If you’ve been considering a trip to Tibet, you might be wondering what Tibetan foods you must try on your trip. Tibetan food culture is heavily influenced by its neighbors, so you may even have tried a few similar foods elsewhere.
Living on the inhospitable Qinghai-Tibet plateau with an average altitude of above 4000 meters, Tibetans developed their unique cuisine around what was available. Tibetan cuisine, to a large extent, is shaped by the environment, a profound Tibetan Buddhism, and a subtle influence of the neighboring Indian and Nepali food.
While you are in awe of the stunning mountains and Tibetan monasteries, as you enjoy your Tibet tour, don’t miss the chance to explore Tibetan culture through the wide array of Tibetan foods you’ll find there.
Be sure to try these Tibetan foods and beverages while visiting Lhasa.
Top 10 Tibetan Foods You Must Try in Lhasa
A staple food of Tibetans, Tsampa, a flour made of highland barley, is essential to Tibetan culture. During important Tibetan festivals like Losar (the Tibetan New Year), Tsampa flour is tossed high into the air as a special way of praying for peace and prosperity. It’s even used to exorcize evil spirits.
Tsampa is normally eaten with salty Tibetan butter tea. Firstly you put butter tea inside the bowl and then add Tsampa flour into it. Then you use your fingers to knead the dough. Then you eat the dough.
The calorie-rich Tsampa provides sufficient protein, fat and carbohydrates and other nutrients for Tibetans, which is 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 3500 to 5300 meters. And their red blood cell count is three times more than normal cows. Their chewy and nutritious meat with a delicate flavor is a trademark of Tibet dishes.
The high-calorie yak meat is normally shredded and Tibetans 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 tents, hide for carpets and boots. They also drink the yak’s milk and use it to make butter and other dairy products.
The harmonious relationship between yaks and Tibetan nomads is very important in Tibetan culture.
Though resembling traditional Chinese dumplings, Tibetan Momo takes a few different forms. It can be either round or crescent shaped. Yak meat is often used as the filling. Of course, for vegetarians, cabbages, onions and mushrooms 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 tea houses across Lhasa. Usually, after Tibetan pilgrims finish their pilgrimage around the sacred Tibetan monasteries near Barkhor Street, they prefer to have such dishes and chat with their friends in bustling tea houses.
Tibetan noodles are made by mixing wheat flour and edible alkaline water. Then the dough is pressed into noodles with a machine. After the Tibetan noodles are done, they are added to a bowl with tasty bone broth, shredded yak meat and some vegetable.
Tibetan yogurt is one of the favorite snacks for local Tibetans. Either in restaurant or small stands on the street, creamy and white Tibetan yogurt is sold by the scoop and sprinkled with raisins or fruit. Unlike yogurt elsewhere in China, Tibetan yogurt is fermented with Tibetan yak milk without harmful food additives.
Eating Tibetan yogurt has been a tradition in Tibet for a thousand years. It also serves as an important food during 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 include Droma (a nutritious root), butter, broth, and sugar.
Dre-si is widely eaten as a dish for good luck and prosperity. Sometimes you may also see it being placed before the Buddhist shine for Buddha.
Travel Tip: 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.
Beverages to Try in Tibet
Tibetan Butter Tea
Drinking Tibetan butter tea while eating Tsampa is one of the most traditional things Tibetans do with food and drink. It is an essential beverage in the hostile environment of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Butter tea consisting of tea leaves, yak butter, water, and salt. It can effectively shield Tibetans from hunger and exposure.
Due to the shortage of vegetables at high altitude, the rich vitamins in tea leaves work really well in replenishing necessary nutrition and mineral for a healthy body.
Traditionally, to make the tea, you would first boil water and then add tea leaves to the pot and bring it down to a simmer for 3-5 mins. Then put the tea into a Chandong – a traditional Tibetan churn – and then put yak butter and salt into it. Next, churn all the ingredient dozens of times in the Chandong. Finally put the butter tea into the container to drink 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 be your think instead.
For Tibetans, sweet tea is just like their coffee. It’s the top choice of 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 powdered milk, black tea and sugar. And the making of it is fairly simple. First, boil the black tea, then mix in powdered milk, then add sugar into the tea and boil it for around 5-6 mins.
Reputed as the beer from the roof of the world, no brand is more popular than Lhasa beer for international tourists. Made of Himalayan spring water, highland barley, saaz hops and yeast, Lhasa beer has a superb quality, great aroma and taste. It has been exported to United Stated in 2009.
The beer is sold in cans and bottles. Many tourists love to get 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.
As you can see, there are many Tibetan foods to try while you’re visiting. Even if you only have a few chances to try the food in restaurants, you’ll now know what to look out for to have an authentic experience.
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 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.