A Tibetan food is mostly composed of dairy, meat, and a few grains. Rarely will you find fresh greens or vegetables. This makes sense as the environment is harsh, and few tender herbs will grow. However, the diet of meat, dairy, and grains is hearty and gives significant fortification after or before hikes at high altitude. Below are eight common foods and beverages that you may encounter on your visit to Tibet. I wonder which will be your favorite!
1) Yak butter tea
Yak butter tea is the quintessential drink of Tibetans. It is made of yak butter churned with piping hot black tea, and comes out as a milky, salty, and smooth drink with an unusual flavor. It is often served in a little bowl that is traditionally made of rhododendron wood, but it becoming more common to find yak butter tea served in mass-produced porcelain bowls. It is a hearty and filling drink that really helps you regain your strength during or after a long trek. Personally, I love yak butter tea, but some find the taste too unusual to enjoy. You’ll never know which camp you fall in until you taste it!
A range of barley cultivars are grown by Tibetans and used for a number of dishes. The most prevalent and simple of these is tsampa. Tsampa is powdered barley, which is often mixed with the dregs of yak butter tea and rolled into a medium sized ball, about the size of a meatball or doughnut hole. The art of rolling this little ball is actually pretty tricky, and does take some practice. Sometimes, a bit of sugar may be added while rolling the ball of tsampa and butter tea to make a sweeter treat. Either way, this ball of tsampa can be eaten straight away as a filling and healthy snack, or saved for an energizing bite to eat on the go. In my opinion, it has a delicious flavor and comforting smell. Tsampa can also be added to mutton stew as a thickener and to provide extra flavor and calories.
3) Barley pancakes
Also made of toasted barley tsampa, barley pancakes are a simple dish that may accompany a meal or be eaten for breakfast or a snack. Barley is becoming more and more popular among Western health food suppliers; therefore, you may have already tasted or cooked your own version of a barley pancake.
4) Barley wine
Moving on from food made of barley, let’s look at a beverage made of barley! Barley wine (chang) is made from fermented barley and has a low alcohol content. The flavor depends on the (home) brewer, although it is typically sour.
Momos are a Tibetan dumpling, similar to Chinese jiao zi or Japanese gyoza, that may have a variety of fillings, but are often filled with yak meat or curd produced from yak milk. Momos are commonly steamed, but can also be fried. A recent article on Inside Himalayas even featured the experience of a traveler learning to make momos!
6) Yak meat
Yaks are one of the main animals you’ll see while trekking high elevations in Tibet, as in the summer they graze in their summer pastures. Yaks are incredibly valuable animals for Tibetans, who consume milk products from female yaks and eat the meat from the animals. As yaks are huge animals, yak meat is often preserved by drying, and is a hearty snack or meal.
Mutton can be eaten in stews for an evening meal. More commonly, mutton is dried in strips for snacks or meals on the go, especially for herders with their yaks in summer pastures.
8) Yak yogurt
Yogurt produced from female yak’s milk is a common food product in Tibetan areas. Yak yogurt can be purchased at stores and is sold in small glass jars. It is more sour than yogurt produced from cow’s milk, so sugar may need to be added to please foreign tastebuds.