Tibetan yak butter tea

I did it! I figured it out! I figured out how to make butter tea taste like Tibet!

Inside the kitchen of Pabonke Monastery in Tibet

Many years ago now, before they built the train line to Lhasa, I spent six amazing weeks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. I had intended to stay for two weeks, but simply couldn’t bring myself to leave. I arrived just before the Tibetan New Year and the streets were filled with pilgrims from all over the land, merchants selling yak butter, and craftsmen selling highly decorative ornaments for the new year celebrations. For the holiday season there appeared to be only one other foreigner in town. To be honest, I could understand why. I have never been so cold in all my life, and I’ve had hypothermia. But the Tibetan winter chill cut all the way through to my bones. The air is thin up there, and little vegetation will grow to cut the wind chill, or add oxygen to the air. But heavens it was such a treat to share the city with thousands of wonderful pilgrims who had walked from all across greater Tibet to spend the holiday in the capital. I met some wonderful people, even though I spoke no Tibetan, and they no Mandarin.

Many people say that butter tea is an acquired taste, but I certainly acquired it. My time in Tibet was a formative journey, where I learned a great deal about the capacity of humanity to find joy, despite enduring oppression. I am eternally grateful to the people of Tibet for showing me their spirituality and kindness of heart. As such, I have a very emotive connection to the smells and tastes of Tibet. Lhasa beer truly tasted like it were made with glacial water. I was so devastated when, having carried one last can all the way from Tibet back to the far north east of China, I left it in my friends refrigerator before I could drink it. Tibetans like their tea savoury, not sweet. I remember sitting with a monk in Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, to share a cup from his thermos. I thought I was drinking soup, till I realised it was black tea flavoured with salt. Primarily though, tea in Tibet is drunk having been churned with yak butter. Back in Melbourne, I was excited to have a meal in a Tibetan restaurant in Collingwood. I so looked forward to the butter tea I’d ordered, but was disappointed when it simply didn’t compare. It didn’t have the tanginess I recalled from Tibet. During this past year of my food journey, I have come to discover cultured butter. Recently, I came to realise that this in fact is the missing ingredient of Tibetan yak butter tea! While I had thought it was the unique character of yak butter that was lacking, I am in fact certain that the pungent smell of those Tibetan alleyways, from merchants selling their wares was in fact cultured yak butter.

At present, we have some wonderful Tibetan neighbours. For Tibetan New Year this year, I took them some new prayer flags, so the crisp print of the prayers will be carried all the more swiftly to the gods. This act of renewal was one of the many rituals I was so privileged to witness on that trip. I am so looking forward to sharing a meal with them in the future. I hope we can share Momos, the dumplings of Tibetan, and I hope to make tea for them.

Tibetan monks making tsampa, the staple of Tibetan cuisine

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