Yak Butter Tea (བོད་ཇ): Steeped in Tibetan Culture
Photo by Ashok Ramprasad
A look at the beloved Tibetan drink of BaTang from the banks of the “Mother River’.
By Nicole Porter and Ping Wu
This a family recipe handed down to me from our native Tibetan friend, Ping, through Ping’s grandmother, to her mother currently living in China-Tibet today. She is with her mother tonight and sent this recipe for Po Cha (བོད་ཇ). It reflects the history of this region. Ba Tang (Chinese: 壩塘鎮) is a rural town on the northeast corridor of the Tibetan Plateau. The Wu River (乌江), known as "Mother River" flows through Ba Tang and comes from an elevation of 8,900 feet. It’s quite chilly there, at 50 degrees, in the morning and evenings — even in the summer — and for Westerners, the altitude is challenging.
If you are a guest in this Tibetan home you may find a creamy bowl of yak butter tea for breakfast. It is an honor to friends and visitor, and is served regularly at celebrations such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year (བོད་ཀྱི་ལོ་གསར། ). In the early hours, the mother begins the process of making a batch of dark black tea… But the story really starts long before, because if you’d like to make your own yak butter like Ping’s mother you’ll need: a yak to milk, a stool, and a bucket.. (see Making Traditional Ghee with Ping which includes details on churning the ghee).
“How to make yak butter recipe, my mom just told me :
1. You heat the milk: When the milk is heated to a certain temperature, it is poured into the big butter bucket and begins to make shortening.
2. After the fresh milk is poured into the wooden bucket, the long handle inside can be stirred back and forth. In this process, the oil and water in the milk will separate by themselves, and the oil in the milk will float to the top.
3.After about half an hour of beating, the fat in the milk is basically separated from the water. Shake the ghee bucket, and the ghee will soon come up.
If you would like to try this with store bought ghee, it is possible - but I couldn’t get anyone to recommend it if you have the choice of traditional home-made ghee. Once you have acquired your milk and ghee, then you can begin making tea.
”Boil the tea with tea first, take the tea water, pour into the bamboo tube, add ghee, yak butter is the oil, block, put in and tea slowly beat, beat while adding salt, than you can drink now.”
- Ping Wu
Ping says: “Boil the tea with tea first, take the tea water, pour into the bamboo tube, add ghee, yak butter is the oil, block, put in and tea slowly beat, beat while adding salt, than you can drink now.” If you don’t have a traditional bamboo tube you can serve the tea unmixed. A fat serving of yak ghee goes into a tea bowl along with salt and/or toasted barley powder and yak milk butter. Then you pour the tea in until the liquid nearly reached the rim. The drinker then mixes it all together with chopsticks and sips. However, most Tibetans will agree that the longer the tea is beaten before serving, the better.
Photo by AnneLise Sorensen
4 cups of water
Plain black tea (2 individual teabags, like Lipton’s black tea, or two heaping spoons of loose Chinese or tea Himalayan tea)
1/4 teaspoon salt (Himalayan sea salt)
2 tablespoons ghee
1/3 cup half and half or milk
Photo of Tibetan Brick tea courtesy of Yunnan Sourcing
Materials needed: One bamboo churn, blender, or some other large container with a tight lid to shake the tea up with.
This Tibetan Yak Butter Tea, Po Cha (བོད་ཇ) recipe serves two (two cups each)
First bring four cups of water to a boil.
Put two heaping tablespoon of loose Tibetan tea in the water and let steep while the water is boiling for a couple of minutes (2 minutes will yield a medium strength tea, so adjust for your tastes).
Add a heaping quarter of a teaspoon of salt.
Strain the tea leaves.
Add a third to a half cup of whole milk or raw yak milk (if you are lucky enough to own yak).
Remove from heat and pour your tea mixture, along with two tablespoons of ghee, into a chandong, which is a kind of churn. Since churns are kind of rare outside of Tibet, you can do what some Tibetans do, which is to use any big container with a lid, so you can shake the tea, or you can just use a blender, which works very well. (believe it or not, many Tibetans currently just use a blender.)
Churn, blend or shake the mixture for two or three minutes. In Tibet, we think the po cha (བོད་ཇ) tastes better if you churn it longer.
According to Sierra Meisser “Butter coffee is the new latte, but better for you.” She has a super simple butter coffee (or tea) recipe here. I’m not sure Tibetan Yak Butter Tea is the next Chai latte, but as a Swedish girl I find these additions to tea and coffee very accessible (we add egg to coffee, and for fun I’ll link Lauren Cahn and her Scandinavian egg coffee recipe here).
I find home brewed Tibetan butter tea a revelation. It is creamy and substantial and overflowing with healthy fats. The highland barley gives it a nutty finish. I think yak butter tea is an acquired taste, like coffee or wine - or coffee with egg - and something you will come to look forward to immensely to create a cozy, special occasion.
Ping is a Tibetan native living in North Carolina and running a thriving import business called Ping’s Tibet. She loves yak as a cherished memory of her childhood and regularly travels home to visit family in Tibet-China. Ping is a sort of cultural advisor, helping Prairie Sky and IYAK gain a deeper understanding of Tibetan Culture.
Nicole Porter-Salvato, PhD is one of the owners of Prairie Sky Sanctuary and Ranch, a horse and Tibetan yak ranch in South Western Wisconsin. She’s trained in epigenetics and epidemiology, an avid IYAK supporter, BOD member and yak lover. She and her husband, Dan, love to talk about yak and are always available to answer questions or provide resources.