How Well Do You Know Your Tibetan Food?

Pa making
Pa making

Eleven Sometimes Surprising Facts about Tibetan Food

Test how much you really know about Tibetan cuisine with the list below. Give yourself a point for every fact in the list below you already knew, and please tell us in the comments below how well you did, or if you know any other facts that we should add  🙂

  1. Contrary to popular belief, Tibetans are not usually vegetarian, and are in fact heavy meat eaters, eating primarily yak, beef, mutton, and goat. The great majority of Tibetans are Tibetan Buddhists, but not vegetarian. It is difficult to raise vegetables on the Tibetan plateau, so Tibetan diets (at least in Central Tibet) have traditionally focused on barley, dairy products and meat, when the household could afford it. A big favorite is yak jerky, and it’s popular to serve hunks of meat to the table which we cut pieces off with knives and dip in hot sauce, which Tibetans love to put on just about anything. It’s very common to serve meat in shamdrey, which is meat with potatoes, rice and crystal noodles, or as a more simple fried meat dish, shaptra. Tibetans do traditionally eat some veggies, but only hardy vegetables can survive in Tibet, like cabbage, radish, turnip, green peas, carrot, potato, mustard and green onion. In the countryside, families keep radish and potatoes all year by keeping them in a deepish hole dug in the family house compound, covered by hay.
  2. The staple food of Tibet is tsampa, which is flour made from roasted highland barley. Tibetans in fact, are collectively referred to as tsampa-eaters (po mi tsamsey). The most common way to eat tsampa is in pa which is made from tsampa, mixed with various combinations of tea, butter, sugar and dried cheese.
  3. The most common drink in Tibet is butter teapo cha —  black tea churned with milk, salt and butter. The milk and butter come from cows or dri (see next item). People are known to drink this all day, sometimes 20 or more cups a day.
  4. There’s no such thing as “yak butter” or “yak cheese.” Only the male of the species is called a yak in Tibet. The females, called dri, produce the butter, cheese, yogurt and milk used in Tibetan cooking, so what is commonly referred to as “yak” cheese or butter is actually “dri” butter or cheese. Tibetans eat a lot of dairy, from fresh dri or cow cheeses, to yogurt to cheeses dried in rock-hard, bite-sized squares called churra that you can suck on, sort of like a dairy jawbreaker. In markets you are likely to find fresh dri cheeses, while in homes in the countryside in central Tibet, for example, there will more likely be homemade cow cheese.
  5. Tibetans eat a lot of wheat bread, not “barley bread.”  Because barley and tsampa are so common, people sometimes mistakenly think that Tibetans eat a bunch of barley bread. In Central Tibet, at least, no one makes bread from barley. Honestly, we’ve never heard of Tibetans from any region of Tibet cooking this, though we’ve heard of some inji recipes for it, which do not look very popular, like one in the well-known Tassajara Bread Book. Actually, we might try making it sometime 😉 The most common breads are small round flatbreads called balep korkun, crusty yeasted round loaves called Amdo balep, steamed buns called tingmo and deep fried poofy breads called numtrak balep.
  6. Momos are the most beloved Tibetan food. These are vegetarian or meat dumplings that are fried, steamed or served in soup. Though everyone loves them and most Tibetans know how to make them, momos are not a daily food because they take a fair amount of work to make. But it doesn’t take too much of a special occasion for Tibetans to make a party out of making momos, gathering a bunch of friends to make them production style 🙂
  7. Shabalep — savory, hot meat or veg pies — are very nearly as beloved as momos. Like momos, they take a lot of work to make, but no one cares too much about that when you get a craving for some. For a laugh, check out this great, funny rap song about shapalep. (The medallion shabaleps are way bigger than normal by the way 🙂
  8. Thukpa — noodle soups of all types — are popular, probably because they are so warming. The noodle soups — thenthuk, thukpa barthuk, thukpa gyathuk, thukpa tsamthuk, to name a few — are usually made with meat and radish and greens if you have some. The noodles are many styles, ranging from long spaghetti noodles to little gnochhi-like shapes to the flat “pull” noodles of thenthuk, and all of them are traditionally hand made, though in Lhasa, Lobsang’s family used to bring flour and eggs to a noodle maker and they would make them for you.
  9. Tibetans do not traditionally eat fish. Although there are amazing rivers and lakes full of fish in many areas of Tibet, the people don’t typically eat fish or sea food. A commonly held belief is that it is better to eat large animals than fish or small animals, since less lives need to be sacrificed to feed the same amount of people. So Tibetans were all shaking their heads over that Groupon commercial in the Super Bowl a little while back that talked about a great “Tibetan fish stew.” Some Tibetan restaurants around the world may make stuff like this, but it’s in no way a normal Tibetan dish.
  10. There aren’t really any traditional Tibetan desserts. There are sweet dishes, like dresil, the lightly sweet rice with butter, sugar, raisins and droma (a small, slightly sweet tuber) served on special occasions. And like bhatsa marku, which is sort of like a sweet Tibetan macaroni and cheese, and khapsay, the lightly sweetened Tibetan New Year cookie. But really, Tibetan cuisine is not the place to look if you have a big sweet tooth.
  11. One of the most common foods for Tibetans in exile is rice and dahl. Since so many exiled Tibetans pass through Nepal and or India in their lives, or live there, rice and dahl is an extremely common dish in Tibetan homes. In Tibet itself, however, rice and dahl are hardly eaten.
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 June 9, 2012.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Bob says

