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  • Yak Butter

  • Area: West part of China
  • Yak butter for sale in Shangri-la street marketYak butter is butter made from the milk of the domesticated yak (Bos grunniens). It is a staple food item and trade item for herding communities in south Central Asia and the Tibetan Plateau. Many different political entities have communities of herders who produce and consume yak dairy products including cheese and butter – for example, China, India, Mongolia, Nepal, and Tibet.


Drinking butter tea is a regular part of Tibetan life. Before work, a Tibetan will typically down several bowlfuls of this tangy beverage, and it is always served to guests. Nomads are said to often drink up to 40 cups of it a day. Since butter is the main ingredient, butter tea is a very warming drink, providing lots of caloric energy and is particularly suited to high altitudes. The butter also helps prevent chapped lips. According to the Tibetan custom, butter tea is drunk in separate sips, and after each sip the host refills the bowl to the brim. Thus, the guest never drains his bowl; rather, it is constantly topped up. If the visitor does not wish to drink, the best thing to do is leave the tea untouched until the time comes to leave and then drain the bowl. In this way etiquette is observed and the host will not be offended. Butter tea is also used for eating tsampa by pouring onto it, or dipping the tsampa into it, and mixing well. The concentrate, produced by repeatedly boiling tea leaves, will keep for several days, and is commonly used in towns. The tea is then combined with salt and butter in a special tea churn, and churned vigorously before serving hot.


While evidence of tea has been found in Tibet from before the 10th century, it did not reach its nearly universal status until about the 13th century, the time of the Sakya hierarchy and the Phagmodu kings. By the start of the rule by the Dalai Lama, tea had become a government monopoly. While it is now officially allowed to be sold by anyone, it still is mostly sold by government officials.


The highest quality tea is made by boiling the tea leaves in water for half a day, achieving a dark brown color. It is then skimmed, and poured into a cylinder with fresh yak butter and salt which is then shaken. The result is a purplish liquid that is about the thickness of a stew[2] or thick oil. It is then poured into clay tea-pots, or jars, that resemble Japanese teapots. Another method is to boil water, and add handfuls of the tea into the water, which is allowed to steep until it turns almost black. Salt is then added, along with a little soda if wanted. The tea is then strained through a horse-hair or reed colander into a wooden butter churn, and a large lump of butter is added. This is then churned until the tea reaches the proper consistency and transferred to copper pots that sit on a brazier to keep them warm. When a churn is not available, a wooden bowl and rapid stirring will suffice.

Close-Up on Yak Butter Tea

Much of the tea that crossed the border from China into Tibet over the centuries was destined for the cups of nobles and lords. The locals Tibetans in the highlands learned that although the tea from China was nice, the best tea was their own and the best way to brew tea was to infuse it with the butter from their herds and churn it in yak horn cylinders until a smooth, rich, loamy consistency was reached. Every Tibetan I have ever met drinks it continuously and urges onto to everyone whom he might meet.

The tea used for yak butter tea most probably comes from the mountains just west of Yunnan and Sichuan. What I have seen is a dark, formidable leaf with an intense flavor bordering on bitterness and smoke. There may be a region called Pemagul that supplies the tea for yak butter tea, but I have never been to or actually read anything to confirm the existence of Pemagul. I do know of a company based out of Sichuan that sells Tibetan medicinal teas made from plants grown in the higher altitudes west. That tea is a bitter, maroon drink with hints of scarlet. It has a dry aftertaste and seems to be a refined version of the tea used for yak butter tea. The Chinese and Tibetans believe that this bitter tea helps with indigestion, bowel troubles, lack of focus or energy and also with vision. The market is aflush with tender greens and shining whites and oolongs with great body, but no one is selling (or buying) the hardy leaf the Tibetans use for their creamy drink of choice. This type of leaf is a true medicinal, often mixed and ground down with other herbs to make elixirs and potions that traditional Chinese medicine has found to be effective in keeping man healthy.

For Tibetans on the plateaus, the drink might help them deal with a diet of tsampas (barley, salt and yak butter tea) and/or yak meat. Many Tibetans are vegetarian and nomads in Kham rely on yogurt, milk, butter and tsampas. The bitter tea helps keep energy up, metabolism working and the brain clear while the buttery thickness of the yak butter adds reserves and warmth. A perfect drink for a mountain area.

The process for making the tea involves steeping the tea leaves in hot or boiling water for hours. After the brewer has made a suitably potent stock, the brew and the leaves are placed away for use later. When it comes time to drink, the brew is placed together with a hunk of butter, a spoonful of salt and a cup or so of milk into a cylinder called a chandong. There is a pump in the chandong which the brewer uses to churn the ingredients together vigorously for as long as he sees fit. The longer the better. Yak butter tea is then served in porcelain cups, filled to the brim, often with candy or sweets of some kind, almonds and maybe tsampas. Tsampas are balls of doughy goodness made from barley flour mixed with a splash of yak butter tea.

In Tibet I have seen the tea most often poured from iron pots. A central brewing station, hissing and bubbling, is tended by the proprietor of the tea house, who keeps the pots hot and ready. A tea house in Tibet is warm and steamy and the cups are never empty. It may be an acquired taste in lowlands like Chengdu or Portland or Atlanta, but if you are in the cold, surrounded by peaks and sky, then you will want a buttery mixture like the Tibetan national drink on hand. It also keeps your lips from chapping.
                                                                                                                                By Sascha Matuszak on September 15, 2009 in Tea