Friday, July 3, 2009

Butter and salt for your tea, sir?

Butter tea is not just a name, it is actually butter in your tea. While most shiver in disgust at just the thought, Tibetans will happily chug them happily all day long with a salt shaker ready in hand. Butter tea, Po Cha, is unique to the Tibetans and serves a purpose: the fat from the butter gives a lot of energy and much-welcomed warmth for your average Himalayan.

It's definitely odd for a foreigner. Traditionally, the signature-tasting yak butter is rancid and an acquired taste, as travelers' tales enthusiastically confirm. Putting it mildly, even the author of Seven Years in Tibet wrote in his memoir, "My first contact with it... affected my stomach most disagreeably."

Salty butter tea, served in Sherpa Restaurant, Amsterdam, "but with Hollands' butter", beamed the host.

Tibetans have long been fond of tea since early trading with China in what is known as the Tea for Horse Caravan Route. Traditionally, black tea is used, boiled until very thick, added with a little milk and yak butter (or yak ghee). Yak butter is very prominent in Himalayas but very hard to find elsewhere (strictly speaking, there is no such thing as yak butter; a yak is a male, while the female equivalent is a nak).

The nak (female yak) is a great source of milk for Himalayans; however, its butter smells rancid for foreigners.

Then it is churned in a special equipment called dogmo for hours. The longer the churn, the more effort, the better it tastes. Nowadays expatriate Tibetans will just use a blender with Lipton and regular butter. Even in Tibet, while many households have scarce equipments, they still have a yellow Haier blender just for butter tea and reserve the dogmo for special occasions (reference).

Churning butter tea happily the traditional way, and the way most Nepalese families do at home.

Instead of sugar, salt is added to the tea (a practice not unique, see e.g. Mongolian milk tea, Kashmiri salty tea). Too much salt and this tea isn't thirst quenching at all - perhaps that's why they drink 40 cups a day and tea refills are a given in Tibetan joints. I'm not disgusted by butter in the tea though it was off-putting. But, I wonder whether it is healthy to be drinking saturated fats in ghee all day long, even though it is claimed to aid digestion, promote a healthy cardiovascular system, cleanse the body of accumulated lactic acid and rejuvenate inner strength. You can literally feel the butter coating on your lips (note to self: next time, to prevent chapped lips, make butter tea). I can spot an addiction when I see one: drink enough rich butter tea, it could be so comforting that regular tea would taste, oh, so bland.

Monks just looove their butter tea.

1. Butter Tea on Wikipedia [1]
2. Making Tibetan butter tea: Po Cha [2]
3. Butter or worse [3]
4. Tibet handbook: Tibetan Tea [4]
5. Tibetan tea in The Story of Tea [5]
6. Tibetan Butter Tea [6]
7. Not quite Nigella: Himalayan Salted Butter Tea[7]
8. A comprehensive history of butter: Butter through the ages [8]

Read full article...


Blogger Rani said...

aree, i like butter tea very much when i had it in Nepal a few years ago. It taste like a buttery soup and is well suited for the cold climate up there.

July 4, 2009 4:00 PM  

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