Tibetan Food: A Visual Guide

Tibetan food, which evolved to sustain a hardy people living at an average elevation of 16,000 feet, is like no other food in the world. Who else but Tibetans have a great time drinking salty tea and eating sweet rice in the same sitting? Or grow up on a steady diet of roasted barley flour made into a dough with tea, butter, sugar and dried cheese from the female yak (dri)? While these dishes can be an acquired taste for non-Tibetans, there is a wealth of other uniquely Tibetan flavors that inspire total devotion in food lovers around the world. For example, Tibetan dumplings — momos — have their own massively popular page on Facebook, which has a mission “to spread the knowledge about momos, possibly the best dish in the world.”

To give you a sense of what Tibetan food is like, we will share with you here a tasty series of photographs which we took last year while creating our eBook and video series: Tibetan Home Cooking. Warning: viewing these images will make you hungry!

“Pa”: Tsampa (Roasted Barley Flour) Dish

Pa making
Pa making

Tsampa, the most uniquely Tibetan of all Tibetan foods, is a hearty, nutty-tasting flour made from roasted barley. The most common way to eat tsampa is to mix it by hand with butter tea, dried dri (the female of the yak species) cheese and sometimes sugar, to form a dough. In this form it is called, simply, pa, and for many Tibetans in the past, pa was eaten three times a day, every day. Today, it is less common to find those who eat only pa, but it is still a common food in Central Tibet, and for travelers, who bring a leather pouch for mixing the ingredients on the road.

See our post “Tsampa: It Doesn’t Get More Tibetan Than This!” for a video showing you how barley is roasted to make tsampa. For a modern twist, check out these tsampa snack balls recipes.

Also, when you sign up for our Tibetan culture newsletter in the box below, one of the bonus video recipes you receive will be Lobsang showing you how to make pa.


Po Cha: Tibetan Butter Tea

Po Cha: Tibetan Butter Tea
Po Cha: Tibetan Butter Tea

For most people, Tibetan butter tea is an acquired taste, since it is savory rather than sweet, and has a completely unexpected flavor. Many non-Tibetans don’t care for it much at first, but come to love it when it is associated with warmth on a cold day and good times spent with Tibetan friends, or the adventure of travel in Tibet or Tibetan communities in India or Nepal. Some non-Tibetans find it helpful to think of it as a sort of light soup rather than as tea. This way, your mind isn’t so shocked when you drink it!

Make your own po cha with Lobsang’s great recipe here >>


Sepen: Hot sauce

Sepen: Hot sauce
Sepen: Hot sauce

You would be hard pressed to have a meal in Lhasa, and in Tibetan communities in exile, without being offered a healthy serving of fiery Tibetan hot sauce. While Tibetan food itself is very rarely spicy, Tibetans love to spice up whatever they are eating with dollops of the sauce. And that really means anything, including balep korkun (pan bread) or even pa (tsampa with butter tea)! The sauces vary, and some include more of a tomato base, or some kind of greens. This recipe, an extremely easy, fast and fantastic one, comes to us from our friends, sepen masters Nyima la and Kelsang la. Be careful, this is extremely hot!

We’re proud to say that our sepen recipe has been featured in the New York Times dining section along with an article that quoted Lobsang Wangdu talking about Tibetan food in exile.


Tsering’s Tibetan Hot Sauce (Sepen) Recipe

Tibetan Hot Sauce (Sepen) Recipe
Tibetan Hot Sauce (Sepen) Recipe

If you’ve ever eaten with Tibetans, you know that it is rare to have a meal that does not involve sepen, Tibetan hot sauce. Tibetan food itself tends to be mild, but that doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t fire up almost every dish on the plate with dollops of sepen. This can include pretty much anything, from momos to breakfast foods to things like tingmo (steamed rolls), and shogo katsa (spicy potatoes).

There are a wide variety of different kinds of sepen. One style we particularly love is a thick, chunky version we learned from our friends Nyima la and Kelsang la, which has no tomato and is essentially pure red chilis with some great flavorings.

The fast, easy and extremely flavorful version you see here comes from our dear friend, chef Tsering Tamding, who shows you how to whip up a quick batch in the video below. Tsering la’s sepen is a smooth, non-traditional version, with a tasty tomato and celery base.

Be careful, it is very spicy! If you would like less spice, then reduce the amount of chili and increase the tomato and celery.

