Abstract: Variations in cuisine among the Tibetan minority of China are due in part to environmental diversity. Different ecologies yielded varied adaptive strategies of resource use (economies), and resulted in three main types of food production: pastoralism, agriculture, and a mixed economy with both kinds of production. These strategies in turn affect the type of food raised, and consequently consumed. Core foods include tsampa (roasted barley flour), and milk products such as yogurt, cheese, and butter.

Citation:  Anderson, et al. (2021). Encyclopedia of Sustainability (2nd edition). Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

DOI: 10.47462/941258504

Keywords: Tibetan cuisine; pastoralism in Tibet; agriculture in Tibet; tsampa; yak products; ecological diversity; Tibetan butter tea

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

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Tibetan Cuisine

Denise M. Glover, University of Puget Sound

The diversity of cuisines among the Tibetan-speaking population of China reflects in large part local ecologies, and the economies that developed from those environments. Tibetan-dominant areas are on the western and southwestern stretches of the current People’s Republic of China (PRC) and include the Tibetan Autonomous Region as well as parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. The ecological range of these areas includes glacial mountain peaks, high-altitude grasslands, forests, and river valleys. Rainfall is extremely variable, and latitudinal range is between approximately 27° to 39° north.

Three main economies developed in Tibetan-speaking areas: pastoralism, agriculture, and a mixed economy with both pastoralist and agriculturalist features. Agriculture developed in some of the river valleys in central and southern Tibet, and pastoralism reached its apex in the Changthang, or northern plains of the Tibetan Plateau, where nomads survive almost strictly on animal products (and some grain obtained in trade). While most areas inhabited by Tibetans in the PRC have a common component of high elevation (ranging between several thousand to above 10,000 feet), differences in rainfall, soil type, arable land, and naturally occurring flora and fauna have created a mosaic of ecologies, and therefore adaptive strategies of resource use. Mixed economies, agriculturally-based ones, and those economies more pastoralist in orientation may exist in close proximity, due to extreme environmental variations across the landscape. These conditions have resulted in both biological as well as cultural and linguistic diversity, even as some central elements of culture, language, and economy maintain a common thread of Tibetan identity.

In agriculturally based Tibetan settlements such as the Lhasa valley, and in areas with mixed economics (such as southern Khams, or northwestern Yunnan Province and western/southwestern Sichuan Province), use of other non-bovine meat such as pork and chicken, and farmed vegetables, including potatoes, radishes, and mustard, has been prevalent for some time. Additionally in these areas, Tibetan cuisine especially includes wheat-based products such as momos, dumplings stuffed with meat and vegetable filling; thukpa, noodle soup with meat and vegetables, and various types of flatbreads and buns. Buckwheat and millet are also farmed in places, and dishes such as pancakes are made from these grains.

Of course, trade of consumables has existed for thousands of years, and so dried fruits (particularly raisins) and various herbs and spices from South Asia and southern China have been part of Tibetan cuisines for centuries. Trade and other contact with various ethnic groups has influenced Tibetan cuisine, as is typical of inter-cultural contact in many realms. Thus, rice is commonly consumed among many populations of Tibetans in the PRC, particularly those in urban settings. A sweet rice (with sugar, dried fruit, and butter) is sometimes prepared for Tibetan New Year’s celebrations. In some areas, such as in the Ü-Gstang region (TAR), the influence of South Asian cuisine is obvious, as various forms of curry and use of Indian spices (such as turmeric, cardamom, various forms of chile) exists. In addition, Western food (pizza, fried chicken, hamburgers) can be found in many urban Tibetan areas, mostly in restaurants.

Key Cultural Foods

Core foods of Tibetan-speaking populations include meat of the yak, Bos grunniens, or that of yak-cattle crossbreeds, mutton, tsampa (roasted barley flour), and milk products such as yogurt and cheese, made mainly from bovines. The preparation of yak meat can vary, with freeze-dried being more common in the drier regions such as Ü-Gtsang and Dö (in the current Tibetan Autonomous Region). In all regions, yak meat is also braised in stews and often stir-fried, or ground/chopped small enough to be put into pastries or made into meatballs. In pastoralist regions, mutton (of goat and/or sheep) is cooked much the same way as yak or beef, although there is at least one New Year’s dish that uses the cooked head of a sheep (cooked yak skulls are not common).

