Yak Butter Tea

A cup of yak butter tea.

Probably the most quintessential Tibetan food. Visitors to Tibet either love it or hate it. One thing must be known about Yak Butter Tea (འོ་ཇ། ), however: If you’ve been to 10 different places in Tibet, you have likely had 10 different varieties. Some varieties use slightly rancid butter to make the tea (not by culinary selection, but by lack of supplies and good refrigeration). In Shangri-la, peanuts are ground into the tea. In Danba, they put walnuts in it. Some yak butter teas are very bland. Some are very salty. Tsampa may be added to some versions to make it a bit thicker. But all types have the following five ingredients: black tea, water, milk, salt and butter.

Tibetan woman making Yak Butter Tea.

A Tibetan woman makes Yak Butter Tea the old fashioned way.

Yak butter tea is the most common drink on the plateau. Some nomads drink more than 30 cups a day. Its rich, salty content provides warmth, fats, protein and a bit of caffeine to provide abundant energy for the harsh Tibetan climate. It is not uncommon for there to be snowfall in summer in Tibet. And winters can get to 20 to 30 degrees below zero (Celsius). The butter in the tea also helps Tibetans fight chapped lips.

The name Yak butter tea conjures up the same warm fuzzies for Tibetans that “hot chocolate” does for Americans or “Chai” does for Indians. Yak butter tea has received some popularity in recent years, as the inventor of Bullet Coffee (which is a blend of natural butter and coconut oil in coffee) credited his idea to this traditional Tibetan beverage. If you try a cup of Tibetan yak butter tea on your next trip to Tibet, give it at least five tries before you make your final judgement. As an American having traveled extensively in Tibet, I can honestly say there is no other drink I prefer more when I’m on the plateau. And when I’m elsewhere, I’m still happy with my hot chocolate.

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