Tibet is a forbidding place with high mountains, low oxygen, and freezing cold weather- and its food is a reflection of the ruggedness of the province as a whole. Tibet is located on a plateau and much of the province is above 4000 meters (13,120 feet), so growing plentiful fruits and vegetables is difficult. Visitors to Tibet will find a diet heavy in meat, dairy, and hearty/robust plants. Yak meat, yak butter, yak yoghurt, barley tea, and Tibetan-style noodles are all staples of this high-elevation diet.
Barkhor Street, a busy old street in Lhasa
1. Momo (Tibetan Dumplings)
A great snack or full-on meal, Momo are hearty and warming on cold winter days. They are typically made with flour and beef or pork. Similar dumplings can be found throughout China, particularly in Gansu, Xinjiang, and the Northwest; Momo are also a common dish in Nepal and India.
The flour composes the thin, sometimes translucent outside, and the meat inside is usually boiled and spiced, or garlic/vegetables are added. Sometimes Yak meat is used instead of beef or pork. The dumplings are often served with red vinegar, chili paste or sliced chilies, and soy sauce in a separate bowl for dipping. Although the dumplings are usually steamed, they can also be fried.
Best Momo Restaurants
1) Dunya Restaurant: 100 Beijing Dong Lu, Lhasa
2) Tibetan Family Kitchen (更潘藏家厨房): Bakuo South Street, Chengguan district, Beside Langsai Shopping Mall, Lhasa
2. Blood Sausage
Blood sausage, also called Gyurma, is a popular dish among locals. It is a mix of barley tsampa (a type of dough made from barley and butter tea) and cooked sheep blood. Sheep or Ox heart and liver may also be added. This tender and delicious meal is usually prepared around Tibetan New Years.
Best Places to Find Blood Sausage
Most traditional Tibetan restaurants will serve blood sausage. It is most prevalent around Tibetan New Years. Butchers are especially good places to get this dish. Recommended Snow Deity Palace (Xueshengong 雪神宫藏式餐厅), located at the West Side of Potala Palace Square, Kang’ang E Rd, Lhasa.
3. Sweet Tea
Sweet tea is a popular tradition in Tibet. Locals will often greet guests hospitably with sweet tea, and it is a popular pastime throughout the region. The custom of drinking sweet tea has uncertain origins, as the regions surrounding Tibet (particularly Nepal and India) also drink sweet tea.
The ingredients are incredibly simple: milk, black tea, and sugar. Sweet tea is served thick and milky, and makes for a warm and inviting treat coming in from the cold of the mountain highlands.
Where to Drink Tibetan Sweet Tea
1) Guang Ming Gang Qiong Sweet Teahouse (光明港琼甜茶馆): Near Danxielin Road, Chengguan District, Lhasa, China
2) Laogeming Teahouse: Renmin Stadium, Jiangsu Road, Chengguan District, Lhasa
4. Barley Wine
Tibetan highland barley wine, called Qiang, or Chaang, in the Tibetan language, has a long history and culture. Originally brought by the Tang Chinese in the 7th century, when Princess Wencheng married the Tibetan Srongtsen Gampo, and brought with him the brewing technology of the Han people.
It is typically served from a silver bowl, with smaller bowls for individuals to drink out of. When a host greets a guest, they should present the barley wine, and then pour 3 bowls and toast their guests. When drinking, it is customary to dip the left middle finger into the wine, and then flick a few drops into the air; this signifies the relationship between the sky, the earth, the barley wine, and Buddha.
The ingredients and cooking process are very simple. It involves boiling barley in a pot and then adding yeast after it cools. After letting the pot sit for several days (in warm conditions) it begins to ferment until the wine has reached the proper fermentation level- 40-50 proof (20-25% alcohol).
Barley wine is healthy- containing gluten, glucan, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, Vitamin E, and high dietary fiber. The wine has a mild, sweet, and sour taste.
Where to Drink Tibetan Highland Barley Wine
1) Zhaji Temple (扎基寺): Chengguan District, Lhasa
2) Makye Ame (玛吉阿米) Tibetan Restaurant: SE corner of Barkhor Street, Lhasa
Tsampa is a traditional staple of Tibet. It is a small cake, made from roasted barley flower and ghee (yak butter). The food fits the pilgrimage lifestyle of many Tibetans, as it keeps well, and is thus a ready-made food that is convenient to have on the trail and during travel. Many Tibetans eat Tsampa on a daily basis.
