Tibetan food is characterized by high quantity of heat so as to adapt to the living environment on the plateau which features cold weather and oxygen deficiency. Tsampa, ghee, tea, as well as beef and mutton are known as the “four treasures of Tibetan food”.
Tsampa is the staple food of Tibetan people and ranks first among the “four treasures of Tibetan food”. It is made of highland barley, which is dried, then fried and grounded into powder. When eating, you should first pour a little Tibetan butter tea into a bowl; add some ghee, fine milk sediments, and white sugar into it; put the tsampa flour into the bowl. Then, hold the bowl with your left hand, and thoroughly mix the ingredients with your right hand. Finally, mold the dough into small balls for eating. Other ingredients may also be added according to your taste.
Ghee is obtained from raw milk of cows, yaks, goats or sheep. It looks like butter and tastes like cheese. As milk separators are not widely used in the pasture area in Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, in some places Tibetan woman still refine milk manually via primitive separators. They pour the heated milk into a big wooden bucket; then churn it vigorously for hundreds of times to separate the butter from the liquid. Gradually a tier of a light yellow substance floats to the top. The women then ladle the butter and put it into a leather bag to cool, to get the refined ghee. Ghee is rich in high-quality fats, and has high nutritional value. There are many ways to eat ghee, and ghee is mainly used to make Tibetan butter tea.
Tibetan people like drinking tea. In Tibet, tea comes in many varieties, and the butter tea, sweet tea and clear tea are the most common, among which, the butter tea is the most famous. The main materials for preparing Tibetan butter tea contain butter, tea and salt. The butter tea can provide plenty of caloric energy and is particularly suited to high altitudes. If you are suffered from altitude sickness, the kind Tibetans will advise you to drink some butter tea.
According to the Tibetan custom, butter tea is drunk in separate sips, and after each sip the host refills the bowl to the brim. Thus, you never drain your bowl; rather, it is constantly topped up. If you do not wish to drink, the best thing to do is to leave the tea untouched until the time comes to leave and then drain the bowl. In this way etiquette is observed and the host will not be offended.
Air-dried meat is a special kind of food in Tibet. Cut the beef or mutton into small pieces, hang pieces of meat in a shady and cool place at the end of the year, to let them air-dry naturally. In February or March next year, the meat pieces can be eaten.
Besides the “four treasures of Tibetan food”, Barley wine and various milk products are also very popular.
Barley wine is made of highland barley, which is the favorite of Tibetan, especially during the festivals. It’s easy to make this wine. First, cook the washed barley, add distiller’s yeast into it after it is cool, and place it into a pottery jar. Then, seal the jar, and cover it with a blanket to make the barley ferment in the jar. Unseal the jar after several days, add an appropriate amount of pure water in the jar, then seal it again for one or two more days. The barley wine will appear light yellow, taste mild and slightly sweet and sour, and contain little alcohol.
There is a custom to follow when drinking barley wine in Tibet. Instead of drinking up, you should first drink a little and let the host immediately fill up; you drink a little again and the host fills in once more, and so on. When the glass is filled the fourth time, you should drink up; only in this way will the host feel respected. The more you drink, the much happier the host will be as he or she will view this as meaning excellent wine brewing.