Tibetan Butter Tea is the Cold-Weather Breakfast of Champions
Bulletproof Coffee may be this decade's hottest breakfast craze, but in Tibet, putting butter in your morning beverage is a centuries-long tradition. In the cold, high-altitude conditions of the Himalayan region, the salty, caloric, and energizing po cha—or butter tea—is a daily ritual, forming a large part of the often-sparse Tibetan diet. "Tibet is the highest plateau in the world, so butter tea is like a special kind of oxygen for us," says Tsering Tamding la, a Tibetan chef based in Oakland, CA.
What is Butter Tea?
Tea was introduced to the region as far back as the tenth century, and po cha was born less as a ritual and more as a means of survival, making use of the mountain area's available resources: black tea grown in Pemagul, Tibet; butter from the surrounding yaks; and salt, the primary flavoring. Tibetan medicine has also long supported the combination of butter and tea as a means of sharpening one's mind and body. Unlike the culture surrounding tea in countries like Japan, complex ceremonies and nuance are practically nonexistent when it comes to po cha—it's a simple, essential drink.
How to Make Butter Tea
While butter tea may be straightforward in its ingredient list, it is surprisingly time-intensive to make. Black tea is the base; a special variety from Pemagul is preferred, as it serves as a strong and smoky foundation for the dairy-heavy preparation. A brick of these tea leaves gets steeped for an obscenely long time—until the color becomes almost black, according to Tamding la. This can take as long as a half day. The tea is then poured into a special bamboo thermos. A few tablespoons of butter, a handful of salt, and sometimes additional milk are added, and the whole drink gets shaken, "like making a cocktail," Tamding la says. Though regular cow butter is used from time to time to make butter tea, yak butter is most common, as it has a richer, less sweet taste (the result of the Himalayan yak diet, which is very grass and shrub heavy). Aside from the flavor, Tamding la says that butter is prized because it signifies "richness, prosperity, and something that is long-lasting" in Tibetan culture.
The resulting tea looks more like a thick soup than a tea, and it is meant to be consumed as such, in deep bowls that will continually get topped off—a single serving could consist of several hundred sips. As far as the final flavor goes, it can be disarming at first to taste almost no sweetness, but Tamding la says that this is standard for Tibetans, as the cuisine tends not to be very sweet. Tamding la's sister, Tashi, adds: "It's like a light soup that's a little salty. It's not that heavy—you don't taste anything like cream or butter. It's just very soothing and rich. In the cold climate, you feel very satisfied."
What to Eat with Butter Tea
Like a soup, po cha is often drunk by itself or with a piece of fresh bread, according to Tamding la. But one common practice is to pour the tea over tsampa, or wheat flour, to make a healthy stew.
The Bulletproof Trend
Because its butter-laden preparation is so different than that of other teas, many view po cha as an acquired taste—but the flavor is being brought into the mainstream, via the Bulletproof Coffee trend. That company's founder, Dave Asprey, discovered po cha while hiking in Tibet, and he was astounded by its revitalizing effects. He created his own version, swapping out black tea for strong coffee. Bulletproof Coffee became a diet sensation, bringing on celebrity followers like Jimmy Fallon and Shailene Woodley and claiming to help with everything from weight loss to mental clarity.
Up in the Himalayas, though, it's not a trend—it's a way of life. "Our parents and our grandparents and our forefathers all drank [butter tea]," Tashi Tamding la says. "We drink it like the Americans drinking their morning coffee."