Get the recipe for this hot sauce here >>


Sha Mothuk: Beef Dumpling Soup

Shamey Mothuk is ready to cook
Tsi-tsi momo shape for “sha mothuk,” beef dumpling soup.

Sha mothuk is a delicious soup version of the beloved Tibetan meat dumplings, momos. Tibetans love soup dishes, most likely due to a natural proclivity for warming foods at high altitude. The preparation for sha mothuk is fairly intensive, requiring us to not only make momos, but also the soup. The shape for mothuk momos, as you see in the image above, is a little different than the usual round or half-moon shapes we use for steamed or fried momos. Tibetans make a party out of it, gathering friends to help with the work. No matter how you make it, the taste is truly superb. And there is no better to warm you up in cold weather!

See Lobsang’s recipe for basic meat or veg momos, without the soup, here >>


Sha Momo: Beef Dumplings

Momo
Cooked momos

Utterly unique and delicious, momos — Tibetan dumplings — are the most beloved dish of Tibet. Every Tibetan family has a slightly different momo recipe, with various theories on how to make them the most juicy and delicious, or how to keep the dough skins to the desired delicate thinness. The variations are endless – momos can be meat, or veg, steamed (the most popular), fried, and cooked in soup. In case you’re wondering, the word “momo” is pronounced with the same “o” sound as in “so-so.” The momos pictured here are called “sha momo” in Tibetan — which actually means just “meat momo.” Typically, in Tibet the meat momo would be made from yak meat, but outside of Tibet people use ground beef instead, or, less commonly, chicken. These momos are also steamed, and are the round style, one of the two most common styles. The other common style is the half-moon, which you can see if you look at the page showing the “shamey momo,” the vegetarian momo. If you are lucky enough to have any leftovers, you can heat them by frying in a little bit of oil for amazing goodness.

Make your own sha momos with Lobsang’s great recipe here >>


Shamey Momo: Vegetable Dumplings

Steamed veggie momos
Steamed veggie momos in the half-moon shape.

One of the wonderful things about momos is that we can cook them so many ways. Traditionally in Central Tibet, there were only sha (meat) momos, made from yak, but at some point in the Tibetan diaspora, vegetable fillings began to appear as well. In Tibetan these are known as shamey, literally, “without meat.” And now, there is a wide, delicious, variety of veggie momos, including a version we like at Cafe Tibet in Berkeley, California with a marscapone filling. Typical Tibetan veggie momos are stuffed with a potato filling, but Lobsang’s own blend of tofu, bok choy and shiitake mushrooms, are light and delicious. The momos pictured here are the half-moon shape, and steamed. You can also make the round shape, pictured on Lobsang’s momos recipe page, where you can learn to make your own great veg (or meat) momos.   Or, you can try our cheese and spinach momo recipe.


Sha Balep: Fried Meat (or Veg) Pies

Shapale: Fried Meat Pies
Shapale: Fried Meat Pies

Incredibly delicious, sha balep, literally “meat bread,” are savory, hot, juicy meat pies. You can get Lobsang’s wonderful shapale recipe here. Along with momos, these will be the first to go at any Tibetan potluck gathering. Some people in Central Tibet eat them for breakfast, but they are more typically served with lunch or dinner, often with a basic rutang soup. Lobsang also makes a wonderful veggie version (see Tibetan Home Cooking). Sha balep are not quick or simple to make, but you won’t be sorry you went to the effort to make these. Best to get some friends together and make a party out of it 🙂 There is a popular video by a Tibetan kid who made a playful rap song called “Shapale,” which plays on the way that Tibetans jokingly refer to spanking as “shapale.”


Logo Momo: Pan Fried and Steamed Tibetan Bread

Logo Momo: Pan Fried and Steamed Bread.
Logo Momo: Pan Fried and Steamed Bread.

Logo Momo is a very typical Tibetan bread, which is both fried and steamed, which seems to be unique to Tibet, as we’ve never seen this in any other culture’s bread. Though unusual, it is simple and easy to make. In Tibet, logo momo would be eaten at lunch or dinner, with some vegetables or maybe shaptra (fried meat). In central Tibet, people eat logo momo with a big piece of cooked yak meat that each person gets a chunk of and cuts pieces from, dipping the meat in sepen (hot sauce). Logo momo is different than the popular, similarly-named, Tibetan dumplings called momos.


Tingmo: Steamed Bread

Tingmo: Steamed Buns.
Tingmo: Steamed Buns.

