Traditional butter tea (Pocha), an inseparable element in Tibetan culture | Sunday Observer

Traditional butter tea (Pocha), an inseparable element in Tibetan culture

17 October, 2021

Tea is a perfect beverage to expel physical as well as mental fatigue at any time of the day. In Sri Lanka, tea is consumed in different ways. Some prefer milk tea prepared by adding cow’s milk while others enjoy a cup of black tea with or without sugar. A considerable minority of connoisseurs of tea adds a few drops of lime or lemon into a cup of tea to enhance the flavour. Nevertheless, the flavour of a cup of black tea can be enhanced by adding other popular ingredients such as ginger, cinnamon, mint and similar substances.

Chai is a popular milk tea in India. Masala Chai (spice tea) is another flavoursome milk tea prepared by adding several spices and which has a sweet and spicy taste. Generally, Asians enjoy a sweetened cup of tea, albeit a deviation of this practice can be observed in Tibetan culture. Pocha or butter tea is prepared by adding salt and butter apart from fermented tea leaves.

Zurkhang Yanchen, who is a Tibetan culinary specialist in a confab with the Sunday Observer provided worthwhile information on Tibetan culinary traditions and Tibet’s national drink, Pocha.

Tibet and its culinary tradition

Zurkhang Yangchen

Tibet, the country which is known as the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ and the ‘Roof of the World’ is located towards the north of the Himalaya mountain range on the Tibetan Plateau. The food tradition of this charming country reflects its geography associated with high altitudes and the cold clime. “ The Tibetan food tradition has distinct features that allow them to sustain their lives as well as to survive in the cold climate. The traditional aliments of Tibet chiefly consist of those that keep them warm in the harsh climate and give them the energy required to engage in farming, travelling and similar activities.. Tibetans are traditionally nomads. Hence, their lifestyle and livelihood are associated with going about to places and agriculture. So, their food culture has been developed to suit their lifestyle” says Yangchen.

At high altitudes boiling water is no cake walk. In Tibet, water boils at about 85-90 degrees which makes cooking with water a daunting task. This is why many traditional Tibetan dishes are dry and does not involve much boiling.

Yangchen says that the Tibetan diet mainly consists of meat, milk, cereals and grains such as barley. Dried yak meat is a common food found in the Tibetan cuisine since yaks are reared in Tibet. Apart from yak meat, other dairy products derived from yak (dri) such as milk, yoghurt, cheese and butter are also abundantly used in the Tibetan culinary tradition.

For Tibetans, Pocha (butter tea) and Tsampa which is made of finely ground barley, yak meat, and fermented yak (dri) cheese are regarded as the staple foods.

Dri dairy products

Dri is the female of the yak. Yaks (Bos grunniens) are long-haired and short-legged ox-like mammals living at the elevation of 4000-6000 meters of the Tibetan Plateau and are domesticated by Tibetans. “Since a cow cannot survive in such a high altitude in a harsh cold climate, yaks become a perfect substitute for cows for Tibetans. These animals are said to have been living in the Tibetan Plateau for thousands of years and are indigenous to the region” she says.

The dri is known to produce more milk than a cow and its milk has twice the amount of fat than a cow’s milk.

Dri milk has a more distinctive t flavour than a cow’s milk. A varied range of dairy products are prepared using dri milk as with cow’s milk such as dri butter and dri cheese. Dri butter is said to be the ‘most versatile and significant staple food in the diet of Tibetans’. Dri butter is similar to ordinary cheese made of cow’s milk in texture. “Dri butter is the main ingredient in Tibetan Butter Tea known as Pocha in Tibet”, says Yangchen.

Pocha (Tibetan Butter Tea)

Tibetans drink this savoury tea laden with anti-oxidants and other nutrients in a bid to keep themselves warm in the cold climate. Pocha contains fermented tea leaves, dri butter, warm water and salt and sometimes dri milk too. Dri butter is less salty than butter made of cow’s milk. Hence, salt is added to the beverage. The type of salt that is added to this butter tea is known as Himalayan pink salt. As its name suggests this rock salt is pink in colour. Pink salt is mined in the Himalayan range. Tibetan’s believe that pink salt has more nutrients such as minerals than its white counterpart. Hence, it is believed that pink salt is healthier than regular table salt.

“It has become an essential beverage for their sustenance and survival. Dri butter in the tea keeps the Tibetan’s dried and chapped lips (due to cold weather) moisturised”

Yangchen explains how the Pocha is made traditionally. The special tea leaves that are used in preparing Pocha is known as Pu-erh. They are fermented and aged and are clumped.

She says that in the process of preparing Pocha in the traditional way, tea leaves are steeped in water as well as simmered for many hours without sacrificing its flavour. Once, they are well boiled, the tea water is strained. This concoction is known in Tibetan language as Chaku . It is then poured into a traditional Tibetan churn called Chandong. After that, a good lump of dri butter, salt and sometimes a pinch of soda are added and churned for about ten times (Pocha tastes better when it is churned for longer).

The churned butter tea is served hot.

“Butter tea is consumed while it is still hot because Tibetans who live in a cold climate drink Pocha to warm their bodies. A melted layer of butter can be seen on the surface of the tea. “When the hot butter tea is offered, it is the norm of Tibetans to blow aside the layer of dri butter on the surface of the tea cup”, explains Yangchen.

She also says that in modern days, churns cannot be practically used at home and therefore the method of preparation of Pocha is slightly different today.

“The distinct flavour of authentic butter tea comes from dri milk, albeit dri milk is not easy to procure in other countries other than in Tibet. Hence, people substitute dri milk with cow’s milk the taste of which is different from the original butter tea of Tibet”.

Tea is sweet; butter tea isn’t. Hence, non- Tibetans may find the flavour different. It is more similar to a rich, milky broth and will be an acquired taste for them.

Below is the modern and easy way of preparing Tibet’s national drink for those living outside of the Himalayan region.

Ingredients required to prepare two cups of Tibetan butter tea

Fermented Pu-erh tea- 1 to 2 tbsps

Himalayan pink salt- ½ to 1 tbsp

Milk- 1 ½ cups

(Dri) butter (unsalted) - 1 tbsp

Method of preparation

In a pot, bring one cup of water to the boil.. Add fermented tea and simmer it for 5- 10 minutes. The longer the time of brew, the better the taste will be. Due to today’s inundated lifestyle of people, simmering Pu-erh tea for hours may be a daunting task. Hence, it is good to simmer it at least 5-10 minutes or even 15 minutes. The flavour will not be affected even if you are unable to simmer tea for hours.

Then remove the pot from the fire and strain tea to obtain Chaku. Discard the tea leaves. Pour Chaku into the pot again and keep it on the fire. Add Himalayan pink salt and milk and simmer for two minutes. Remove the pot from the fire.

As per traditional Tibetan style, this concoction should be churned in a bamboo churn called Chandong. Since it is difficult to find this apparatus outside of Tibet, we can use a French press.

Add butter and then tea into a French press and churn for about 2 minutes. Here too, the longer you churn, the tastier the butter tea will be. Albeit, make sure the heat of the tea does not reduce and become luke-warm during the churning as Tibetan butter tea is enjoyed while it is still hot in order to keep the body warm.

(tbsp-tablespoon, tsp-teaspoon)