There are many kinds of tea in the world, but perhaps the one kind that most of us find difficult to digest – even as an idea – is savoury butter tea. We can go to Delhi and have greasy butter chicken because it is the national capital’s national dish, but going to the Himalayas (butter tea is a hill thing) to drink buttery tea flavoured with salt?
I had my doubts. But then just the other week I found myself on a Drukair flight to Paro airport, which is the main port of entry into the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. While some may imagine the country as the mythical Shangri-La due to its inaccessibility, Bhutan has let tourists in since the 1970s. They’ve also had their own airline since the 1980s, TV since the late 1990s, democracy since 2008, and the latest iPhones today, so it is very much part of the modern world.
Yet the king and queen are held in high esteem by the people, who look up to them as their leaders. After all, the progressive monarchs have for the last fifty years been at the forefront of development – focussing on equality, universal free education, nature preservation and cultural heritage, easing Bhutan gently from feudalism to progressive post-modernism, with a Gross National Happiness policy to boot. Which politician, with his or her short-term goals from election to election, can measure up to that?
They also have an interesting attitude to unhealthy things like smoking. Foreign visitors are required to declare any cigarettes they bring in – up to twenty packs maximum – pay a 200 per cent customs duty, and apply for a smoking permit. And even then one is not allowed to smoke indoors, or in public – nowhere basically. So what does one do for kicks in Bhutan, then?
Why not try a cup of suja? That is the local name for the Himalayan butter tea, which is the national beverage of Bhutan, so to speak. I discovered its pleasures in a small eatery called Red Dragon, overlooking the famous traffic circle on the main street of Thimphu. They once installed the only traffic light in Bhutan right there, but since no motorist understood what those flashing disco lights were good for, the circle is today manned by a stylish policeman who scolded me gently when I tried to jaywalk across the street.
At the end of a very satisfying meal of local dishes such as a mixed vegetable soup with square-shaped noodles (bathup), dried fried meat with big red chillies (paa), and spinach stewed in local yak cheese gravy (datshi), I thought about having some dessert – only to find that Bhutan is perhaps the one country in the world where dessert is not part of a meal (except perhaps if you go to a non-Bhutanese restaurant). The choice was between another Druk beer and butter tea, so I decided to try the latter, having heard that the Bhutanese are perpetually sipping on butter tea – and I’m anyway in favour of the saying ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, whether I am in Rome or not.
Onto the table came something that looked like a cup of frothy hot chocolate, but with a hue more light purple than brown, and with the character of a creamy, watery stew.
I took a sip.
Hmm… As expected, it wasn’t sweet, but tasted more like a gentle broth. Apparently the tea, if it is proper butter tea, is made with yak butter. And it involves a far more complex procedure than brewing a cuppa of Earl Grey at home.
These days milk from the domesticated yak is generally used, because it is too troublesome to chase down a wild one and convince it to hand over some milk. The creamy milk is first churned to butter and then allowed to ferment before it is stitched into bags made of sheep stomachs that are wrapped inside yak skins.
Once the butter has reached maturity, a lump of it is taken out of the double non-veg packaging and chucked into a pot, in which water has been boiling with special local black tea leaves (sometimes for up to half a day), and salt added to taste. The whole thing is next whipped or churned into a frothy broth. In fact, according to a quick phone-google, the word suja means su – or churned, and ja is chai, i.e. churned tea. In the olden days, Bhutanese joint families would make huge pots of this soupy beverage and people drank it day and night, but a modern Bhutanese restaurant like the one I am at is more likely to whip it up in a household mixie. So I am in fact drinking mixie-whipped yak tea!
All of the above, especially the sheep stomach part, may sound ghastly for most aficionados who like their hot drink sweet-milky or fragrantly greenish. But I’ve been assured that suja is an extremely healthy beverage, much healthier than cigarettes after food, and good especially in cold hilly climates. According to Wikipedia it even protects against chapped lips. And if you think of it more as a soup or broth, it indeed goes down well at the end of a good meal. So the next time you find yourself in Bhutan – don’t miss the mixie-whipped savoury yak butter soup that they call tea!
Photographs by Zac O’Yeah