Tibetan cuisine

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A Tibetan woman making momos at a gathering in the U.S.
Shipment of barley grain, a food staple in Tibet. It is roasted and ground into powder to make a flour
Tibetan bowls and spoons, Field Museum
Examples of Tibetan cheese at the Zhongdian Market

Tibetan cuisine includes the culinary traditions and practices of Tibet and its peoples, many of whom reside in India and Nepal. It reflects the Tibetan landscape of mountains and plateaus and includes influences from neighbors (including other countries India and Nepal). It is known for its use of noodles, goat, yak, mutton, dumplings, cheese (often from yak or goat milk), butter (also from animals adapted to the Tibetan climate) and soups.

Grain, traditionally mostly barley, is the staple food of Tibetans. Meat and dairy products are an indispensable addition. Rice is only cultivated in the lower situated regions in the south of Tibet and is imported mainly. Vegetables and fruits were eaten rarely in Central Tibet until quite recently, because their cultivation was very difficult. Nowadays it is possible to grow these crops due to the construction of greenhouses. Following the different vegetative conditions, the Tibetan cuisine has a big variety.

Tibetan crops must be able to grow at the high altitudes, although a few areas in Tibet are low enough to grow such crops as rice, oranges, bananas, and lemon.[1] The most important crop in Tibet is barley. Flour milled from roasted barley, called tsampa, is the staple food of Tibet, as well as Sha Phaley (meat and cabbage in bread).[2] Balep is Tibetan bread eaten for breakfast and lunch. There are various other types of balep bread and fried pies. Thukpa is a dinner staple consisting of vegetables, meat, and noodles of various shapes in broth. Tibetan cuisine is traditionally served with bamboo chopsticks, in contrast to other Himalayan cuisines, which are eaten by hand. Small soup bowls are also used by Tibetans, and the rich are known to have used bowls of gold and silver.[3]Sepen is a Tibetan hot sauce.[4][5]

Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried or cooked in a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seeds are cultivated in Tibet and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yoghurt, butter, and cheese are frequently eaten, and well-prepared yoghurt is considered something of a prestige item. As well as consumed in Tibet, varieties of Tibetan dishes are consumed in Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and by the Tibetan diaspora in India, and various regions of northern Nepal, such as Mustang and others.

In larger Tibetan towns and cities many restaurants now serve Sichuan-style Han Chinese food. Western imports and fusion dishes, such as fried yak and chips, are also popular. Nevertheless, many small restaurants serving traditional Tibetan dishes persist in both cities and the countryside.

Food culture[edit]


Tibetans use pots, pans, cans and boxes in various sizes and made from different materials. Tibetan women carry large wooden containers, which can hold up to 25 liters, to fetch water once a day. Having returned to the house they pour the water into copper cans which are built-in and hold more than 100 liters. Cooking pots made from iron or brass are used on the stove. Traditionally pans were used rarely but nowadays they become more and more popular. Boxes made from wood are used to contain tsampa, butter and cheese. Elaborately woven baskets with matching tops are used to store dried fruits, rice and sugar. On travels they also contain dried meat and cheese. In Southern Tibet mortars are indispensable to crush chili.[6]


Tibetan dinnerware - plates, bowls and teacups - is traditionally made from wood, sometimes clay is used and lacquered. According to the village's or the family's tradition this handicraft was passed on from generation to generation. Those who could afford it, purchased high-quality porcelain bowls from elsewhere. Nowadays other types of porcelain chinese or elsewhere are used. Chopsticks were made by oneself or imported from the forested regions in the south. The nobility even used chopsticks made from ivory with silver ornaments. Spoons are indispensable for most dishes. Poor people and children simply wore them around their necks to have them with themselves all the time. To eat fruits sometimes a knife is used. Some foods are eaten by hand. These fingerfoods include bread and also tsampa where a special technique is used to reach the right consistency by kneading it in the bowl (which is not so easy using only one hand).[6]

Tea consumption[edit]

Tea consumption in Tibet is not an art like it is in Japan but still Tea is something like an elixir, of which everyone drank daily quite a bit of an amount. The teacups are worn in the abdominal fold of their traditional clothes - the chuba. Especially revered are teacups made from a wood called "dzabija", which grows in Bhutan and Eastern Tibet. They have an incredibly smooth surface, an impressive grain pattern as well as a balanced form, which correlates to the natural composition of the raw wood. They are comfortable to hold. Of course their production is linked to a lot of effort and not everyone is able to buy such a special teacup. Lavish tea cups often have a layer of silver inside in order to be cleaned easier. The nobility and high lamas also used stands and tops which were intricately ornamented with motives of the Tibetan mythology. The tops are used to preserve the scent of the tea. The most precious cups shipped from other provinces were made from white jade. All teacups have no handle. The best teacups are the ones made from metal or silver, which are used only for guests and on festival days. The silver smiths from Derge are known for their exquisite productions of tea sets. The normal, daily used tea pots are made from wood or clay, the better ones are again made from valuable metals such as copper or brass which is ornamented lavishly.[6]

