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Food & Drink


Traditional Tibetan fare consists of two basic items, salted tea mixed with yak butter, and tsampa, a coarse flour made from parched barley whose main virtues are that it is nourishing and ( in a land where fuel is scarce) it does not need to be cooked. The tea, brewed in water, comes from bricks of tea that mostly originate from China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. This brick tea has been a major trade item for over 800 years. The brewed tea is poured into a long cylindrical churn made of wood banded with brass, along with salt and a small lump of butter. After vigorous churning, the opaque liquid is decanted into a teapot or a thermos, where it is kept for drinking throughout the day. (Sometimes a more concentrated brew is made with added wood-ash soda to bring out the color, and later churned with added hot water, salt and butter.) The resulting drink is more like bouillon than tea as higher metabolic rate at high altitude, especially in cold weather. Tea provides a constant source of hydration and is everywhere socially important.

Tsampa, milk tea

Mixed with tsampa, this tea makes an edible paste. Add some dried yak meat or chiura (dried cheese crumbs made from the residue of boiled buttermilk) and it becomes a meal. Tibetans have a deft technique for mixing the tsampa, kneading it with the fingers of the right hand while the left hand rotates the bowl; a visitor’s first attempt at this invariably dumps half the contents on the floor, to gales of laughter from his Tibetan hosts. The best tsampa, like good coffee, is fresh-roasted and ground, enough for a week at a time, and has a nutty flavor.

Yogurt, yoghurt

Drokpa (nomad) yak- herders produce a wonderful yoghurt from the thick creamy milk produced by their dris (yak cows; a yak is actually a bull). Its strong flavor comes from the special process of manufacture. The milk from the evening milk from the following morning’s milking before being churned. It is this half-yoghurt mixture, not rancidity, that gives Tibetan butter its strong taste. In eastern Tibet, the evening and morning milk are churned separately to produce sweet butter, sometimes also found in the street market in Lhasa. In some low valleys around Lhasa, the milk comes from recently introduces cattle herds.

Nowadays the diet in the towns has greatly improved, due to the introduction of Chinese foods. Rice, fruit, soybean products and locally grown fresh vegetable are common. Fish, which was always abundant in Tibet’s lakes and rivers but rarely eaten, is now a growing food item, though still rarely eaten by Tibetans. Restaurants have proliferated in Lhasa in recent years and all manner of food-stuffs are available from street shops. Moslem restaurants also sell steamed bread. One of the best dietary supplements is fresh yoghurt, peddled in glass jars along the Barkhor every morning.

milk tea, sweet tea

Teashops in Old Lhasa serve sweet ‘milk-tea’. The favorite local drink after tea, is chang, a greyish, flat, sour (though not unpleasant) barely beer. Beer and soft drinks are ubiquitous and a lit of searching will turn up useful foods for travelling and trekking. Chinese milk powder is available, but many brands have a great deal of sugar mixed in.

Restaurant menus are sometimes limited and the variety of vegetables is determined by Tibet’s short growing season and the produce that happens to be trucked in from neighbouring Sichuan and Gansu. Meat tends to be tough, chicken is scarce, but fish, if well cooked, can be a delicious source of protein.

Lhasa’s Moslems, both indigenous Tibetans and recent arrivals from Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia, have opened a number of halal restaurants. Blue and white banners written in Chinese (and sometimes Arabic) indicate their location. The fare is simple, predictable and reliable: noodles with beef or beancurd in broth garnished with scallions, steamed bread and good aromatic tea. The tea- green, sweetened with rock sugar and flavored with dried fruit- is worth a stop.

Tourist hotels in Lhasa offer yak burgers and other western-style dishes.