A Tibetan bar with
piled up beer bottles Traditionally, Tibetans have eaten meat and dairy products such as butter, milk, yoghurt and cheese from yaks, sheep, cattle and goats, with barley being their primary grain source. Sheep's belly stuffed with yak yogurt and sheep intestine filled with fat, blood and flour are considered delicacies.
A typical Tibetan meal consists of yak milk, goat cheese, yoghurt, and tsampa (porridge) made from roasted or parched highland barley flour, and pencha (tea) made with salt and yak butter, which is often rancid. In some places roasted peas, ground corn, or corn paste is mixed with tea, milk or yogurt. A typical breakfast consists of sweet, thick rice soup or tsampa.
Dumplings (momos) are regarded as a treat. There are special dumplings for holidays. A Tibetan feast includes dumplings, big mutton ribs, dried yak meat, bowls of steaming rice and curry, salted nuts and seeds, cookies, candies, watermelons, beer, juice and water
A typical meal served to tourists in the Three Parallel Rivers area on the border of Tibet and Yunnan Province consists of rice served with things like pork fat in garlic sauce, yak meat with peppers, field vegetables, hot, homemade barley wine, and apples for desert. Tibetans and Mongolian Buddhists do eat meat while Buddhists in other countries avoid eating meat.
Tibetan restaurants serve rice, momos, yak milk cheese, thukpa (noddles with meat) and Tibetan pizzas made with yak meat, grilled yak meat, melon, squash, wood-ear fungus, noodles, steamed buns, pig fat, eggs cooked in yak fat. A typical meal is comprised of seaweed soup, french fries and buns stuffed with yak meat. Chinese style dishes are often made from ingredients that originated outside of Tibet.
yak jerky At home Tibetans usually sit cross-legged on the floor while eating with their hands. Flies often buzz around the food. Some Tibetan eat by passing around food and a hunting knife from hand to hand. In some Himalayan cultures, men and women eat the same food but it is prepared differently for each sex. What is good for a man is judged unfit for woman and visa versa.
Westerners often have trouble with Tibetan food. Sometimes the yak butter has a lot of hair in it. Barley porridge often has dust and pebbles in it. Sometimes Westerners experience terrible stomach pains after sampling Tibetan meat. Conversely, Tibetans find it strange that Westerners eat chickens and fish.
In the book What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, a five-foot-six-inch Tibetan yak herder is profiled. He eats 5,600 calories a day but only weighs 135 pounds.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: Tibetan Food Tibet Info tibetinfor.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista Cultural China kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com ; Clothes ; China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China.org China.org ;en.tibet.cn en.tibet.cn
Links in this Website: TIBETAN PEOPLE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOOD, DRINK, DRUGS AND CLOTHES IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN HEALTH AND MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN FUNERALS AND DEATH Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN NOMADS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MINORITIES AND TIBETANS ABROAD Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Tsampa Tsampa is the staple of the Tibetan diet. It can be eaten dry, added to tea, or mixed with tea and butter to form patties or balls. Tsampa mixed with yak butter in a wooden bowl and shaped into balls is arguably the most common food in Tibet. Tsampa balls can also be made by mixing tsampa with cheese, sugar, curd and butter. Honored guests are sometimes served a bowl of tsampa with a raw egg or a piece of butter that is sculpted into a three-legged symbol, representing the earth, moon and sun.
Tibet is one of the few places in the world where people still eat barley. Many Tibetans in many places subsist almost entirely on barely dumplings. They are so poor they can’t even afford the most basic fruits and vegetables.
Describing the preparation of a meal made in Dolpo, Eric Valli wrote in Smithsonian, "She then puts the four ingredients of pack into individual wooden cups—some butter, powdered cheese, tsampa, and, for liquid, some of the tea...We hand-mix the ingredients into a thick paste. In Dolpo, this raw paste passes for daily bread; for feasts it is made more palatable with precious sugar.”
