The uniqueness of Tibet does not stop with its heavenly location at thousands of meters above sea level. Tibetan food, which is distinctive for its hardy and nutrient dense ingredients that fortify locals to withstand the seriously frigid temperatures, is just as unique. Influenced by the unusual location and availability of ingredients, food in Tibet will be an eye-opener for most visitors.
Until only recently when other cultural influences have entered the culinary scene in Tibet, traditional Tibetan dishes have dominated the diet of locals. Famous particularly for the liberal use of milk from cows and sheep, the iconic butter tea, glutinous rice cakes made of highland barley and peas, brewed beverages made from yogurt and whey, and dried meat, there is plenty that will expand your taste buds on a tour of Tibet.
If you’re wondering what food to expect when visiting Tibet, read on for tips that will have you dining confidently in this little known corner of the culinary universe.
As with every destination, there are a few dishes you simply must try if you are to immerse yourself in the local culture. With that in mind, we’ve highlighted iconic Tibetan dishes that are ‘must try’ dining experiences, regardless of whether you’re visiting for a day, week or longer.
Roasted barley flour Tsampa
An often repeated saying in Tibet is that the day never truly starts for a Tibetan until tsampa and butter tea has been consumed, so if you’re in Tibet, you must join locals in trying this much loved and hearty dish. Typically made from nutty tasting highland barley flour, which has been made from dried, roasted, and ground barley, the flour is mixed with butter tea, dri cheese, and sugar. It’s said you can live on tea and tsampa and Tibetans may well agree. Add to this the fact it is convenient to prepare, fortifying to boot, and able to be added to other dishes, such as soups or momo, and you have in your hand the ultimate iconic Tibetan food. As for flavor, while every restaurant and household will have its own variation on a tsampa theme, expect to enjoy the fragrance of roasted barley coupled with a milky accent thanks to the addition of ghee and milk tea regardless of where you get your fill.
Tibetan noodle soup(Thukpa)
As with Tibetan dumplings, Tibetan noodle soup or thukpa comes in many variations. Favored by locals for breakfast or as a snack, thukpa is a slow cooked nutrient dense broth made from yak bones that of course includes noodles. Typically, noodles are made from wheat, but the noodles may differ in shape and size. Depending on the cook, your noodle soup may come with long thin noodles, hand-pulled and diced pieces of noodle dough (a little like gnocchi), or wider, flat noodles. Noodle soup variations go by many names: thenthuk, thukpa barthuk, thukpa gyathuk, to name but a few, so it’s a case of choosing your own adventure depending on where you dine.
The soup itself is made by adding the noodles to a bowl of broth, then adding sliced or diced yak meat and chopped green onions, followed by seasoning with Tibetan pickled radish and Tibetan chili sauce. Pair up with a serve of Tibetan dumplings for the perfect snack or complete meal.
Tibetan dumplings Tsampa
A visit to Tibet would be incomplete without sampling another local culinary star: Momo, also known as Tibetan dumplings. A favorite with everyone, momo can be steamed, fried, or cooked in soup. And before you ask, “But what are Tibetan dumplings filled with?”, let’s clear up that all important question. You’ll find momo packed with a multitude of fillings, however, most commonly you’ll find meat or vegetables are preferred. Beef or mutton dumplings are known as Sha momo, while vegetarian dumplings are referred to as Shamey momo. Order away and try to eat just one.
Tibetan yak jerky(Sha Kampo)
The yak supplies many dietary staples to the Tibetan people, so it’s hardly a surprise to discover that yak jerky holds a special place in the hearts of locals who enjoy this delicacy during Tibetan New Year celebrations. Rather than sun dried in the way that jerky is usually made, yak jerky is ‘freeze dried’ during winter months, allowing original flavors to be maintained during the process. Expect an unusual texture - like brittle dried wood that can be shredded. Dip the jerky in a spicy hot sauce to round out the experience. Definitely a choice for those who enjoy bold flavors!
Tibetan yak milk yogurt
Yet another staple of the Tibetan diet is yak milk yogurt. And while it is available year round, if you are traveling to Tibet during the Shoton festival, you will discover that yak yogurt is not only part of the diet of locals, but also a food that carries religious significance. Literally referred to as the ‘yogurt banquet festival’, yak milk yogurt is consumed during this time as a symbolic gesture.
