Visitors to Tibet usually focus on the sightsPotala Palace, Mount Kailash, monasteries and epic Himalayan vistasbut a important part of foreign travel for most people is sampling new and interesting kinds of food. Tibet has its own unique cuisine, rooted in the culture and life on the plateau, and influenced by the large monastic community.
Explore Tibet, a Lhasa-based Tibet travel agency, has put together a guide to Tibetan food. Travelers should have some idea what to expect, the agency said. We get asked a lot of questions about food and food culture during the Tibet tour, and we wanted to share our expertise.
Traditional Tibetan food is basic; the primary grain is ground, roasted barley called tsampa. The high altitude and climate of much of the plateau means that the Tibetan diet has to be relatively simple. Most people rely daily on tsampa and yak products, like dried yak meat and milk and butter from female yaks (called dri).
Fruit and vegetables are scarce, and often have to be delivered long distances, which can make them too costly or hard-to-find for rural families. Some communities build greenhouses or plant gardens to cultivate their own vegetables.
A simple meal in Tibet might consist of tsampa with yak butter or tea, mixed together in a bowl and formed into doughy lumps, then eaten by hand. Another popular dish in Tibet is thukpa, which are thick, chewy noodles in a broth mixed with yak meat and some vegetables. Like most Tibetan dishes, thukpa is protein and carb-heavy, meant to nourish and fortify the body against the cold and harsh environment.
Most meals in Tibet also include momos, which are steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables. Plain steamed buns are also a common breakfast or accompaniment to a meal, and cooks sometimes press in the sides of these buns and call them yaks nose.
At some point (most likely many times) visitors are offered tea, which in Tibet is a mixture of yak butter, milk, salt and tea leaves. Butter tea, as its often called is a favorite of Tibetans, but its an acquired taste for most foreigners. Tibetans are quite hospitable and tend to serve guests cup after cup of butter tea until the guest places their hand over their cup.
Vegetarians are easily accommodated in Tibet, as many member of the monastic community and other devout Buddhists refrain from eating meat.