See Nomadic Life
Yaks as Food
Making yak cheese Unlike goats and sheep, yaks produce milk all year round. On average a yak produces eight times more milk than a goat, and 16 times more than a sheep. The milk is rich and contains double the protein and minerals of cow’s milk but it spoils in two hours, which explains why it is usually made into butter. Yak milking takes some skill.
Yak curd is both consumed fresh and dried. Some European and Nepalese cheesemakers are teaching Tibetans how to make cheese, which sells for around $14 a kilogram in Beijing and Shanghai. One European food critic who tried the cheese in Beijing said it was “young, piquant, a little dry,—comparable to a cheeky Griyere...great with a glass of wine.”
Yak meat is also good but can be very tough and chewy. It is eaten cooked or dried. Although Tibetan Buddhists frown on the killing of yaks and other animals, there is no ban on the eating of yak meat.
Yaks in Mustang are not killed. But once a year they are bled and the dried blood is eaten. The tails are cut off and sold in India as fly whisks. Owners of yaks in Mustang sometimes hope their animals will fall off a cliff. Only then do they get at more than 800 pounds of yak meat. The only people allowed to kill animals are the Shembas—a low status tribe similar to the untouchable in India, who are not allowed to live in the city.⌂
Yak Butter Products
Yak butter tea Yak butter is probably the most important thing taken from a yak. It is mixed with tea and barley gruel, and sometimes used as a hairdressing, in lamps, and for greasing squeaky prayer wheels and truck axles. Tibetans make incredibly detailed yak butter sculptures and friezes of flowers, landscapes, trees, temples, human figures animals and god and goddesses.
Yak butter stays preserved for a long time in leather bags. When sealed in airtight sheepskin bags, butter will remain edible for up to a year. But it doesn’t always seem that way. The sour smell of rancid yak butter, wrote Theroux "resembles the smell of an American family's refrigerator after a long midsummer power cut. It is the reek of old milk."
A common sound in rural Tibet is the dull rhythmic noise of milk being sloshed into butter in a yak-skin bag. The process also yields buttermilk, which is sometimes boiled down to a thick film, which is then dried in the sun for several days producing chourpi, a cheese which Valli said is "so hard you must chew a wad of it for ten minutes before swallowing."
Butter and cheese are also made from sheep, goats and cattle. Tibetans that were transplanted to Switzerland n the 1960s first used normal butter as a substitute when they couldn't get any yak butter, but when the cost of butter became prohibitively expensive they switched to margarine.♣
Meat and Tibetan Religious Beliefs
Yak meat Tibetans often eat raw yak meat off the bone, the writer Paul Theroux wrote, "like a cannibal, tearing shreds of red meat off a shank." As an act of hospitality, Tibetans sometimes shove the bone in a visitor’s face and ask if they want to take a bite. For a meal Tibetans sometimes blast the head of a goat or a sheep with a blowtorch and then smash the skull and eat the brains.
Tibetans are devout Buddhists who have traditionally opposed the killing of animals because they believe in reincarnation and they maintain that killing an animal is killing the soul of a being that may one day be a human being. Some Buddhists hold special ceremonies for dead chickens or dead fish. Tibetan Buddhists believe that dogs are the last reincarnation before rebirth as humans, and as a result the country is filled with mangy dogs.
Even so many Tibetans eat meat. Before cows and sheep are slaughtered they are sometimes led counter clockwise around a temple of a monastery as "their final act on earth." Butchering has traditionally been done by castes of northern people known such as the Makheps.
Why Tibetans Don't Eat Fish, Chickens and Birds
Tibetans don't eat fish (even though many live by lakes filled with fish), chickens, ducks, vegetables, wild asses, or meat from animals killed by women. Some Tibetans believe that eating meat will cause it to snow and eating fish will cause it to rain. ♠
Eating fish is as abhorrent to Tibetans as eating pork is to Muslims and eating beef is to Hindus. Tibetan don't eat fish for several reasons. 1) fish sometimes eat the bodies of the dead ("water burial”—in which a body is dumped in a lake where fish can eat it— is one of the five ways of disposing of dead bodies). 2) water is considered sacred (fishing disturbs the water); and 3) fish don't have tongues, and hence they can't gossip. Tibetan detest gossip and they reward the fish for keeping their mouths shut by not eating them.