It is made by mixing the highland barley flour with ghee and forming the mix into small, usually circular cakes. It is often served with butter tea, or a porridge mixed with beef or mutton, and vegetables. Tsampa can be either salty or sweet, just like butter tea.
Where to get Tsampa
1) Tashi I: 131 Danjielin Road, Chengguan District, Lhasa
2) Kuangniu Restaurant (怪牛藏餐厅): Beijing East Road, Lhasa, China
6. Butter Tea
Butter tea, Su yo cha, or Yak Butter Tea, is a common and tasty beverage across Tibet, as well as Western/Northwestern China. It is a fitting beverage for the rugged conditions of the plateau from which it originates.
Served hot from a large metal teapot, the tea is usually thick and oily, and can be either sweet or salty in flavor. It is a common beverage for locals, and they drink it with many traditional snacks, or simply to relax and pass the time.
The traditional salty butter tea is made simply from water, salt, butter, and tea leaves- and its beauty is in its simplicity. It is a hardy, tasty beverage- extremely high in calories, which the human body requires for higher elevations and colder weather.
Where to Get Butter Tea
In Lhasa, butter tea, sweet tea, and sweet butter tea can be found in just about any restaurant or cafe. Just find a nice place to hang out, have some tea, and watch the world go by. The teahouses mentioned above regarding where to get sweet tea: Laogeming Teahouse, and Guang Ming Gang Qiong Teahouse, will both have butter tea in addition to sweet tea.
Any hotel that serves food most likely has butter tea/sweet tea available as well.
7. Yak Meat
Yak meat is a common source of protein in Tibet. Yaks, both wild and domestic, are found throughout the highlands.
Yak meat is often served dried and salted, as a sort of jerky. The dry climate of the Tibet makes for easy desiccation and preservation of foods. Dried meat is another food that reflects on the lifestyle and culture of Tibetans- it lasts, is plentiful in the region, and has high caloric value. It is served roasted, dried, fried, preserved/salted, and cold with sauce.
Where to Get Yak Meat in Lhasa
1) Namaste Restaurant: Near Jokhang Temple, Lugu 5th Lane, Lhasa
2) House of Shambhala Restaurants: No.7 Kirey 2nd Alley Across Muru monastery alleyway, Lhasa
8. Yak Yoghurt
Tibetan yoghurt is made from Yak milk, rather than cow’s milk, giving it a different taste and texture. Yak milk has a higher butterfat content, making it much creamier and higher in fats and nutrients. It is will frequently be served with a side of white sugar, to sweeten its naturally salty flavor.
Well-prepared Yak Yoghurt is a matter of prestige among Tibetans, and people are extremely proud of their home-made Yoghurt.
Where to Get Yak Yoghurt in Lhasa
Yak yoghurt is available year-round across Lhasa. Shops, street stalls, and proper restaurants all serve this creamy yoghurt dish. The best time to find it is during the annual Shoton Festival at temples and street vendors.
9. Tibetan Noodles
Tibetan Noodles, also known as thukpa, is a noodle soup which originated in eastern Tibet. Amdo thukpa, or thenthuk, is another common variant that is popular throughout the region, and can be found in Nepal, Bhutan, and northeast India.
Variations include: hand-pulled noodles (thenthuk), Chinese-style noodles (gyathuk), pinched gnocchi-style noodles (pathug), and more. Other variations include a vegetarian base or chicken, diced beef, and/or scallions. The soup is often served with a chili sauce and pickled radish for seasoning.
Thukpa is a common dish throughout the Tibet region, so expect every different street vendor, restaurant, and individual chef to have their own special ways to make this warm, filling meal.
Where to Get Tibetan Noodles
1) Makye Ame (玛吉阿米) Tibetan Restaurant: SE corner of Barkhor Street, Lhasa
2) Po Ba Tsang (普巴仓) Restaurant: Zangyiyuan Road, Chengguan District, Lhasa,