Relatively quick and easy to make, ting momos — usually called tingmo — are very commonly cooked in Tibetan homes. Inside Tibet, they are often eaten at breakfast with rice porridge (dreythuk), while in exile, tingmo are more likely to be eaten with hot sauce along with lunch or dinner. Tsering Tamding la, creator of this recipe, likes to make smaller than average tingmos. “If you look at the big ones,” he jokes, “you’re already full”!


Amdo Balep: Amdo Bread

Amdo Balep: Amdo Bread
Amdo Balep: Amdo Bread

The crusty round yeasted loaves of Amdo balep take their name from the Amdo region of northeastern Tibet, but are popular also in other areas of Tibet. The bakers of amdo balep will sometimes cover the dough in the ashes of a fire instead of using an oven or stove. Though we use yeast here, Tibetans will also make this bread with baking powder or a kind of starter. We also mix whole wheat and white flour, though some would use only white flour. Traditionally, in Tibet, the loaves were most likely a kind of whole wheat, as refined wheats did not exist in many places due to a lack of the necessary milling equipment. Our friend Lungtok la told us that in his home town in Amdo, the village people would make huge balep on special occasions — so large that two people could hardly lift them!


Balep Korkun

Belap Korkun: Tibetan Bread
Belap Korkun: Tibetan Bread

Tibetans make so many kinds of bread, but these small, round breads are among the very easiest to make. This recipe is very popular in Central Tibet, where it is made at home, but also easily purchased at little shops or stalls on the street. Lobsang’s recipe combines whole wheat and white flour, because we like the taste of the whole wheat, and the way that the white flour keeps the bread softer and higher rising. In Tibet, these days, balep korkun is almost exclusively white bread, though traditionally, in the days before more modern milling machinery, they would have been whole wheat. In Lhasa, balep korkun is sold either sweet or plain. The sweet versions, which carry a small red mark, are made with purang, which we believe is concentrated sugar cane juice, like Indian jaggery.

Make your own balep korkun with Lobsang’s great recipe here >>


Numtrak Balep: Deep Fried Bread

Numtrak Balep: Deep Fried Bread
Numtrak Balep: Deep Fried Bread

This puffy deep-fried bread is wildly delicious when served piping hot. It is special occasion food, especially in Tibet, where for many the large amounts of oil would be considered expensive. In exile, numtrak balep might be offered to guests on the morning of ceremonial days. For breakfast, you might have it with some tea, or at lunch, paired with some vegetables.


Thenthuk: “Pull” Noodle Soup

Thunthuk
Thenthuk: “Pull” Noodle Soup

Thenthuk (pronounced roughly like “ten” + “too” + k) is a typical Tibetan noodle soup from the Amdo region that keeps the nomads warm during the long Tibetan winters. It’s a great recipe that tastes wonderful with either with vegetables or meat. In Tibetan “then” means pull and “thuk” means noodles, and you do literally pull out the dough before breaking off pieces to throw into the broth. This is a great dish for cold weather. We make it often on winter evenings.

Make your own thenthuk with Lobsang’s great recipe here >>


Shamey Mothuk: Vegetable Dumpling Soup

Tsi tsi momo shape in "shamey mothuk," veggie dumpling soup.
Tsi tsi momo shape in “shamey mothuk,” veggie dumpling soup.

Shamey mothuk is another in a fine line of superb variations on the momos (dumplings) theme. Shamey means “without meat” and mothuk basically means momos served in soup, so this is a vegetable dumpling soup. Here, we fill the momos with tofu, shiitake mushrooms, bok choy and spinach, and then cook them in a savory broth, for a doubly wonderful flavor. You’ll need time to make these, and we recommend inviting some friends over to fold the momos and cook together. When we are making momos, we turn up the Tibetan music, chat and have a lot of fun. And they taste great!

If you just want to make steamed veggie momos, use Lobsang’s great recipe here >>


Thukpa Bhathuk: Noodle Soup

Thukpa Bhathuk Recipe
Thukpa Bathuk: Noodle Soup

Thukpa bathuk, centers on the little hand-rolled bhatsa noodles that most resemble, in their shape, Italian gnocchi, but with an extra little scoop. One of the benefits of this shape is that you get a little extra taste of the broth with every bite of bhatsa. Like other Tibetan noodle soups, thukpa bhathuk is especially popular in winter. It’s relatively easy and quick, and wonderfully warming on a cold day. Tibetans traditionally use mutton, beef or yak for the meat, but it is also delicious in it’s veggie incarnation, for which you just leave out the meat and use vegetable bouillon for the broth. This is a great meal for a chilly winter’s night.