The importance of tsampa (roasted barley flour) cannot be overstated; this is a staple food and it is consumed in both agricultural and pastoral regions—in many ways it is a unifying foodstuff for Tibetans. Harvested barley grain (Hordeum sp.) is first roasted. There are several ways to achieve this: directly over fire in a wok or frying pan, or through mixing with heated sand in a threshing basket (said to result in less burning). Then the grain is ground into a fine flour. It is sometimes eaten straight as dry flour, but more often is mixed into a dough with butter tea (explained below). Tsampa is also sometimes used ceremonially (offerings are in the form of sprinkling pinches of flour into the air); and during festivals tsampa is often thrown in jest into the air and at revelers.

The types of cheese vary, being sour and soft in some regions and slightly more hard and piquant in others. The cheeses are of course affected by local bacteria, so that variations can be quite marked region to region. But even within one region, soft cheese is made with fresh milk while hard cheeses require some aging. Some cheeses are smoked over hearth fires in cone-shaped forms to cure. Yogurt and butter, being other important dairy products, are also key ingredients in Tibetan recipes and for cooking.

In many ways, these foods reflect the centrality of economies with key pastoralist components adapted to high elevation: bovine herds, adapted to high elevation, and their products supplemented with the grain barley, which grows well at high elevations. These are also symbolic foods, closely connected to Tibetan identity, particularly as it is distinct from the identity of the ethnic majority population of China, the Han Chinese.

Throughout all Tibetan-speaking areas of China, butter tea is a key component of the cuisine. This specialty uses black tea of the Yunnan region mixed with butter made from dri yak milk (dri is the female yak). In general, butter tea is mixed in a small churn, usually made of wood (or bamboo), similar to a butter churn but smaller in size. In many areas, salt and sometimes cream are added to the tea so that it is rather more like a soup. Tsampa is often mixed into the last few spoonfuls of a cup of butter tea, to make a dough-like ball of barley flour that is then consumed. Many Tibetans consume a lot of butter tea. The history of the tea trade is a fascinating one, demonstrating that trade in material goods is this region is ancient. Salt, collected high on the Tibetan plateau, was also a key good traded for many centuries. The salt trek is still an important event for many Tibetan communities; one wonders how the chic trend of using Himalayan salt in Euro-American cooking has effected this trade.

Tibetan beer, or chang, is traditionally made from barley (sometimes rice or millet) grain that is fermented. Variations on preparation include a kind of “instant” beer—putting the fermented grain directly into a container and pouring water over it, it can be drunk within hours or days—to anaerobic fermentation of the barley grain in an air-tight container. At present there are new forms of beer being made in Tibetan areas (for example, in Shangri-la) modeled on German beer-making that have changed the meaning of “Tibetan beer.” Arag is hard alcohol, also traditionally made from barley (or other grains). This is not a central component of Tibetan cuisine, but many families have some arag on hand for important occasions.

Food Preparation

In most Tibetan homes, cooking has traditionally been on wood fired stoves or directly over open wood fire. In fact, it is common to find fires burning in Tibetan hearths day and night, throughout much of the year. If wood is not available (as is the case in some of the less forested tracks of Tibetan lands), dung or coal are used. Some foods, such as potatoes, are sometimes cooked directly in coals, but most food is cooked in pots or woks made of various metals. Animal fat (obtained after butchering), butter, and oil made from pressed mustard seeds are used as cooking oils. As with many other foods of Asia, most Tibetan foods are prepared in bite-sized chunks so that knives are seldom needed at the table. Exceptions to this might include meat consumption in nomadic areas, where meat is sometimes served in large pieces. Vegetables are nearly always eaten cooked (seldom raw), and the use of chopsticks is most common. Wooden or metal bowls are used, and food is served “family style” on plates from which to fill one’s own bowl or eat from directly. Meat and vegetables are boiled, braised, or stir-fried. Refrigeration has traditionally not been an issue, with the majority of Tibetan areas being in cool places, but food was sometimes stored underground to keep cool. The majority of daily cooking has traditionally been done by women, but some of this is changing, especially in urban areas. Professional cooks, on the other hand, have tended to be men more often.

Tibetan hot pot is a popular dish for social gatherings. It consists of a specially designed pot, often made of copper or sometimes earthen-ware, with a chimney in the center. Coal or another source of heat is used underneath the pot (hence the need for a chimney) while the pot itself holds soup, meat, vegetables, noodles, and herbs. As with other hotpots of northeast Asia, the food cooks table-side in the pot as diners fish out cooked food. There is much overlap with other forms of hotpot, although Tibetans maintain that their form is unique, partly based on the design of the pot.

