Last updated on March 9th, 2017
This is a guest post by Kunga of Tibet Vista, the pioneer of Tibet tourism for global tourists, since 1984.
Living on inhospitable Qinghai-Tibet plateau with an average altitude of above 4000m, Tibetans develop their unique diet based on the distinctive natural resources available. Tibetan cuisine, to a large extent, is shaped by distinct alpine environment, profound Tibetan Buddhism and subtle influence of neighboring Indian and Nepali food.
While you are left in awe by the stunning sacred mountains and holy Tibetan monasteries, etc. as you enjoy your Tibet tour, never miss the rare chance to have a real bite of Tibetan culture via a wide array of exotic Tibetan delicacies. The following Tibetan food and beverage are something you couldn’t afford to miss in Lhasa.
Top 10 Tibetan Food You Must Try in Lhasa
As the staple food of Tibetans, Tsampa (barley flour), made of highland barley, is essential to Tibetan culture. During important Tibetan festivals like Losar (Tibetan New Year), the auspicious Tsampa flour will be tossed high above the air as a special way to pray for peace and prosperity or even used to exorcize evil spirits.
Tsampa normally is eaten with salty Tibetan butter tea. Firstly you put butter tea inside the bowl and then add Tsampa flour into it. Later you use your fingers to knead Tsampa dough. Finally, you are ready to enjoy it. The calorie-rich Tsampa can provide the sufficient protein, fat and carbohydrate and other nutrition for Tibetans, overall a vital source of energy for survival on the harsh plateau.
Tibetan Yak Meat
Tibetan yaks are the most frequently seen livestock in Tibet. The tough and mild 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 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.
Tibetan yogurt acts as one of the favorite pastime snacks for local Tibetans. Either in 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 Shoton Festival. The interesting tang of Tibetan yogurt is worth a try as you tour Tibet.
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.
Travel Tips: Tibetans show no interest to fish largely because the old tradition that when the Tibetans, esp. infants died, their bodies would be expected to be disposed into the river. Therefore, normally Tibetans never eat fish. Besides, Tibetans are followers of Tibetan Buddhism. To get enough protein and energy on harsh plateau, when they have to kill animal for survival they prefer to eat large yak or sheep that can provide food supply for a family of 5, instead of slaughtering plenty of small fish.
Tibetan Butter Tea
Drinking Tibetan butter tea while eating Tsampa has been the most iconic scene of Tibetans in their daily life. As an essential beverage in hostile environment of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, butter tea, consisting of tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt, can effectively shield Tibetans from hunger and exposure. Due to the shortage of vegetables at high altitude, the rich vitamin in tea leaves work really well in replenishing necessary nutrition and mineral for a healthy body.
Traditionally, Tibetans would first have water (e.g. 2 cups) boiled and then add tea to the pot and bring down to a simmer (3-5 mins). Then put the tea into Chandong, a traditional Tibetan churn and later put yak butter and salt into it. Next, churn all the ingredient dozens of times with Chandong. Finally put the butter tea into the container to boil it.
Tibetan Sweet Tea
To many international tourists, if you are at odds with salty butter tea, the sugary flavor of Tibetan sweet tea will never let you down. For Tibetans, sweet tea is just like their coffee. It’s the top choice beverage as they enjoy the leisurely life with their friends in tea houses across Tibet. Normally, Tibetans will order sweet tea together with Tibetan noodles.
The major ingredients of Tibetan sweet tea are made up of power milk, black tea and sugar. And the making of it is fairly simple. Firstly, boil the black tea; Then mix powered milk with tea; finally add sugar into the tea and boil it for around 5-6 mins.
Reputed as the beer from the roof of the world, no bigger name is more popular than Lhasa beer for international tourists. Made of Himalayan spring water, highland barley, saaz hops and yeast, Lhasa beer, with superb quality and aromatic taste, had already been exported to United Stated in 2009. The beer is sold in cans and bottles. Many tourists would love to have a selfie while drinking Lhasa beer at well-known scenic sites in Tibet, such as Everest Base Camp (5200m).
Chang (barley wine)
Chang also known as barley wine is the traditional and mostly homemade alcohol in Tibet. Highland barley, millet and rice grains are the major ingredients for Chang. As a traditional alcohol, it is the most popular drink during Tibetan festivals and on other special occasions, such as wedding ceremony and greeting friends, etc.
Have you traveled to Tibet? Had any of these Tibetan foods you must try in Lhasa? Tell us about it in the comments section.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kunga, the seasoned Tibetan tour guide, is currently the customer service manager with www.tibettravel.org. Kunga had his education abroad for more than 20 years and went back to Lhasa in 1992 as an oversea Tibetan and started to guide global tourists in China International Travel Service. Humorous and knowledgeable, Kunga is an expert of Tibetan culture and history.