See Lobsang’s thukpa bathuk recipe here >>


Thukpa Gyathuk: Chinese-style Noodle Soup

Thukpa Gyathuk: Chinese-style Noodles
Thukpa Gyathuk: Chinese-style Noodles

In the winter in Lhasa, Lobsang’s aunt and uncle used to bring egg and flour to a place with noodle-making machines that would create the thin, round spaghetti-like noodles used for the thukpa gyathuk. Thukpa refers to noodles in general, and also to noodle soups or starchy porridges, like rice or barley porridges, and gyathuk means “Chinese noodles,” so this noodle soup is Chinese style.


Rutang: Beef Based Soup

Rutang: Beef Based Soup
Rutang: Beef Based Soup

Rutang is a very common and well-loved soup made from a variety of bony meats, which we eat with momos, or sha balep, or as part of thukpa gyathuk. If you have time, you can let this simmer all day for maximum flavor. In Tibet, where it was normally too cold for cold drinks with one’s meals, you would drink rutang. In the Lhasa area, the bone used for the broth would most likely be yak, or beef in the countryside.


Drothuk: Porridge With Beef

Drothuk: Porridge With Beef
Drothuk: Porridge With Beef

In this recipe, which comes from a family living in the countryside outside Lhasa, “dro” means wheat and “thuk” refers to thukpa, the general term for noodle soups and porridges. Traditionally in Tibet, drothuk would be made from crushed buckwheat, but since it is a challenge to find this outside of Tibet, we use oatmeal instead like many Tibetans in exile do. We use steel-cut oats instead of rolled oats because we think they are closer to the Tibetan porridge. Drothuk can be prepared anytime in Tibet, but it is most commonly eaten as the first dish on the morning of the first day of Tibetan New Year — Losar. One reason for this is that buckwheat is one of the staples of Tibetan food so eating a steaming, delicious bowl of it on Losar is an auspicious start for a plentiful year!


Shamey Tsel: “Meatless” Vegetables (Mushrooms and Cabbage)

Shamey Tsel: “Meatless” Vegetables (Mushrooms and Cabbage)
Shamey Tsel: “Meatless” Vegetables (Mushrooms and Cabbage)

It tells you something about Tibetan cuisine that a basic veggie dish like shamey tsel translates as “meatless vegetables.” Literally, it means sha (meat) + mey (without) + tsel (vegetables). Because few vegetables grow in the high-altitude farmlands of Tibet without the help of greenhouses, Tibetans traditionally ate few vegetables. The vegetables that are grown and eaten tend to be hardy: cabbage, radish, turnip, carrot, potato, onion, radish, and celery. Shamey tsel could be any of these veggies, but Lobsang’s tasty version is a cabbage dish beautifully flavored by shiitake mushrooms.


Trang Tsel: Basic Fresh Salad

Trang Tsel: Basic Fresh Salad
Trang Tsel: Basic Fresh Salad

Trang tsel literally means “cold vegetables” and is the Tibetan version of a fresh salad. Cold foods are quite rare in high, cold Tibet, where fresh vegetables have not traditionally been available, and trang tsel is not something that most Tibetans inside Tibet have ever commonly eaten. This is more a modern addition to Tibetan cuisine, and will vary according to the tastes of the maker. Our friend and guest chef Tsering Tamding la has created a beautiful version with a refreshingly simple earthy and yet fresh flavor.


Shamdrey: Meat and Rice and Potatoes

Shamdrey: Meat and Rice and Potatoes
Shamdrey: Meat and Rice and Potatoes

In Central Tibet, shamdrey, meaning “meat and rice,” is a popular food, especially for special celebrations, like Tibetan New Year. It is eaten basically the same inside Tibet and in the Tibetan communities outside Tibet, with both rice and potatoes. This version is beef, though yak and mutton are also commonly used. In fact, inside Tibet, it is normally cooked with mutton rib meat, with the bones included. Many people add crystal noodles – ping – to their shamdrey. In exile, shamdrey is a staple in Tibetan homes.


