In Tibetan culture, cuisine includes the culinary traditions and practices of Tibet and its peoples. It reflects the Tibetan landscape of mountains and plateaus and includes influences from neighbors (including other countries such as India and Nepal). The cuisine is known for its use of noodles, goat, yak, mutton, dumplings, yogurt, cheese (often from yak or goat milk), butter (also from animals adapted to the Tibetan climate) and soups. The most important and commonest staple is what is called Tsampa, which is flour milled from roasted barley in the Tibetan culture.
It is eaten mostly mixed with a special tea called ‘butter tea’, and is most wholesome for one’s health, as it contains butter, protein, milk, calcium etc. The cuisine is traditionally served in small soup bowls and on plates. Use of chopstick, an influence of Chinese cuisine, is very common in Tibetan culture. Meat dishes such as yak, goat, or mutton are cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes.
Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet and is therefore featured strongly in its cuisine. In larger Tibetan towns and cities many restaurants nowadays serve Sichuan-style Chinese food. Western imports and fusion dishes, such as fried yak and chips, are also popular. Nevertheless, many small restaurants serve traditional Tibetan dishes which persist in both key population centers and the villages.
Most prominent Stable Tibetan Diet
Tsamba or Roasted Barley Flour
For thousands of years, Tsampa has been the traditional staple food of Tibetan people. It is made of roasted whole-grain barley and is very easy to prepare, both at home and whilst traveling.
There are several ways to prepare Tsampa and the process of making Tsamba is quite simple. All we do is to wash the whole barley grains, then roast them with sand or alone, and finally, we grind the roasted grains into powder. After that, it is ready for use.
In the farming areas, people mainly use water mills but in the nomadic areas, people use hand-mills to grind the roasted barley. There are few different qualities of Tsamba depending on the process of making Tsamba or the quality and the freshness of barley. Some Tsamba are ground into very fine powder and others are quite coarse.
The most common form of eating Tsamba is a porridge which we call “chamdur”. This is especially suitable for small children or patients as it is easy to swallow. Another form is Tsamba dough balls or “ba”; which can be molded by hand and eaten piece by piece. It is also possible to make Tsamba cakes by adding more butter and cheese to the dough.
Tsampa is also found in Nepal, Bhutan, parts of Mongolia, Buryatia and nearby countries. In Turkistan, it is called talkhan and in some parts of north China, it is known as tso-miyen. In Indian Bihar, Tsampa is made from chickpeas (sattu).
A European variation of Tsampa can be found on the Scandinavian Peninsula in Finland’s talkkuna and nearby Estonia’s kama. “Gofio”, which is made from corn, is very popular in the Canary Isles, from where it spread along the Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic) and Venezuela, Argentina, Chile. In North America, it was part of the diet of some native inhabitants.
- Decreases levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) in the blood, thus decreasing the risk of heart disease. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2006.
- Barley is a rich source of vitamin E and the whole vitamin B complex. It contains many important minerals (phosphorus, calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper and zinc), eight essential amino acids and phenolic substances with antioxidant characteristics, is rich in fiber (insoluble and soluble), and has a large ratio of beta-glucans. It has also been found that juice from fresh young barley leaves is effective in cleaning and detox.
- Nutritional value is in the form of saccharides. Barley contains 75 to 85 % saccharides, 11-13 % proteins and 2-3% fats.
- Barley is the key ingredient in making beer and whiskey. Barley meal is used as a base in soups, barley flakes in cereal products, and barley flour is added to pasta. Coffee substitutes frequently contain barley, and because of its high nutritional values, barley is used in animal feed.
- Barley is one of the oldest agricultural crops. Cultivated more than ten thousand years ago, it spread from eastern Asia to North Africa, and was the food of the gladiators and soldiers of ancient Greece and Rome. Infusions from barley were used to feed infants and as a strengthening agent for the sick and convalescent. Grain was also used as a measuring unit of weight and length.