    11 out of 11. Having lived with Tibetans for years & spending time in Tashiling Tibetan Camp in Pokhara I’ve learnt a little about Tibetan food. I find most of it really suits my body & health.

    • yowangdu says

      Thanks for checking in Bob 🙂 11/11 is as good as it gets! Let us know if you would care to write a guest post about your experiences in Tashiling, or if you have other experiences that might be of interest to our readers.

      • Jillian says

        Tibetan cuisine or food is not good and quite disappointing. Tibetans cared more about spiritual issue rather than developing a real cuisine. It is lazy food. The excuse that they have little resource is nonsense. If a French-minded person moved there, Tibet would have over 30 cheese! Tibetans just don’t care about food. They eat too fast but pray for hours.

  2. LizA says

    very interesting about rice and dahl for refugees and not in a standard tibetan home.

    I pray each sunday with a Geshe and his attendant makes us rice and dahl each sunday.

  3. Michelle says

    I got 10 out of 11. 🙂 Helps that I lived in Lhasa for a time. I think I had an unfair advantage.

  4. Josh says

    I got 11 out of 11! Makes sense, since my work for the Tibetan cause is twofold:
    1. To collect, preserve, and wear wonderful Tibetan (male) costume, even including boots and a big earring!
    2. To make all the traditional foods for Losar and other holidays to share this aspect of culture with people who might not ever encounter anything Tibetan as well as western Buddhists who might be unfamiliar with the traditional culture of their own religion.
    Also, Jillian sounds like a nut. I’ve never had good food in Dhasa, but such amazing Tibetan food in Majnu-ka-tilla and Bylakuppe!

  5. Arpita says

    Iam unconditionally in love with tibetan food..n i got 11 out of 11 too!

    When i visit a restaurent, i always look up for something new to me but authentic tibetan..
    Thats why i love visiting Majnu ka tilla whenever i feel like.. n its really a Samyeling…

  6. Eggy dwiputra says

    nice infromation!

    Tibetan as mongoloid race , same like east n southeast asian people, but they eat tsampa as staple food instead of rice. That is so surprising me. I ve just known it. Very interesting fact for me. Do u know how about mongolian food? Is it similiar to tibetan food?

  7. Al says

    Hello!
    I’m interested by many different cultures,and have lived in Viet Nam,Thailand and Japan for a few years,but have never been in Tibet…
    I usually eat very little meat,but like to try traditional cooking,so I’ll make the effort!!!
    I’wondering if there are any Rock/Metal bands from Tibet,and would like to hear them… Any ideas?
    Thank you for posting this information,very interesting!

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Al, We don’t know any Metal bands from Tibet, but there are a lot of modern Tibetan bands. If you go to YouTube and do some searches for new Tibetan songs or Tibetan rocks songs, and scroll through a bit, you should be able to find something. Cheeers!

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