Elevation is a funny thing. It can make you light-headed with altitude sickness. It can also be the perfect place to grow high mountain tea. Or it can be the wrong height to grow any crops at all.
One winter, when I was 17, I went trekking in Nepal as part of a post-high school adventure. While many of my peers were running rampant on beaches in an Australian summer (a notorious high school graduation ritual known as ‘schoolies’), I joined a small group of students and former students to spend December under snow-capped mountains. Living in tents and sharing rickety rope bridges with donkey trains was as far away from studying Hamlet as I could get.
As part of our trip we spent a week at Manjushri Di-Chen Buddhist Learning Center at the southern rim of the Kathmandu Valley. The school is of Tibetan heritage and combines Buddha Dharma teachings alongside modern education. Until that point, our visits to Buddhist monuments and Rinpoches had been punctuated by several cups of delicious milk tea. Our team leaders warned us things would soon get serious, and by serious they meant butter tea.
Tibetan butter tea is traditionally made of tea, yak butter and salt. The tea maker boils tea leaves in water for several hours to make a very strong brew before skimming it into a cylinder of fresh yak butter and salt. After shaking the cylinder, the tea maker pours the liquid into clay teapots or jars to be served. The liquor ranges in hue from a brownish purple to a fawn colour and has the consistency of thick oil. Tibetan tea making methods have changed, but the main ingredients and the taste have remained largely the same.
After the sweet milk tea we’d been drinking, butter tea was well nigh unpalatable. It was as if instead of ‘milk and two sugars’ they had spiked the tea with curdled milk and two salts as a practical joke. As I sipped the thick, salty liquid, I vowed never to complain about overbrewed airline tea again…
Salt tea history
The relationship between tea and mountains goes back millennia to its origins in Yunnan, China, but despite Yunnan and Tibet being geographical neighbours, it was not until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that Tibetans began to drink Chinese tea.
While the mountains of Yunnan blessed the province with tea, the mountains of Tibet left the region bereft of vegetable crops due to its altitude. As a result, Tibetans had a diet high in animal products, particularly dairy. Drinking tea gave Tibetans access to plant nutrients, thus it became a staple part of their diet during the Song Dynasty (960–1279).
In return, the Tibetans traded horses. According to author Dacangzongba in his book Hang Zang Shi Ji (‘Historic Collection of the Han and Tibet’), as many as 20,000 horses were traded for 15 tons of tea in a year and the route, which the Chinese called Chamadao (directly, ‘tea horse way’) and became known as the ‘Tea and Horse Caravan Road’.
China regarded this trade route so important it established a Tea and Horse Office and the Tibetans likewise regarded tea so precious it used the uniform tea bricks as currency, where goods such as swords were valued by how many tea bricks they could bring.
More recently, apart from curious travellers, Tibetan butter tea has found an unlikely cohort of drinkers in two food and beverage trends: bulletproof coffee and the paleo diet.
Bulletproof coffee was created by David Asprey after he discovered Tibetan butter tea. In a nutshell, it’s butter tea’s coffee cousin, designed as a breakfast beverage to boost your brainpower and provide you with enough calories to get on with your day, according to Asprey.
The paleo diet is a health trend that encourages its followers to eat only the foods available to our Palaeolithic ancestors in a bid to eliminate processed foods, in particular excess sugar and refined carbohydrates such as flour. While dairy is generally on the ‘no’ list, some paleo followers do eat ghee (clarified butter) made from the milk of grass-fed cows.
One Teabox subscriber wrote in to say that after he had become a paleo convert, he learnt to make his own ghee-based tea. “Having heard about the bulletproof coffee and about the Tibetan tradition of adding butter to tea, I naturally started experimenting with adding ghee to my loose leaf green tea,” he writes.
His method uses two cups. One contains a teaspoon or two of ghee, into which he pours the hot tea. He then transfers the liquid into the second cup and then back into the first to mix it thoroughly. It creates “a rich, creamy and warm drink,” he attests. “It’s a revelation for someone who can’t consume regular dairy or any sweeteners.”
Of course, now that I’m older I’m more attuned to the cultural aspects of Tibetan butter tea and recognise it is an acquired taste for outsiders. If you’re keen to make your own Tibetan butter tea, you don’t need to stick to the traditional black brick tea, nor do you need to use yak butter. Try any strongly flavoured teas like Assam black, pungent oolongs or naturally sweet and vegetal green tea with ghee for a modern twist to a centuries-old recipe. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about its likeness to a practical joke.