Tibetan cuisine

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
A simple Tibetan breakfast
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. The cuisine reflects the Tibetan landscape of mountains and plateaus and includes influences from neighbours (including India and Nepal), it is known for its use of noodles, goat, yak, mutton, dumplings, cheese (often from yak or goat milk), butter, yoghurt (also from animals adapted to the Tibetan climate) and soups. Vegetarianism has been debated by religious practitioners in Tibet since the 11th century, but has not become prevalent, due to the difficulty of growing vegetables, and cultural traditions promoting consumption of meat.[1]

Tibetan crops must be able to grow at high altitudes, although a few areas in Tibet are at low enough altitude to grow such crops as rice, oranges, bananas, and lemons,[2] 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).[3] 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. Mustard seeds are cultivated in Tibet and therefore feature heavily in its cuisine.

Outside of Tibet, Tibetan cuisine is consumed in the Indian states of Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, northern regions of Nepal such as Mustang and by Tibetan diaspora communities.

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, steamer pots and boxes of various sizes made from differing 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 built-in copper cans that hold more than 100 liters. Cooking pots made from iron or brass are used on the stove. Traditionally, pans were used rarely but are becoming increasingly popular. Wooden boxes are used to store tsampa, butter and cheese. Tibetans use elaborately woven baskets with matching lids to store dried fruits, rice, and sugar. When travelling they use the baskets to store dried meat and cheese; in Southern Tibet, mortars are indispensable for crushing chilis.[4]


Tibetan dinnerware is traditionally made from wood, but sometimes lacquered clay is used. According to local tradition, this handicraft was historically passed down for generations, those who could afford to do so purchased high-quality porcelain bowls from elsewhere. In more modern times, other types of porcelain from China or elsewhere are used. Similarly, chopsticks were made by oneself or imported from the forested regions in the south, the nobility used chopsticks made from ivory with silver ornaments. Spoons are indispensable for most dishes. Poor people and children wore them around their necks to allow constant and easy access. Knives are sometimes used to eat fruits. Tibetans also use small soup bowls, and the rich are known to have used bowls of gold and silver.[5]

Tibetan Tea[edit]

In Tibet, teacups are sometimes carried in the abdominal fold of the Chuba, a traditional Tibetan coat. Wooden teacups made from dzabija wood are considered especially fine, they have a 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, the production of these teacups requires a substantial effort and most Tibetans cannot afford them. Lavish teacups often have a layer of silver inside, which is intended to make them easier to clean, the nobility and high lamas also used stands and tops which were intricately ornamented with motifs from 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. None of these teacups have handles, the best teacups are the ones made from metal or silver, which are used only for guests and on festival days. The silversmiths from Derge are known for their exquisite productions of tea sets, the normal teapots are made from wood or clay, while the better ones are made from lavishly ornamented valuable metals such as copper or brass.[6]

The Dongmo is a specialized tool in Tibetan tea culture, it is a tea mixing cylinder used for making Tibetan butter tea. It usually has a volume of around 4 litres, and is made from wood and ornamented with brass. A whisk is placed in a hole on the top of the Dongmo and, with 15-20 vertical movements of the whisk, the butter tea emulsifies.[7]

Monastic kitchens[edit]

Tibetan monks are self-sufficient,[8] they cook for themselves and raise money by praying for farmers and nomads or by performing rituals for the well being of families. For this service, they receive money or are paid in kind. Monks may also make money by teaching, some monks are paid a fixed wage, such as the abbot or those who are government employees. In monastery kitchens, there are large pots used to make soups for feeding all of the monks, during breaks in religious studies, the monks are served tea and soup. Novice monks walk through the rows and pour tea from richly decorated teapots.[7]


Friendliness, hospitality, generosity and selflessness, derived from the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, are the basis of Tibetan etiquette. Behaviour which is egocentric or egoistic is regarded as inappropriate, and helping or supporting others is idealized, this attitude is evidenced by the known openness and warmth of Tibetans[citation needed]. Combined with their belief in Karma - that everything that happens in life has a source in actions committed in the past - they easily get over a loss, sickness or great misfortune as they believe this relieves them from the effects of past actions.