- In the region of the Czech, Republic barley was cultivated 5000 years ago and used to make porridge and flour but was later largely replaced by wheat.
In the cold, high-altitude conditions of the Himalayan region, the salty, caloric, and energizing butter tea (Bo Cha) is a daily ritual, forming a large part of the often-sparse Tibetan diet. Tibet is the highest plateau in the world, so butter tea is like a special kind of oxygen for us.
Tea was introduced to the region as far back as the tenth century, and Bo cha was born less like a ritual and more as a means of survival, making use of the mountain area’s available resources: black tea is grown in Pemagul, Tibet; butter from the surrounding yaks; and salt, the primary flavoring. Tibetan medicine has also long supported the combination of butter and tea as a means of sharpening one’s mind and body. Unlike the culture surrounding tea in countries like Japan, complex ceremonies and nuance are practically nonexistent when it comes to Bo cha—it’s a simple, essential drink. Black tea, milk tea, and sweet tea are also an essential part of drinks in day to day life among the Tibetans.
Tibetan Yak Meat
Tibetan yaks are the most frequently seen livestock in Tibet. The tough and wild animals live on the plateau with an elevation from 3500m to 5300m. And their red blood cells are three times more than normal cows. Their chewy and nutritious meat with delicate flavor is the trademark of Tibet dishes. The high-calorie yak meat is normally shredded and Tibetans would spread salt and other natural seasonings on it. Then they will hang the shredded yak meat on a rope to air dry it.
In addition to yak meat, Tibetan nomads use yak hair to make the tent, hide for carpet and boots and milk for drink and butter, etc. The harmonious relationship between yak and Tibetan nomads is key to understanding Tibetan culture. Overall, Tibetan yak meat is definitely a must-eat in Tibet.
Though resembling traditional Chinese dumpling, Tibetan Momo takes different forms. It could be round and crescent while the yak meat often is used as the filling. Of course, for vegetarians, cabbages, onions, and mushrooms, etc. are widely used ingredients for making Tibetan Momo. In Tibetan restaurants, the most common Tibetan Momo is the steamed and fried ones. Sometimes, you can also see them in the soup. However, the most popular Tibetan Momo is made by steaming. And they are served with spicy sauce or dressing and cucumber.
Tibetan Noodle Soup (Thukpa)
Tibetan noodle soup along with a cup of Tibetan sweet tea is the most typical Tibetan food served in plenty of tea houses across Lhasa. Usually, after Tibetan pilgrims finish doing pilgrimage around sacred Tibetan monasteries around Barkhor Street, they prefer to have such dishes and chat with their friends in bustling tea houses.
Tibetan noodles are made by mixing the wheat flour and edible alkaline water. Then press dough into noodles with a machine. After the Tibetan noodles is done and it will be added to a bowl together with tasty bone broth, shredded yak meat, and some vegetable. The mild flavor is enjoyed by people of all ages.
Interestingly, not many Tibetan desserts can be found in Tibetan restaurants. A notable one, normally eaten on Tibetan New Year (also known as Losar), is called Dre-si. The ingredients involve Droma (kind of nutritious guard shaped root) and butter broth and sugar. Dre-si is widely taken as an auspicious dish, and sometimes you may also see it being placed before the Buddhist shine for Buddha.
Tibetan yogurt acts as one of the favorite pastime snacks for local Tibetans. Either in a restaurant or small stands on the street, creamy and white Tibetan yogurt sprinkled with lovely raisins can be easily seen. Unlike yogurt elsewhere in China, Tibetan yogurt sold in Tibet is fermented with Tibetan yak milk without harmful food additives.
Eating Tibetan yogurt has been a fine tradition in Tibet for a thousand years. It also serves as the indispensable food on some particular religious celebrations for Tibet Buddhism, such as the Shoton Festival. The interesting tang of Tibetan yogurt is worth a try as you tour Tibet.
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