A distinct tool in the Tibetan kitchen is undoubtedly the tea mixing cylinder called Dongmo. It is used for making the famous butter tea. Normally he has a volume of 4 litres. He is made from wood and ornamented with brass. There is a whisk which is places in the hole on the top. By 15-20 up and down movements the butter tea reaches the right emulsion.[6]

Monastic kitchens[edit]

It is not common sense that Tibetan monks are self-sufficient. They cook for themselves and raise money for this by praying for farmers and nomads or by rituals for the well being of families. For this they receive money or are paid in kind. By teaching they earn more money. Only some monks are paid a fixed wage such as the abbot and some monks who work for the government. In the monastery's kitchens there are huge pots (mostly used for making soups) to be able to feed all the monks. During the breaks in religious studies, the monks are served tea and soup. The novices walk through the rows and pour tea from richly decorated tea pots.[6]

Tibetan etiquette[edit]

Friendliness, hospitality, generosity and selflessness are the basis of Tibetan etiquette. They derive from the principles of Tibetan Buddhism. Everything which is egocentric and egoistic is regarded as inappropriate behaviour while helping and supporting others is idealized. This attitude evidences in the known openness and warmth of Tibetans. Combined with their belief in Karma - that everything that happens in life has it source in actions committed in the past - they easily get over loss, sickness and great misfortune because this relieves you from the effects of past actions.

The guest will inevitably witness this attitude. At the reception he receives a Khata - a white silk scarf - which stands for the joy over the visit as well as the high reverence for the guest. When he entered the house, it is taken care of in every way for his comfort and well-being - including cooking. The guest is asked soon if he wants to drink tea. But instead of accepting - the guest too has to be exemplary - he will refuse with a polite "No, thanks" or in Tibetan "Lamee". Without hesitating the woman of the house will serve the tea. She pours in the tea and hands over the cup with both hands as a sign of respect. The guest only nips shortly before putting the cup on the table. The woman will fill up the cup and ask the guest to drink again. This is repeated two more times before the guest empties the cup slowly. If he leaves the cup filled without drinking anything some time, this is regarded as a sign that he has had enough. Without asking the cup will be carried away and often the guest will be offered Chang (barley beer). At the table one should always sit cross-legged. To stretch ones legs is impolite. Also one should never go over body parts of someone else. Also concerning the pastries served with the tea and if the guest wants to have a meal, he will refuse politely at first. By asking him again it will be found out what his exact wishes are.

The reason behind this restraint is that the well-being of others is regarded more important than the well-being of oneself. The goal of every host is to create a relaxed atmosphere and to give joy and pleasure.[6]


Tibetan snack Sha Phaley in Nepal
Tibetan kitchen items including a small butter churn with shoulder strap, suitable for nomadic life, cooking pot, bowls, and spoons
Thukpa, a Tibetan noodle dish as served in Japan (tomatoes are not widely grown in Tibet)

Other Tibetan foods include:

Breads and fried dough foods[edit]


  • De-Thuk - a type of soup that includes yak or sheep stock along with rice, different types of Tibetan cheeses, and droma, which is a type of Tibetan root
  • Tsam-thuk - a type of soup that uses yak or sheep stock and roasted barley flour as well as a variety of Tibetan cheeses
  • Thukpa bhatuk - a common Tibetan noodle soup made with little bhasta noodles

Sweet foods[edit]

  • Dre-si - a Tibetan sweet dish using rice that is cooked in unsalted butter and mixed with raisins, droma (gourd shaped root found in Tibet), dates and nuts. This dish is usually served only on Losar (Tibetan New Year).
  • Khapsey - Tibetan cookies or biscuits that are deep fried and usually made during celebrations such as the Tibetan New Year or weddings. Khapseys are fashioned into many different intricate shapes and textures. Some are sprinkled with powdered sugar while other shapes such as the donkey ear-shaped khapseys are used for decoration.[8]


Holiday dishes[edit]

Cheeses, yogurt and butter[edit]

A type of Tibetan cheese

Tibetan cheeses, yogurt and butter are staples of Tibetan cuisine. Varieties of Tibetan cheese include soft cheese curds resembling cottage cheese made from buttermilk called chura loenpa (or ser).[12] Hard cheese is called chura kampo. Extra hard cheese, made from solidified yogurt, is called chhurpi, and is also found in Sikkim and Nepal.[13] Another type of cheese called shosha or churul, with a flavor said to resemble Limburger, is also eaten. It is made from cream and the skin of milk.[12]


Most Tibetans drink many cups of yak butter tea each day. Jasmine tea is also sometimes available.

