Tibet’s high-altitude environment has not only shaped its culture and lifestyle; it has also shaped its food and beverages. The high altitude does not only restrict the types of ingredients, it has also shaped the taste and expectation of Tibetan people from what they eat and drink. For example, dairy from yak and goat is heavily used, even in beverages as the most popular and famous Tibetan beverage, Tibetan butter tea, is made from yak butter. And high energy content of this beverage is also much-needed in 3000 – 4000 meters plus altitudes of Tibet.
When you appreciate these beverages and food, you should imagine how they were appreciated before and after a high-altitude, cold and harsh day of Tibet Plateau for nomadic ancestors of Tibetan people. Today many Tibetan food and beverages may have acquired taste if you look at them superficially (like Tibetan butter tea) but many tourists will appreciate them after a long hike in mountains for their Tibet tour.
Tea is the most popular and consumed beverage in Tibet. “One can live without food, but cannot live without tea” as Tibetan proverb goes. Tea houses are an integral part of Tibet and are great opportunities to sit down and relax. But the tea is not consumed in the form as it is done in the West. Yak butter (Tibetan butter tea) or milk & sugar (Tibetan sweet tea) are added to increase its energy content which is much needed in high altitude and cold environment.
After tea, alcoholic beverages are consumed a lot, despite the fact that alcohol consumption is contrary to Tibetan Buddhism. Farmer and nomads who cannot afford alcohol has invented simple but tasty alcoholic beverages like chang (a relative of beer) and raksi (homemade from kodo millet (kodo) or rice) which is widely consumed in Tibet and Nepal now. Beer is a relatively new introduction to Tibetan life but the Lhasa Brewery Company’s Lhasa Beer is now quite popular among Tibetan population.
There are quite a few beverages to try in Tibet but here are the top 4 beverages in Tibet you must taste during your Tibet holiday.
Tibetan butter tea
Every culture has some traditional drink which is an acquired taste. For Tibet, Tibetan butter tea (po cha) is that drink. But you will quickly appreciate it, and you may even like it after a long hiking or biking day and understand why this uniquely Tibetan beverage is so loved and appreciated in Tibet. A salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter made from dri milk (female yak is called dri), Tibetan tea is a sort of light, creamy, cheesy soup for outsiders rather than a beverage. Yak butter in fact feels more like a sort of cheese broth rather than butter and it has a smell and taste similar to blue cheese or Roquefort.
We highly recommend the traditional Tibetan butter tea made from yak milk. Butter made from cow milk is increasingly used because it is cheaper and more available. But yak milk is creamier and have a heavier flavour compared to cow milk and this is what makes Tibetan butter tea so unique.
Tibetan Butter tea is a must have for every Tibetan daily. They like to drink it before work and serve it to guests. If you are reading this in your typical altitude hometown, you may wonder how something heavy like this can be consumed like coffee or regular tea. But in Tibet’s alpine environment, butter tea’s high caloric energy content is much needed and appreciated.
Traditionally, yak milk was churned manually with a thick rod in a long upright wooden container to form butter. Today, many Tibetans use electric mixers to produce it.
Butter tea is usually enjoyed as it is but one of the most popular dish in Tibet is prepared by using tsampa, a nutty-tasting flour made from roasted barley, yak cheese and Tibetan butter tea. This easy to make dish (the ingredients are simply mixed and processed by hand until a dough is formed) is so integral to Tibetan culture that Tibetan people are collectively referred as po mi tsamsey (tsampa-eaters).
Tibetan sweet tea
For those who cannot take Tibetan butter tea, Tibetan sweet tea is an alternative since it is more familiar to western palates. Compared to Tibetan butter tea, which was probably drank by nomads of the Tibet for eons, Tibetan sweet tea drinking is a recent habit. It is probably introduced from neighboring Nepal and India by returning merchants or British troops colonizing India and was first consumed among well-off Tibetans because sugar was once a luxury on Tibet Plateau. Unlike Indian sweet tea where spices like clove, cinnamon and cardamom are used; preparing Tibetan sweet tea is simpler. Just mix powdered milk, black tea and sugar.
While touring Lhasa or any Tibetan city, you will find traditional tea houses serving this Tibet delicacy. Guang Ming Gang Qiong Sweet Teahouse, Tsamkhung Nunnery (Cang Gu Nunnery) and Laogeming Sweet Teahouse are among the most popular of these establishments.
Chang, home-made Tibetan wine
Drinking alcohol is contrary to the beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism but this does not prevent Tibetans to enjoy it. Tibetan Chang (or Chang), the most popular alcoholic beverage in Tibet, has been sold in street stalls and been consumed by Tibetans and even monks for centuries.
Chang is said to be the most favourite drink of the Yeti, Himalayan Snowmen, and he is said to raid isolated mountain villages to drink it. This alcoholic drink is made of barley, rice or millet and traditionally drank in every special event as well as for leisure. In summer, it is served at room temperature and in all other seasons it is served piping-hot in brass bowls or wooden mugs.
Chang is traditionally homemade. Farmers who cannot afford to buy alcohol can easily make chang on their own. Drank in highest place on the planet, chang is also famous as being the best remedy for the severe cold of the mountains. You can find homemade chang, bottled in plastic water bottles and sold in villages for passing by travellers.
Chang is a cousin of beer and the brew tastes like a cross between a traditional English cider and a traditional English bitter. Alcohol content is low but it creates a much-needed warm feeling essential for the cold and harsh environment of Tibet. Traditional, barley made chang is called Dru-caang and the Chang made from rice is called Dre-Chang. Dre-Chang is whiter and milkier than Dru-Chang.
Chang is the favourite drink of Losar, Tibetan New Year. In this most important festival of the year, you will see almost all Tibetans drinking it and celebrating with joy. Today, it is also very popular in Nepal, especially among Sherpa population.
Beer production is relatively a recent phenomenon in Tibet. The only international beer brand of Tibet, Lhasa Brewery Company, was founded by Chinese in 1988.
Lhasa Beer, “Beer from the Roof of the World”, can now be found in other part of the world thanks to Carlsberg’s investment in Lhasa Brewery Company, but nowhere it feels more authentic than drinking it at the roof of the world. This European style lager’s uniqueness is its unique ingredients: pure Himalayan spring water and native Tibetan barley. Tibetan barley gives a characteristic crisp clean taste to this beverage which captures the elemental essence of Tibet and the high Himalayas. Even if you are not on the lookout for exotic beers, Lhasa beer is a refreshing beverage to enjoy with Tibetan food.
A tour in Tibet has many great and unique experiences to offer. In Tibet, you will literally feel like you are in an alien but beautiful planet where man also lives. And Tibetan beverages alongside food are just another addition to this uniqueness. Although you will easily find many western and Chinese beverages in modern parts of Lhasa, just try at least these 4 beverages and you will appreciate the experience.