Tibetans don't eat some birds because of other kind of burial—sky burial, in which dead bodies are cut into little pieces and fed to vultures and other birds. The Bhutanese say that "all living things are sacred...but especially ravens." They believe killing a raven is worse than massacring a thousand monks and elaborate offerings of dough and butter are left on the roof of temples for ravens. [Source: John Scofield, National Geographic, November 1976]
The Bhutanese also believe that chickens are sacred animals and pigs are evil. "For judgement in the period between death and rebirth," Scofield writes, "a chicken will put white pebbles onto a scale to represent their good deeds, while a pig shovels on black pebbles to signify the evil one has done." Bhutanese will eat pork but not chicken. In he old days travelers used to carry live roosters in the knapsacks to ensure safety. [Source: John Scofield, National Geographic, November 1976]
Tibetan Drink and Drugs
Making chang Pencha (Tibetan tea) is brewed with an equal measure of salt and yak butter, giving it a consistency like soup. The drink is made by scrapping tea from a brick of black tea and boiling the tea leaves with rock salt or soda and yak butter and milk while the mixture is churned in a wooden tube. Tibetans drink as much as 40 cups of tea a day. It is filling and the caffeine in it give those who drink a slight jolt.
Describing how yak butter tea is made in Dolpo, Eric Valli wrote in Smithsonian, "when the tea has been boiled into a strong brew, she pours it into a tall churn, adds a large dollop of yak butter...and agitates it all into a rich, regenerating broth...She hands a cup to each of us careful never to spill and waste the gods-given bounty.” Before Tibetans drink tea they often flick a few drops into the air as offering to the gods.
Tibetans often offer pencha as a hospitality gesture and insist that the cup be finished and a refill offered. Foreigners often wretch and nearly throw up the first time they try Tibetan tea with yak butter. But after a while they get used it and after drinking it many times over a long trip some even like it.
Tibetans love tea so much that the Chinese and the British thought they could subdue the Tibetans by manipulating their tea supply. The Tibetans considered Chinese and British tea to be horrid stuff.
The alcoholic drink favored by Tibetans is qingke, a potent barley beer, wine or spirit known to other Himalayan cultures as chang. is a local moonshine made from the root of a purple flower. Many Tibetans like to relax by drinking deer. Alcoholism is a serious problem in some Tibetan areas. Some Tibetans don’t drink for religious reasons.
Wild marijuana grows in a lot places in the Himalayas, China and Central Asia. In some places it is boiled and fed to pigs. Some Tibetans smoke tobacco in cigarettes hand rolled with newspaper. Others like to snort snuff, or powered tobacco.
Tibetan Hygiene and Beauty
Bathing in a cold river Tibetans on the dry Tibetan plateau have little water for washing and have traditionally considered washing to be an unhealthy, harmful practice. As a result many Tibetans are very dirty: their faces and hands are often covered in a layer of greasy yak-butter and dirt, their clothes are caked in dirt and their hair is matted.
When Tibetan nomads do wash, they tend to rinse their faces and hands in yak or goat milk. To protect their skin and beautify themselves some nomad women apply a salve to their face made from boiled milk curds. Some people go through the entire life without ever taking bath.
Most rural Tibetans have bright red cheeks—the consequence of high latitude, sun and winds. When they descend to the lowlands their skin often becomes pale yellow.
Many Tibetans have really long hair. Women sometimes use yak butter to give their hair some sheen and have silver coins worked into their hair. Nomad girls braid their hair with turquoise, amber and coral. A traditional woman's hairdo has 108 braids, an auspicious number in Buddhism (See Symbols). This custom is particularly common in Amdo
Many Tibetan men either shave their heads or have long, wild, matted and greasy braided hair. Some men shave the front of their head and have long curls running down their back, a hair-style popularized in the 9th century by the Tibetan king Langdarma. To keep from going snowblind in blizzard conditions Tibetan men with long hair pull their hair across their eyes. When the weather is fine they often wear their hair in a bun.