Ethics of Food

Food ethics in Tibetan culture begin with proper slaughtering of animals (if meat is consumed), which includes saying prayers for the animal’s successful rebirth and giving thanks to the animal for its life. In a largely Buddhist culture, where handling of dead bodies is seen as somewhat problematic and polluting, butchers are generally accepted as taking on the “dirty work” to help others obtain necessary nutrition. In some areas of Tibet, such as on the high plains of the Changthang where average elevation is 16,000 feet and little can grow, survival on animal products is practically the only option. Prayers are often said before consuming any kind of food (plant or animal in nature). Table manners include these prayers as well as being respectful of age and social ranking when beginning to eat, allowing guests and those of high rank to help themselves to food first. Belching after eating is considered a sign of satisfaction.

Areas in the southern stretch of the Tibetan-speaking world (northwestern Yunnan Province, southwestern Sichuan Province—the areas that constitute much of the area known in Tibetan as the Khams region) are affected by summer monsoons from the Indian Ocean. This, combined with low latitude in the northern hemisphere and undulations in elevation, has created hotspots of biological diversity. This means that the naturally occurring flora (and fauna) available for consumption, as food and medicine, is perhaps most diverse in this area compared to other Tibetan regions. In this region, consumption of rhododendron flowers occurs, for example (rhododendrons are profuse in this ecology). Additionally, in some of these regions rice and even citrus trees are able to grow. A large percentage of key medicinal plants for Tibetan medicine as well as Chinese medicine comes from this region; most are wild-harvested, many in high-altitude environs highly susceptible to climate change and overharvesting.

Fish and crustaceans are traditionally not eaten by Tibetans. This can in part be explained by the location of Tibetan areas, far from ocean shores. And yet fresh-water fish (traditionally abundant in lakes and rivers) are seldom eaten. Various reasons have been given for this avoidance, including religious ones (most Tibetans are Buddhist and while not strict vegetarians, consumption of small-bodied animals is less desirable since more animal lives must be taken to feed the same number of humans) as well as religious-environmental (some Tibetans practice human water burial and worry that eating food from waterways could be polluting or dangerous). Other small animals available in the environment (rabbit, marmot, wild birds) are not commonly eaten either, again the reason being a Buddhist concern for excessive killing.

Food and Medicine

As in many traditional systems, the distinction between food and medicine in Tibetan culture is not sharply drawn. Foods are commonly known to have properties recognized for healing and balancing of the three humors (wind, bile, phlegm) and the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) in the human body. Many common householders know that certain foods contain “heating” properties, and others “cooling” properties. A meal is sometimes planned based on knowing what some of the health needs of family members might be. People are also aware of the medicinal value of certain plants that can be gathered in their local environment, and often families keep a stash of wild-gathered herbs for medicinal purposes. In the practice of Tibetan medicine, a key point of diagnosis from the doctor’s perspective is to learn about the food and drink one’s patient has been consuming. A key for treatment includes adjustments made to the patient’s diet, in accordance to the healing principles spelled out in the medical system. Thus, the first line of “defense” in dealing with illness in the Tibetan medical tradition is to address diet.

Further Reading 

  • Barstow, Geoffrey. (2018). Food of sinful demons: Meat, vegetarianism, and the limits of Buddhism in Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Dondon, Yeshi. (1986). Health through balance: An introduction to Tibetan medicine. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
  • Dondon, Yeshi. (2000). Healing from the source: The science and lore of Tibetan medicine. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
  • Dorje, Rinjing. (1985). Food in Tibetan life. London, UK: Prospect Books.
  • Glover, Denise M. (2007). The land of milk and barley: Medicinal plants, staple foods, and discourses of subjectivity in Rgyalthang. In Mona Schrempf (Ed.), Soundings in Tibetan Medicine: Historical and anthropological perspectives. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill Publishers.
  • Goldstein, Melyvn, & Cynthia M. Beall. (1990). Nomads of western Tibet: The survival of a way of life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Stein, Rolf A. (1972). Tibetan civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Taring, Rinchen Dolma. (1986). Daughter of Tibet: The autobiography of Rinchen Taring Dolma. London, UK:Wisdom Publications.
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