dangshen; yams; coix seeds; caladium; medlar; dates; plus pepper and several other spices.
Tibetan drinks are very different to those you may be used to. Butter tea is the staple drink of the region, and is a boiled tea with salt and butter added. The flavor can be a little rancid to western tastes, but it is excellent for keeping warm in the cold climate. A better choice for most visitors would be the Tibetan sweet tea – made by boiling the brick tea with milk — as it is not as strong as the butter tea, and is sweeter, with added sugar.
Chang, or Chhaang, is the popular Tibetan barley wine that is drunk all over the region. It is the favored alcoholic beverage of the Tibetan people, which actually contains very little alcohol. Curiously, this wine has both a sweet and sour flavor, and an orange color. While the taste differs based on the region, it normally only takes 5-6 days to brew chang. Men and women alike love to drink this light brew, and it is a favorite of any festival or celebration, where the serving girls will refill your cup often until you are drunk.
Lhasa beer, on the other hand, is much more like the light-colored beers found in the rest of the world. However, that is all it has in common with western lager beer. It is brewed from the Tibetan barley, which boosts the body of the beer and reduces the astringency. The only Tibetan beer that is commercially available in the world market, it has a distinctive bitter-sweet flavor that has slightly herbal tones and a slightly sour aroma with a hint of melon and herbs. Made from pure HImalayan spring water, Tibetan barley, Saaz hops and yeast, it is brewed at the Lhasa Brewery Company’s site in Lhasa, and sold in 20 states in the U.S. thanks to the connections and international investment of Carlsberg, one of Europe’s largest breweries, and the organization of Dzambuling Imports.
The Lhasa Brewery Company, thanks to this help in increasing the sales of the beer, stated that it will donate 10% of its yearly profits to support the education, health care and cultural preservation of the Tibetan people.