Referred to as ‘sho’ in Tibetan, the yogurt is made from female yak milk, also known as dri. The milk is boiled, cooled, and fermented over a period several hours, during which the milk converts to a thick, creamy yogurt that is likely to be sour in taste to an unaccustomed western palate. Thankfully, there is a solution. Simply add sugar or honey to enhance the flavor.
Tibetan sweet rice
Droma dresil - also referred to as Tibetan sweet rice - is a traditional dish of rice, butter, raisins, honey, nuts, and a vitally important ingredient, droma, which is a silverweed root. Apart from being served at special festivals such as Tibetan New Year, Buddhist festivals, weddings, birthdays, and housewarmings, droma dresil has many health giving properties thanks to the inclusion of the droma, a nutrient dense root that is harvested in Tibet. Revered for its health giving properties, especially for children, droma has gained increasing prominence in recent years as the means to combat childhood malnutrition. Droma is very similar to barley in its properties and is often combined with barley to make a complete protein.
Certainly not for the faint hearted, Tibetan sausages, or Gyuma, is a traditional sausage made from yak blood. With the texture and taste enhanced by the use of rice or barley flour, gyuma are often served at special celebrations. Perhaps not a must try for the average diner, but for a foodie, well let’s just say, you’d better have it on your list of iconic Tibetan foods.
Tibetan fried meat pie
It’s difficult to go past the traditional sha balep, otherwise known as the Tibetan fried meat pie. Typically filled with yak meat, beef, or vegetables, sha balep are popular at any time of the day from breakfast through to lunch or dinner. Although eaten solo as a snack, Tibetan fried meat pies are often accompanied by rutang soup. A great lunch or dinner option for explorers who need to refuel.
Tibetan butter tea
Right up there with tsampa and momo, po cha - also known as Tibetan butter tea - is an iconic Tibetan classic. If you visit anywhere in Tibet, you absolutely must try it a least once. Like other Tibetan culinary icons, Tibetan butter tea is an essential part of Tibetan daily life. You will find it served at most meals, when entertaining guests, and as part of religious festivals. It is certainly woven into the fabric of life among locals. Tibetan butter tea is made from fermented tea leaves, dri butter, water and salt. Spices may also be added. Feted as a cure all, this hot beverage is said to provide many health giving benefits, including as a remedy for altitude sickness, retaining warmth, settling an upset tummy, and energizing the body. It is even said to soothe the discomfort of chapped lips due to the heavy fat content provided by the butter. Most often served with tsampa, this warm, heartening tea will take you from day to night during your Tibet tour.
Tibetan sweet milk tea(Qiabadi)
If Tibetan butter tea doesn’t satisfy you - and to be fair it is an acquired taste - then move on to Tibetan sweet tea. Referred to by locals as qabadi, Tibetan sweet tea is black tea mixed with milk and sugar. Originating a little over a century ago thanks to international visitors from Nepal and India, Tibetan sweet tea was instantly popular with locals and has endured to become a favorite. It hasn’t always been available to the masses, however. Tibetan sweet tea could only be consumed by Tibetan nobility and elites, and it was only in the 1980’s when it became possible for women to drink this tea at what are now well established teahouses you would recognise as the Tibetan version of a local cafe in the West.
Tibetan barley wine
For all its deeply Buddhist traditions, you’d be forgiven for thinking Tibetans do not partake of alcohol, however, Tibetan chhaang - also known as Tibetan barley wine - is enjoyed widely by Tibetans. Crafted from fermented barley grown on the highlands in Tibet, chhaang is similar to rice wine and popular with locals at weddings, important festivals, and celebrations. Mild with a slightly sweet and sour taste and low alcohol content, drinking barley wine comes with its share of traditions, so be prepared to drink more than one cup!
Don’t be surprised to see your regular Tibetan downing a beer or two either. Although Chhaang is favored by locals, beer does feature among Tibetan beverages despite the cold temperatures. Lhasa Beer is the brew of choice and is fondly referred to as the ‘beer from the roof of the world’. Competing for popularity stakes, Lhasa Beer goes head to head with another unique beer called ‘Tibet Green Barley’, which is made from native Tibetan barley. One ingredient of Tibetan beer that is unrivaled anywhere else in the world is the pure unpolluted TIbetan spring water used to make it. On that basis alone, it’s worth trying these popular local brews when visiting Tibet.