Miss Tibet beauty pageants have been staged in Dharamsala. When they were first held many complained they were “un-Tibetan” and said they “aped Western culture.” Conservatives still frown on the bathing suit part of the contests. In one contest only five women participated. One contestant was forced to withdraw because she was part of a secret Tibetan unit in the Indian army that specialized in high altitude combat. A Miss Tibet has participated in international contests in Malaysia and Mexico but the practice stopped after Beijing objected.
In December 2007, “Ms Tibet” withdrew from a Mrs Tourism beauty pageant in Malaysia after she was told she could only participate as “Ms. Tibet-China” because of pressure from Beijing. She participated in the early rounds but quit when she was told she would have to wear a sash labeled “Ms. Tibet-China.” “I felt that this was not acceptable to me at all,” Miss Tibet, 22-year-old Tsering Chungtak, said. “The Tibetan issue is the same as ever...China is in control of Tibet and there is no freedom in Tibet.”
In November 2008, only two women entered the Miss Tibet pageant in Dharmasala,, which was won by Sonam Choedon, an attractive 19-year-old woman with high cheekbones and waist length hair. She edged out a 22-year-old receptionist. Both the Chinese government and Buddhist elders objected to the pageant and pressured girls not to enter. The Communist object to pageant because it seen as a sign of defiance to Chinese rule and expression of Tibetan desire for independence. Buddhist leader oppose it because it “apes Western culture” and mocks Buddhist philosophy because it promotes materialism and egoism and thumbs its nose at the idea of inner beauty.
A 25-year-old newspaper columnist that wanted to enter but didn’t told the Washington Post, “ For Tibetan society, a beauty pageant is a very culturally sensitive thing. There was immense social pressure not to participate. The Dali Lama weighed in with humor, asking, “If there is Miss Tibet, why not Mr. Tibet? He could be handsome. Then it would be more equal.”
Contestants wear elaborate gold jewelry and floor-length chubas. There is a yoga competition and questions about Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan history. In the swimsuit competition the women not only to put up with stares from leering men they also have to endure chilly late autumn weather. The event loses money. The organizer pays the modest prize money out his own pocket.
Clothes with snow
leopard acessories There are essentially two different kinds of clothes: those worn for festivals and special occasions and those worn in everyday life. The festival clothes are made from silk or cotton. The everyday clothes used in the winter are made from wool, often produced in Tibet, while everyday clothes used in the summer are made from cotton.
Chubas (also known as cubas or chupas) are heavy, wraparound woolen or sheepskin robes or capes worn by both men and women. They are folded across the body and held in place with a sash or belt. Both men and women drape the garment from left to right.
Chubas are similar to the robes worn in Mongolia but looser. The left lapel is bigger than the right one. Some have very long sleeves that can be tied around the waist. Possession such as money and amulets are kept in an inner pouch. Sometimes chubas are quite filthy
The Tibetan love of colors is evident in the way they decorate their clothes and homes. Female aprons, known as "bangdians", are often adorned with geometric pasterns.
Tibetans often wrap a bandanna or shawl around their mouths for protection against windblown sand and dust. Many people go barefoot or wear flip-flops. Rank used to often be indicated by the coloring and patterns on a person’s boots. Children sometimes have portraits of the holy men tucked in their caps.
More and more Tibetans are wearing Western-style, or as they are known in Tibet, “Chinese”-style, clothes. More men that women seem to wear non-Tibetan clothing. Tibetans are discouraged by some lamas from wearing Chinese clothes.
Weaving, See Industries
Tibetan Clothing Materials
The finest wools are washed by hand while coarser material are washed with the feet. The clothes worn by lamas are made by men. A fine, durable material called "shema" is made from wool and worn by wealthy families. Favored dyes include red from madder or Bhutanese insects, indigo from India, yellow from rhubarb, and dark brown from walnuts.