A guest will inevitably witness this attitude, at the reception, a guest receives a Khata - a white silk scarf - which symbolizes joy for the visit and reverence for the guest. After entering a home, a guest's comfort and well-being is cared for in every way, including cooking, the guest may be offered tea, but instead of accepting immediately, the guest is culturally expected to politely decline - the guest too has to be exemplary. Without hesitating, the host (customarily the woman of the house) will immediately serve the tea, the host pours the tea and hands over the cup with both hands as a sign of respect. In common protocol, the guest only takes a small sip before putting the cup down, the host 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 the guest leaves the cup filled without drinking, this is regarded as a signal of contentment. Without asking, the cup will be taken away and the guest will often be offered Chang (barley beer), at the table, cultural expectations are that individuals should always sit cross-legged, and it is considered impolite to stretch one's legs. In addition, one should never go over body parts of someone else.[citation needed] Pastries may also be served with tea. If a guest wishes to have a meal, the guest may politely refuse at first. Upon subsequent offering, the host may find out what the guest wants.

The reason behind this etiquette of 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.[9]


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

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.[13]


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).[17] Hard cheese is called chura kampo. Extra hard cheese, made from solidified yogurt, is called chhurpi, and is also found in Sikkim and Nepal.[18] 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.[17]


Most Tibetans drink many cups of yak butter tea daily[citation needed]. 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.[19]

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.[citation needed]

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 rice, wheat, maize, oats and millet are also used in brewing. Chang is consumed through a thin bamboo 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.[20] It is made into a flour product called tsampa which is still a staple in Tibet,[21] the flour is roasted and mixed with butter and butter tea to form a stiff dough that is eaten in small balls.



  1. ^ Geoffrey, Barstow (2013). "Food of Sinful Demons: A History of Vegetarianism in Tibet". UVA Library | Virgo. Retrieved 2017-08-06. 
  2. ^ "Administrative Division". Tibet Facts & Figures 2007. China Internet Information Center. 24 April 2008. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  3. ^ Tibetan Marches. André Migot. Translated from the French by Peter Fleming, p. 103. (1955). E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York.
  4. ^ Mendrong, Tsering (2006). Tibetisch kochen - Gerichte und ihre Geschichte. Die Werkstatt GmbH. p. 16. ISBN 978-3-89533-520-4. 
  5. ^ Tamang, Jyoti Prakash (2009). Himalayan Fermented Foods: Microbiology, Nutrition, and Ethnic Values. CRC Press. p. 9. 
  6. ^ Mendrong, Tsering (2006). Tibetisch kochen - Gerichte und ihre Geschichte. Die Werkstatt GmbH. p. 19. ISBN 978-3-89533-520-4. 
  7. ^ a b Mendrong, Tsering (2006). Tibetisch kochen - Gerichte und ihre Geschichte. Die Werkstatt GmbH. p. 20. ISBN 978-3-89533-520-4. 
  8. ^ Dreyfus, Georges B. J. (2003). The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. University of California Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0520232600. 
  9. ^ Mendrong, Tsering (2006). Tibetisch kochen - Gerichte und ihre Geschichte. Die Werkstatt GmbH. p. 22. ISBN 978-3-89533-520-4. 
  10. ^ a b c d e 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. 
  11. ^ a b Li, Tao; Jiang, Hongying (2003). Tibetan customs. 五洲传播出版社. p. 36. ISBN 978-7-5085-0254-0. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  12. ^ Li, Tao; Jiang, Hongying (2003). Tibetan customs. 五洲传播出版社. pp. 34–40. ISBN 978-7-5085-0254-0. Retrieved 5 August 2011. 
  13. ^ Norbu, Jamyang. "Dipping a Donkey-Ear in Butter Tea". Shadow Tibet. Retrieved 3 March 2011. 
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ "Khapse Recipe: How to Make Tibetan Losar Pastries". 2012-12-23. Retrieved 2016-10-04. 
  16. ^ [2]
  17. ^ a b Food in Tibetan Life By Rinjing Dorfe, pp. 93, 96
  18. ^ Allen, Bryan; Allen, Silvia. "Mozzarella of the East (Cheese-making and Bai culture)" (PDF). SIL International. Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  19. ^ Tibetan Marches. André Migot. Translated from the French by Peter Fleming, pp. 102-3. (1955). E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. New York.
  20. ^ Fernandez, Felipe Armesto (2001). Civilizations: Culture, Ambition and the Transformation of Nature. p. 265. ISBN 0-7432-1650-4. 
  21. ^ 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

External links[edit]