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tibetan mountains

A Cup of Tibetan Butter Tea

Read time - 2 minutes

The steaming cup comes with a side order of smirk. The chipped cup is with no saucer, held out by Dawa, a young man who gives birdlike jerks of encouragement.

His eyes twinkle in a way ill-designed to put anyone at ease. Beside him, rock-steady Pasang has folded his fingers into a tent across his taught round belly and watches implacably.

Walking in TibetWalking in Tibet

They’re waiting. This is the fabled and despised Tibetan “butter tea”. I've heard talk of it the world over, from leathery rucksack-hoisting veterans to fashionable bloggers. It’s considered vile on an international scale, although central Asia gulps it down with gusto. I prepare to choke, with nothing but a British sense of duty to help me through the ordeal. Dawa’s eyes are hawk-like as I raise the liquid to my lips.

Sampling the teaSampling the tea

“It’s good.” I offer. Dawa breaks out into a grin, mischief gone, replaced by pure delight. “It’s better with sugar, try it with sugar.” He insists, his accent dancing on the “s”. “Now you tell me,” I joke, passing the cup to my companions. Their reactions vary, but most contort their features into something resembling gargoyles.

The sugar arrives, brought by an elderly lady who runs this little pastel teahouse, one of many lining this street of buckled pavement. Dawa heaps in enough to hype up an entire primary school and sends the cup back for another round.

Relaxing at the teahouseRelaxing at the teahouse

Without sugar, butter tea has a rich, savoury flavour. Yellow fat globules float on the surface of the drink like scum. It’s made with yak butter, melted and churned with tea leaves and a generous lump of salt, producing a beige liquid, more like gravy than tea. Add a Dawa-measure of sugar and it takes on a bizarre butterscotch flavour.

Some of the girls got on board once it was sickly sweet, but nobody went so far as to order a fresh cup. Contrary to public opinion at large, it wasn’t unpleasant to drink on the side of the trail in the morning sunshine. No doubt the calories saw me safely on my way for that day’s trek.

It won’t be replacing Twinings any time soon, but someone has certainly been making a storm in a tea cup about the taste.

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