One of the best things about traveling to strange places in the world is trying the local food and drink. This isn’t always a pleasant experience, but at least it makes for a good story, and it can give a real insight into local culture at the same time.
Here are what I think are the top 5 local Tibetan tastes that must be tried in Tibet …
1) Tea in all its forms. For a crowd-pleaser you really can’t go past the deliciously warming cha ngarmo (sweet tea): heated milk that’s been flavored with sugar and black tea. Cha ngarmo is the drink of choice for many city-Tibetans these days because it’s easy to make and really very tasty.
But while it’s easy to just stick with the sweet tea, I think that all visitors to Tibet should definitely try cha suma (butter tea) at least once. No one ever really forgets their first taste of butter tea: the initial hesitation at the smell of warm salty butter, the almost slimy texture of the tea, the difficult task of finishing the whole cup, and the funny feeling that’s left in your stomach if you accidentally drank too much at once. Tibetan butter tea is popular with nomads and farmers around the country – the mixture of black tea plus butter and salt instead of milk and sugar is supposed to help their bodies to stay strong and warm in the extreme weather of the high plateau. The quality of the tea depends on the freshness of the butter that’s used, and can range from rancid and barely palatable to light and subtle – choose poorly and you may suffer for hours after, but a good brew may change your mind about the drink entirely.
2) Churra: Tibetan cheese. When I first heard about Tibetan cheese I thought “Great, I love cheese!” And oh how disappointed I was to find that it more closely resembled a funky flavored gobstopper than any kind of cheese I had ever known. Due to the lack of refrigeration across most of the Tibetan plateau food needs to be made to last months without deteriorating, thus many popular every-day snacks come dried. Churra is one such food – in the process of making it the final stage involves drying it into little cubes or sometimes flakes that become so solid and hard that when eaten they must be sucked for several minutes before a first tentative bite can be made. The texture is only one part of it though … I know no other way to accurately describe the flavor of churra other than to compare it to foot odor. Yes, I am recommending that you eat something that tastes like foot odor. Why? Because it’s an integral part of Tibetan culture – pilgrims snack on it throughout the day as they visit temples, nomads use it to stave off thirst when they can’t get fresh water to drink, and it’s commonly added to tsampa along with butter tea to make a morning meal. And who knows – maybe you might end up liking it more than I do.
3) Dried yak meat. In the Barkhor market there are touristy t-shirts that are printed with “Yak, Yak, Yak, Yak, Tibet”, a sentence that makes little sense but seems to so accurately describe the abundance of popular products that come from this animal. Tibetan cuisine is essentially based around yak meat, and dree (female yak) milk, butter, cheese, and yoghurt. A common snack that lasts well on long journeys across the plateau is dried yak meat – commonly known to us as jerky. Depending on how long its been hanging around for (I mean that literally – it can be seen everywhere hanging from people’s windows) it can be tough and solid or quite nicely chewy. As a former vegetarian it’s not my favorite snack but other foreigners who live in Lhasa with me love the salty, rare meat flavor.
4) Sha Baleb: meat-filled bread. This is the Tibetan equivalent of a meat pie, and is popular as a lunchtime snack in the city (I’m sure they probably make it in the countryside too, but I can’t say for sure that I’ve seen it). It is exactly what is sounds like – a dense pita-style bread filled with yak meat or sometimes lamb and fried in oil. I think it’s best with a good dollop of chili sauce to give it some flavor because it can sometimes be a little bit plain. Unfortunately they don’t do vegetable filled ones, but for non meat-eaters there’s either plain baleb bread or baleb ngarmo which has a spoonful of honey or molasses baked inside it. These make great packed lunches for hiking.
5) Tsampa. A Tibetan staple, tsampa is roasted barley flour that is used to make noodles, bread, pizza bases (check out ‘Accordion’ cafe in central Lhasa for these) and is the main ingredient of the Tibetan breakfast food Ba. Tsampa is just as essential in a Tibetan kitchen as rice is for most other Asian countries – it comes in huge heavy bags, in different levels of coarseness, and is nutritious and filling. It doesn’t have a great deal of flavor itself so additions are important. To make Ba it is combined with butter tea, churra, and sugar, and then mixed with the hand to form a neat little mouthful sized ball. Ba ends up with the texture of slightly dry unbaked bread dough, and a subtle flavor that can be adjusted by simply adding more sugar, butter, or churra according to personal tastes. If you can’t go to a local home to try tsampa, there are a few restaurants around town that have it on the menu such as locally owned ‘Tashi’ in central Lhasa.
Bonus: Chang. No, not all Tibetans have taken religious vows, and yes, many Tibetans do enjoy alcohol! The Tibetan drink of choice is chang, an alcoholic drink made from barley that is sometimes advertised as “Barley Wine” and sometimes as “Barley Beer” even though it’s more like a spirit in terms of distillation process. But really “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – call it whatever you like, the drink itself will not change because of it. The canned version that can be found in restaurants and bars around town tends to be fairly low-alcohol (around 3% or less) and has a sweet, almost fruity flavor. But care needs to be taken when deciding to indulge in someone’s homemade chang, as it can range from these lower percentages all the way up to 60%, at which point it tastes more like a Chinese rice wine – leaving drinkers with a burning sensation that follows the drink down from their tongue to their belly. These higher percentages are rare though, as its more preferable to have a few and enjoy the flavor than to have one and fall over.
Source: kiaoratibet click here to read about other local culture information…