One of the highlights of a trip to Tibet is sampling the food. Though Tibetan food is often given a bad reputation by foreign travelers, it really isn't that bad. The staple food in Tibet is tsamba. Tsamba is ground barley flour with salty butter tea added. Mixing the two together it turns into a dough. Often sugar is added to give it a sweet taste. Nearly every Tibetan loves to eat tsamba. When visiting a Tibetan home, it is usually one of the first foods served to guests.
Yak butter tea is another famous part of the Tibetan diet. Actually, there is no such thing as "yak butter tea" since yaks are male and do not produce milk. Females, called "dri", produce the milk. Butter is made by nomads using traditional wooden churns. Tibetans in towns and cities often will buy a machine that separates the milk into cream and butter. Tibetan butter is quite different than the butter used in western countries. The taste is quite strong...almost rancid at times. Butter is mixed with tea that is imported from China and with salt. The tea is more like a soup than a tea. Though the taste takes a little bit of getting used to, it really isn't bad. After living among Tibetan people for the past 6+ years, I actually enjoy drinking it. Tibetans don't serve tea in glasses, but in small bowls like in the picture below.
Another popular tea in Tibet is milk tea. Nomad women milk their "dri" each morning (pictured at bottom). Some of the milk is then boiled on the stove with brick tea added. Along with butter tea, milk tea warms Tibetans everyday on the high plateau.
The most popular meat eaten by Tibetan is yak meat. Contrary to popular belief, most Tibetans in Tibet are not vegetarian. Yak meat is very important to most Tibetans diet. Yak meat is usually eaten boiled or dried, but in some areas of Tibet it is sometimes eaten raw (top picture) in the winter. Boiled yak meat is quite good. Dried yak meat, pictured below, is also good, but can be difficult to chew. I have had raw frozen yak meat on a few occasions. While it isn't bad, it isn't my favorite way to eat it.
Tibetans eat all types of dairy products including butter, cheese and yogurt. Tibetan cheese is dried out in the dry air of the plateau during the summer. It is made in small pea-sized pieces and is almost rock hard. Yogurt is usually not fruit flavored in Tibet like it is in other parts of the world. It has a strong bitter taste without any sugar. Some Tibetans add several spoonfuls of sugar to their yogurt which gives it a very sweet taste.
Tibetans who are farmers or who live in cities and towns with access to fresh vegetables often eat noodles called thukpa (mian pian in Amdo). Small noodle squares are added to vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and green peppers. It is very good, especially during the cold winter. Tibetans in the north eat it at least once a day.
Tibetans love to make fresh bread (pictured above) and it is amazing! If the bread has been sitting out for a few days it becomes hard as a rock and is difficult to eat, but when it is fresh it is one of the best foods in Tibet.
There are many good Tibetan restaurants across the plateau that serve these and other good Tibetan foods. In Lhasa, the area around the Barkhor serves up traditional style Tibetan food for very low prices. While in Tibet, you need to at least try tsamba and butter tea. If you are able to taste other Tibetan foods, that is great, but you have to try tsamba and butter tea.
I would love to hear from people in regards to their experiences with Tibetan food. If you have any questions about food in Tibet or about traveling in Tibet, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org