Traveling to Lhasa? Here are the top 5 must-eat Tibetan delicacies in Lhasa, Tibet. Don’t forget to factor a little culinary exploration into your trip!
The alpine environment, mystical culture, and incredibly beautiful landscapes are not the only unique experiences Tibet can offer. In Tibet, you will also discover one of the most different yet delicious cuisines you can experience.
Tibetan cuisine reflects the uniqueness of the Tibetan landscape of mountains and plateaus for Tibet tours. The cuisine is heavily influenced by neighboring countries such as India and Nepal, but it keeps its unique, nomadic character. This makes Tibet one of the most wonderful regions for gourmets who love special food.
The Tibetan Plateau is very high in elevation, so rice, the dominant staple food in Asia, is replaced by grains, most notably barley. Since the alpine environment is more suitable for goats and yaks, meat and dairy products from these animals are also more commonly used. Central Tibet was not suitable to grow most of the vegetables and fruits until recent decades, so traditional Tibetan cuisine lacks vegetables and fruits.
Tibetan cuisine is known for its heavy usage of domestic yak, goat, mutton, dumplings, cheese (often from yak or goat milk), butter, and noodles. Although the noodles and dumplings might make it seem similar to Chinese cuisine, the flavour is different, and heavily influenced by neighboring Nepal and Bhutan.
Many Tibetans do not eat fish. You might think this is because Tibet sits high above sea level, but lakes and rivers in Tibet are full of fish! Tibetans don’t eat fish because fish are one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism.
In Lhasa, you can find authentic Tibetan food in many restaurants near Jokhang Temple, and all around historical centre of Barkhor. You can find different kinds of noodle soups and tea in these restaurants. Veggies and spices are scarce compared to Chinese food, but very spicy chili sauce is served alongside the dishes.
Many restaurants also serve tea… but not your ordinary tea. They serve either Tibetan butter tea or sweet tea. Butter tea is a salty mixture of black tea and Tibetan butter. Tibetan butter’s taste and flavor is closer to cheese; it is, in fact, more like a cheese broth then butter. It may sound strange, but you’ll definitely appreciate this uniquely Tibetan taste after a long hike in cold weather. Other than tea, also try chang, Tibetan barley beer. This beer is lighter in flavor than western beer.
There are many Tibetan foods to try, but here is a list of the top 5 must-eat Tibetan delicacies in Lhasa, Tibet.
Top 5 must-eat Tibetan delicacies in Lhasa, Tibet
Tsampa is the most unique Tibetan food of all. This hearty, nutty-tasting flour made from roasted barley is so integral to Tibetan culture that Tibetan people are collectively referred as po mi tsamsey (tsampa-eaters). Whereas Tibetans speak various dialects, worship in different sects, and live in different regions, all Tibetans eat tsampa.
Tsampa is quite simple to prepare, and known as a convenience food. Tibetans usually create just pa from tsampa: they mix tsampa with butter tea and dry cheese (yak cheese) by hand to form dough. Sometimes sugar is also added. In the past, just pa was eaten by many Tibetans every day, 3 times a day. Today, it’s still one of the most common foods in Central Tibet.
In many Buddhist festivals, tsampa is traditionally thrown into the air. This is actually an ancient practice predating Buddhism, and was probably an offering to animistic gods to request their protection. In Tibetan Buddhist tradition today, the tsampa throwing is a mark of joy and celebration.
2. Tibetan momo
Tibetan momo (Tibetan dumpling) is another contestant for the title of unofficial national dish of Tibet. Although you can find this dish in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim state, and Darjeeling district in India, its birthplace is Tibet.
Tibetan momo are steamed buns with some form of filling. Filling can be made of meat or vegetables. Although the most common form of momo is steamed, there are also fried momos, and momos cooked in soup. Momos are best eaten with your fingers.
In Tibetan culture, momos are family events: they are prepared, cooked, and eaten together in the family kitchen. Every Tibetan family has their own version of momo.
Tibetans like to eat momo with a dipping sauce called chutney/achhar. The sauce is made with tomato as the base ingredient.
3. Yak meat
Yaks are some of the most unique animals in the Tibetan Plateau. You will see domestic yaks in rural Tibet against a backdrop of mountains, plains and lakes. These heavily built animals have a sturdy frame, sturdy legs, and are the best transportation options for your bulky items in the mountainous Tibetan terrain.
Yak meat is one of the traditional meats Tibetans eat. Male yaks weigh 350 to 580 kg, and provide a substantial amount of meat. Yak meat is similar to beef in taste, but has its differences. It is a naturally lean, high protein meat with a great balance of fatty acids that is tender and delicious.
4. Tibetan yogurt
Tibetan yogurt (locally known as “sho”) is different from your typical yogurt. It is made from yak milk, not cow milk. For thousands of years, the nomadic ancestors of Tibetans have been making and eating yogurt from milk from their herds of yak and dri (female yak).
Yak meat has a high butter fat content compared to cow milk, so Tibetan yogurt is much creamier than typical cow yogurt. Its flavor is strong, so some add sugar to it!
In Tibet, yogurt is also much more popular compared to other countries. It is available in every establishment. Tibetans enjoy it with brown sugar, with warm steamed rice and sugar (shom-dae), with garlic, chili powder and salt (sho-siben), boiled wild sweet potato root called droma (sho-droma) and with tsampa dough.
5. Tibetan noodles
Elsewhere in China, rice dishes are more popular than noodle dishes, although noodles are also heavily used. In Tibet, rice can only be cultivated in lower regions in very limited amounts, so in Tibet the cuisine is heavily dependent on noodles.
Noodles are almost as popular as tsampa in Tibet. The most popular Tibetan noodle dish is thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup. Thukpa is actually not a word for specific dish, but a Tibetan word which can define any soup or stew combined with noodles.
For centuries, nomads used thukpa as warming soup in cold weather. The most popular version is thenthuk, hand pulled noodle soup which is served as dinner and sometimes lunch.
Another common noodle dish is laping, a very popular summer time street food. It is seasoned with red chili peppers, chili oil, cilantro, scallions, and prodigious amounts of garlic. It’s a dish at once smooth and crisp, cooling and spicy.
A trip to Tibet has many great and unique experiences to offer. In Tibet, you will feel like you are exploring an alien but beautiful planet where man also lives. Tibetan food is just another addition to this unique experience. If you are familiar with Asian food, some dishes, especially the noodles, will feel familiar, but simultaneously quite different. The flavor, spices, meat, and very heavy use of yak and goat milk is so different that it will add to your alien planet feeling.
Although you will easily find many western and Chinese food in modern parts of Lhasa, do at least try these top 5 must-eat Tibetan dishes, and you will almost certainly appreciate the experience.