Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Butter tea, an acquired taste

with 5 comments

Buttertea_monastery_kitchen_Tibet
Making the butter tea in a monastery kitchen in Kham
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The British can word things very nicely. My (British) friend gagging, feeling sick and angry with me for a whole day because I made her drink butter tea (which strictly speaking was not even true but let’s not go into that), said butter tea was definitely an acquired taste. She made me laugh which I tried not to show, the timing would have been very bad, as she meant is was horribly foul-tasting with a disgusting substance and it obviously made her stomach turn.

But she was right in calling it an acquired taste, it took me a few years to find out.

According to Wikipedia an acquired taste often refers to an appreciation for a food or beverage that is unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it, usually because of some unfamiliar aspect of the food or beverage, including a strong or strange odor (e.g. stinky tofu, durian, kimchi, haggis, hákarl, black salt, stinking toe, asafoetida, surströmming, or certain types of cheese), taste (such as root beer, alcoholic beverages, vegemite, bitter tea, salty liquorice, malt bread, garnatálg or natto), or appearance.

It is not just bitter tea that should be in this list, butter tea also deserves a place.

Butter tea is made of butter and black tea with some salt added, sometimes the butter is rancid and I have found straw, flies and most worrying rather undefined things in my tea.

The first trick is to not think of it as tea, but rather some buttery soup.  Indeed when butter with blue veins inside is used it remotely tastes like Stilton soup, but that is probably also not everybody’s taste. The second trick is to softly blow the fatty parts to the other side of the cup and drink in small sips. Put the cup down after every sip and do not empty the bowl too much as that will trigger an immediate refill.

In some parts of Tibet the nomads drink up to 40 cups of butter tea a day. It is warm and hearty with a lot of calories so it keeps one going. When you are invited into a home, monastery kitchen, tent, or where-ever the hosts tend to take good care of you and you have to drink. Lots. And more. Another one. And the ‘last’ one… Maybe the Tibetans also know it is an acquired taste and they therefore try to give all foreigners a crash course, a sort of high-altitude training in butter tea drinking.

It took me over 5 years but I can now proudly say that I can drink and truly enjoy butter tea as much as the Tibetans do. I am still a bit a wimp though; I like to avoid rancid butter and flies. But in those many years in training I also found out that most Tibetans do not appreciate that either and in large parts of Tibet milk tea is actually preferred. But in the remoter nomad area’s you should really try.

Just ask around to find the best flask of butter tea in town (tent/hut), sit down, relax and enjoy!

lhasa_tea_house_tibet
Lhasa tea house

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5 Responses

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  1. Thank you for this most informative first-hand account. When reading books about Tibet I often wondered whether Europeans were exaggerating about yack butter tea being ‘an acquired taste’ … there seems to be two different issues here, i.e. the taste of rancid butter as such and (lack of) hygiene…

    himalayanbuddhistart

    February 4, 2013 at 17:57

  2. As the English say… ‘It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I like it’,Used as a reference to prefer something that not everybody would necessarily like.

    Geoff Neilly

    February 4, 2013 at 11:14

  3. What no sugar? I too am laughing. a truly informative blog,thanks.

    Ki Vault

    February 1, 2013 at 09:52

    • If you were a Tibetan you would be the (sweet) milk-tea type I guess, more like a city person.

      But if you go out for a long walk on the cold high slopes, and you come back to the fire, I can assure you that a salty butter tea … hmmmm!

      Marieke ten Wolde

      February 1, 2013 at 11:43


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