Shaptse: Meat and vegetables

Beef With Cabbage (Shaptse)
Beef With Cabbage (Shaptse)

The word shaptse means literally “meat (sha) and vegetables (tsel).” In Tibet, this traditionally would have meant yak, beef or mutton meat, plus cabbage (pedzey), as cabbage was one of the few vegetables to grow in Tibet’s high altitude. Today, of course, greenhouses and importing have brought a much greater variety of vegetables to the Tibetan diet inside Tibet. Tibetans outside of Tibet, most commonly use beef or mutton for this dish, and still frequently use cabbage, along with other vegetables. Traditionally, Tibetans would not include our guest chef Tsering Tamding la’s step of cooking the beef in the oven, but we like this new twist on the traditional dish.


Shaptra: Stir-Fried Meat

Shaptra: Stir-Fried Meat
Shaptra: Stir-Fried Meat

Every Tibetan family makes some version of shaptra — stir-fried meat — because it is so easy and tasty. Despite the common misconception that Tibetans are primarily vegetarian, actually they love to eat meat, though it may not be commonly eaten in the countryside in Tibet, because it is considered expensive. Traditionally, this would have been yak (yak-sha), beef (lang-sha), mutton (lug-sha), and goat (ra-sha). Nomads would be more likely to have yak, while farmers in central Tibet would eat more beef, mutton and goat, mostly because they had more access to these animals. Today, shaptra is most commonly made from yak, beef, mutton, or pork. In exile, we tend to use beef or mutton.


Labsha: Beef and White Radish

Labsha: Meat and Daikon
Labsha: Meat and Daikon

Labu, the large white Tibetan radish, is apparently a cousin of the Japanese daikon, and though the world knows this tasty root by its Japanese name, it originated in continental Asia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Daikon). Although labsha might sound sort of plain, it was one of the tastiest dishes we made while creating our Tibetan Home Cooking eBook (see below). That may be because the beef and radish seem to flavor each other. The beef gets coated in the radish and the radish seems to soak up some of the meat juice. Anyway, we don’t know why, but labsha tastes amazing.


Dresil: Sweet Rice

Sweet Rice Dish — Dresil
Dresil Recipe: Tibetan Sweet Rice.

Dresil, Tibetan sweet rice, is a lightly sweet dish that is typically served on special occasions. In Central Tibet, people eat it in the morning on the first day of Tibetan Losar — New Year, and also for other special occasions, like weddings or special Buddhist holidays. Traditionally, Tibetans eat the dresil with droma, sugar, and dri (female yak) butter. Droma is “a small root, which grows on grasslands throughout Tibet.” (www.terma.org/shambhalasun052004.pdf). It tastes a little like sweet potato.

Lobsang’s fast and tasty dresil recipe includes an option to use droma, but don’t worry if you don’t have access to it — the dish will still be authentic as many Tibetans outside of Tibet commonly make their dresil without droma. We also use cow’s butter rather than butter from a dri, and leave out the sugar, as the raisins give a nice light sweetness, though most Tibetans do use sugar. On the first Losar morning, we often make a really special dresil with a few other dried fruits and nuts, like dried cherries, pecans and pine nuts.


Bhatsa Marku: Noodles With Sweet Butter and Cheese Sauce

Bhatsa Marku
Bhatsa Marku: Noodles with Sweet Butter and Cheese Sauce

Tibetans are famously non-vegetarian, but there are times when many Tibetans refrain from eating meat, such as during the holy month of Saka Dawa, commemorating Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, teaching and death day. During this time, bhatsa marku becomes especially popular. This dish, sort of like a sweet, extremely rich macaroni and cheese, can be too buttery for Western palates, though our recipe testers have really enjoyed the mix of sweet with the cheese. You might experiment with less butter, though Tibetans themselves really love the heavy butteriness. Cooks in Central Tibet would traditionally use dried cheese from the female yak (dri), which does not melt down and get stringy when it is hot as much as Romano or Parmesan do. We have not been able to replicate the way that dri cheese coats the bhatsa without melting down a bit, but the good news is that it still tastes great when the cheese melts 🙂 This seems to be one of those cultural comfort foods — when bhatsa marku is mentioned, Tibetans tend to get happy.


Tibetan Home Cooking

Tibetan Home Cooking

Bring joy to the people you love by making your own delicious, authentic Tibetan meals

Updated on March 12, 2020. First published on April 21, 2012.

Your Tibet travel advisors, Lobsang and Yolanda

Most people who want to go to Tibet don't know how to get there or who to trust for help. We’re Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon, and we help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical so you can feel peace of mind about your trip. Learn more about us and YoWangdu here.

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