There exist those tastes that are etched so firmly in our memory that we always remember the first time our taste buds were touched by them. Indeed, some tastes cause us to recollect that original moment each time we experience it again. I can’t say whether or not Tibetan Butter Tea has such an effect on a young Tibetan’s first sip, but it certainly is a unique and memorable experience for most foreigners.
Tibetan Butter Tea, or Po Cha, is a staple drink among Tibetans. It consists of a few simple ingredients (black “brick” tea [usually from Pemagul in Tibet], Yak butter or ghee, salt, and water), but is produced using a complex process that takes time. Traditionally, the brick tea is boiled until the desired flavor is reached (often several hours), at which time the leaves are removed from the liquid. The remaining liquid (“chaku”) is poured into a churn with boiling water, butter, and salt and mixed together (the longer the better) to create Po Cha. This tea is best served fresh and hot; serving it to guests immediately after making it is considered the highest courtesy.
The first time I tasted Po Cha was while I was studying Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim, India. Tibetans developed this tea partially because it kept them warm in the rough climate and high altitudes of Tibet. The monks we were visiting at a monastery in western Sikkim were exiles from Tibet who took their tea with them. (It gets cold in the Himalayan foothills of Sikkim, too.) Many foreigners’ bodies have an adverse reaction to Butter Tea at first; to me, it tasted like melted butter in hot salty water, not at all resembling other teas. I have read that Tibetans often find foreigners’ crinkled faces (when they first taste Butter Tea) amusing, which I’m grateful for lest the involuntary look on my face register as rude. By the time my classmates and I were accustomed to the incredibly giving nature of Tibetans toward their guests, we each felt a strong need to drink all of the tea we were served. Since Butter Tea is best when hot, we often found our cups filled to the brim after each sip. This process makes drinking difficult! (Indeed, when the monks went inside the monastery for a moment, we offered the rest of our tea – a little guiltily – to the ground; when they returned they assumed we drank it so fast because we loved it very much, and brought out a lot more.)
Po Cha fascinates me because it developed in direct relationship to a particular geographical area; it’s an acquired taste for anyone outside that land. In this way, it is also a unique glimpse into the landscape of Tibet; it feels like being invited – through taste – to experience that old and sacred relationship between people and their environment. Learning about Tibetan Buddhism from those exiled from their home deepened this tea-drinking experience for me. I began to think I was sipping secrets and felt a tug at my heart at the monks’ trust and generosity in allowing us a taste of this beverage from a tradition so threatened. Each sip became another path into learning about the monks who study ancient Tibetan texts, meditate, and chant prayers all day.
In Tibet, Butter Tea is thought to offer long life, health (replenishing nutrients), and aid in digestion. After a few sips, it also mellows the body and mind. Do you have your own story about trying Butter Tea? Under what circumstances, and did you learn to love it?
To make your own version, using a less time-consuming process (paraphrased from YoWangdu), try this:
Plain black tea (in bags or loose)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk or 1 teaspoon milk powder
Materials: One churn, blender, or large container with a tight lid
Boil five to six cups of water, then turn down the fire. Put two bags of tea or one heaping tablespoon of loose-leaf tea in the water and boil it again for a couple of minutes. Take out the tea bags or if you use loose-leaf tea, strain the tea leaves. Put your tea, salt, butter, and milk into a churn, a big container with a lid, or a blender. Churn, shake, or blend the mixture for two or three minutes. Tibetans think Po Cha tastes better the longer it’s churned. Serve the tea right away, since Po Cha is best when it’s very hot.