Brick tea is made by methods only distantly related to those employed in China or Sri Lanka (Ceylon). When the water boils, a great handful of the stuff is crumbled into it and allowed to stew for between five and ten minutes, until the whole infusion is so opaque that it looks almost black. At this stage a pinch of salt is added; the Tibetans always put salt, never sugar, in their tea. I have been told that they sometimes add a little soda, in order to give the beverage a pinkish tinge, but I never saw this done in Sikang. They very seldom, on the other hand, drink tea without butter in it. If you are at home, you empty the saucepan into a big wooden churn, straining the tea through a colander made of reed or horsehair. Then you drop a large lump of butter into it, and, after being vigorously stirred, this brew is transferred to a huge copper teapot and put on a brazier to keep it hot. When you are traveling, you do not normally take a churn with you, so everyone fills his wooden bowl with tea, scoops a piece of butter out of a basket, puts it in the bowl, stirs the mixture gently with his finger, and, finally, drinks the tea.[14]

Butter tea is a unique beverage. It is the national beverage of Tibetans and everyone drank many cups a day in ancient times. It is undoubtedly the ideal beverage to withstand the extreme climatic and geographical conditions of the Tibetan plateau.

Although butter tea is the most popular tea in Tibet, black tea is also drunk often. Many Tibetans put some butter in it. In past times black tea was drunk mostly by the nobility in the afternoon.

Jasmine grows in Eastern Tibet. Most likely Tibetans took over Jasmine tea from the Han Chinese cultural sphere.

Spice tea is very popular among Exile Tibetans who live in India and Nepal. Back in Tibet it is almost unknown. Most likely it was adopted from the Indian culture.

Dara is the Tibetan word for butter milk. It refers to the Yogurt drink. It is also used for the Indian Lassi. Especially on hot summer days it is a pleasant refreshment.

Alcoholic beverages[edit]

Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhism prohibited the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Tibetans brew beer mostly from barley but also rice, wheat, mais, oats and millet is used. Chang is drunk with a thin bambus straw.

Alcoholic beverages in Tibet include:


Tibetan barley has been a staple food in Tibet since the fifth century AD. This grain, along with a cool climate that permitted storage, produced a civilization that was able to raise great armies.[15] It is made into a flour product called tsampa which is still a staple in Tibet.[16] The flour is roasted and mixed with butter and butter tea to form a stiff dough that is eaten in small balls.


  1. ^ "Administrative Division". Tibet Facts & Figures 2007. China Internet Information Center. 24 April 2008. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  2. ^ Tibetan Marches. André Migot. Translated from the French by Peter Fleming, p. 103. (1955). E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York.
  3. ^ Tamang, Jyoti Prakash (2009). Himalayan Fermented Foods: Microbiology, Nutrition, and Ethnic Values. CRC Press. p. 9. 
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^ a b c d e f Mendrong, Tsering (2006). Tibetisch kochen - Gerichte und ihre Geschichte. Die Werkstatt GmbH. p. 16. ISBN 978-3-89533-520-4.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mendrong2006" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mendrong2006" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mendrong2006" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mendrong2006" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Mendrong2006" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Li, Tao; Jiang, Hongying (2003). Tibetan customs. 五洲传播出版社. p. 35. ISBN 978-7-5085-0254-0. Retrieved 5 August 2011.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "LiJiang2003" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "LiJiang2003" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "LiJiang2003" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  8. ^ Norbu, Jamyang. "Dipping a Donkey-Ear in Butter Tea". Shadow Tibet. Retrieved 3 March 2011. 
  9. ^ [3]
  10. ^ http://www.yowangdu.com/tibetan-food/khapse.html
  11. ^ [4]
  12. ^ a b Food in Tibetan Life By Rinjing Dorfe, pp. 93, 96
  13. ^ Allen, Bryan; Allen, Silvia. "Mozzarella of the East (Cheese-making and Bai culture)" (PDF). SIL International. Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  14. ^ Tibetan Marches. André Migot. Translated from the French by Peter Fleming, pp. 102-3. (1955). E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York.
  15. ^ Fernandez, Felipe Armesto (2001). Civilizations: Culture, Ambition and the Transformation of Nature. p. 265. ISBN 0-7432-1650-4. 
  16. ^ Dreyer, June Teufel; Sautman, Barry (2006). Contemporary Tibet : politics, development, and society in a disputed region. Armonk, New York: Sharpe. p. 262. ISBN 0-7656-1354-9. 


  • "Brick Tea and Tsampa" in Tibetan Marches, pp. 99–104. André Migot. Translated from the French by Peter Fleming, p. 101. (1955). E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York.
  • Bruno J. Richtsfeld: Tee und Teekultur in Tibet. In: Markus Mergenthaler (Hg.): TeeWege. Historie/Kultur/Genuss. Dettelbach 2013, S. 28-77, ISBN 9783897544376
  • Tsering Mendrong: Tibetisch kochen - Gerichte und ihre Geschichte. Die Werkstatt GmbH 2006, ISBN 978-3-89533-520-4