In this season of festive hospitality, I can’t help think about the many homes I’ve visited on assignment around the world. Some of the most hospitable people in the world are the Tibetans, who never hesitate to invite visitors to partake of at least three cups of po cha, or butter tea. The incredibly friendly Tibetans rarely let anyone take leave from their homes, be they houses or tents, without drinking at least three cups of butter tea, never letting a visitor’s cup go empty. Much more pungent than cow’s milk or butter, and closely resembling goat milk or cheese, yak butter tea is more like a broth than what Westerners think of as tea. It’s also far more than just an afternoon nicety for the Tibetans.
The drink, with its salty, oily and sometimes rancid flavor, which makes it an acquired taste, is the national beverage. With the fat and protein provided by the yak butter, and the tea providing a vegetable substitute, the soupy drink is a primary source of nutrition in Tibet, where the harsh climate and rugged terrain make farming and herding difficult.
Preparation of yak butter tea is as time-consuming and ritualistic as any formal Japanese tea ceremony. Tibetans boil a chunk of special dried black “brick” tea for hours into a concentrate, called chaku, which is then added to water, salt and yak butter and churned – the longer the better — into a froth. High in calories, it provides warmth and energy needed to survive in Tibet’s high altitudes and bitter cold.
In Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries and temples, where tea was first introduced as a caffeinated aid for long hours of meditation, days start early. When I visited the famed Shechen Monastery, by 4 a.m. I was ambling down a half-mile trail to the temple’s kitchen building with the monks to start the fires to heat po cha. Two huge cauldrons filled with water were perched atop earthen ovens. (Water boils rapidly in the rarefied air at an altitude of 12,000 ft. [3,800 m].). Red-robed monks stood above two huge cauldrons, half-revealed then hidden again by the smoky haze, stirring the soup with huge wooden paddles. Huge balls of yak butter, a bucket of salt and a full bale of tea leaves and twigs were added to the mix, as smoke billowed from the oven firebox, and steam filled the air. I was totally mesmerized by this medieval scene.
By 6:30 a.m., tea for 700 was ready to be served, as dawn broke over the valley. My sole source of light for shooting was a single open door with a half dozen low-watt bulbs for fill. Thanks to digital cameras with high ISOs I’m able to shoot in available light in what would have been impossible conditions for film. The youngest novice monks sped past me, up and down rows of thirsty monks who had been praying and meditating in the near-freezing temperatures of the monastery’s unheated main hall for the past hour, filling bowls with the steaming butter tea and running back to the kitchen for refills. Other young monks passed roasted barley flour, or tsampa, which is mixed into the tea for a hearty porridge or rolled into a bite-sized ball for a quick snack.
After many years of polite imbibing, I have finally acquired the taste for these Tibetan staples, though I have to say I prefer fresh yak butter, the less rancid the better. I drink it often, as the Tibetans do, for an energy boost, and to take the edge off the cold temperatures outside. So I happily accepted a cup from my hosts at Shechen before heading out for another day’s shooting.