Tibetans have traditionally liked to wear fur for warmth and as fashion statement. The Tibetan fondness for the furs and skins of tiger and other endangered animals has contributed to reduction of numbers of these animals. Clothing made from tiger skins have traditionally been a sign of wealth and status.
Recently the Dalai Lama spoke out against the wearing of animal fur, saying that wearing the parts of animals was inconsistent with Buddhism. This was turned into a kind of political statement of support, with those who chose not wear fur tacitly voicing their support the Dalai Lama. The Chinese by contrast have encouraged Tibetans to wear animal skins at festivals to create a colorful atmosphere. At festivals consequently little fur to be seen.
A member fo a Tibet dance troupe told to wear fur at a festival told the New York Times, “The government told us we have to wear fur, but we’re not going to do it.. There are 32 people in our troupe, We’ve agreed that just one will wear a small piece.”
Women in Tibet are creating an incredibly soft wool—softer than cashmere—from yak hair that is used to make luxury shawls for designers like Sonia Rykeil, Hermes and Yves St. Laurent. More than 150 kilograms of cleaned and prepared yak wool is necessary to make a single shawl the size of an airline blanket. The hair is very short and difficult to spin into wool, and it takes a woman a month to spin two kilograms of wool, enough to make two shawls. The process is laborious but it brings much needed income to Tibetan yak headers who are among the poorest people on the Tibet plateau.
Tibetan Men's Clothes
In the summer men dress in greasy chubas, baggy trousers and beat-up shoes and sometimes don crumpled Chinese-made cowboy hats. In the winter they wear huge embroidered sheepskin coats, belted full-length robes with sleeves long enough to serve as gloves, thick felt trousers, amulets, and thick padded boots made from strips of leather. Footwear sometimes has turned up toes like elves's slippers: the idea being they will less likely kill living things (namely bugs) that way.
Men’s chubas are made from wool, cotton or decorated silk and have sleeves that can be folded back. Most are ankle length but can be pulled up over a belt. Young men and men from Kham tend to wear short chubas. Those worn in Amdo drop just below the knee. Sometimes the chuba worn in the summer has the right sleeve tucked in the belt, exposing a long-sleeve, high-neck shirt.
Many men wear leather sashes, which have charms, tweezers for removing thorns attached to them. Cowboy hats are popular in the summer; fur hats made with fox, wolf or mink fur are popular in the winter. Men sometimes carry a knife and flint to make fires or wear two-foot-long swords, daggers or long knives with silver ornaments. In recent years it has become fashionable for men to wear towering hats made of fur and elaborately spiked and coifed hair with ivory rings. Monks with flashy sunglasses, riding motorscooters are becoming a common sight. In rural areas it is common to see men with tall fur hats, sheepskin coats, high boots and silver buckles.
Tibetan Women's Clothes
Women typically wear sleeveless chubas over wool pants, a woven apron, a wide woven belt and suebas (traditional boots). Women sometimes wear thick black coats and wide-brimmed felt hats and carry wood-frame rucksacks. Some women wear brightly colored cloaks on which bold appliques are sewn on in geometric patterns of contrasting colors, such as red and gold on a green background.
In the summer women wear bright, billowing skirts and bonnets or scarves around their head, sometimes adorned with good-luck symbols. In the winter they put on knee-length coats, or capes made from yak, goat or sheepskins.
Married women wear colorfully striped aprons and braid strips of colored cloth into their hair, and wear gold and silver ornaments, silver jewelry with coral and turquoise and a prayer necklace. Unmarried girls sometimes wear special garments that indicate the wealth of the girl's family so suitors can estimate the dowry they will receive.
In the summer, women from Kham and Amdo wear their chuba with the left sleeve exposed and the right sleeve tucked into the waist, revealing the sleeve of their blouse. Decorated boots made from felt or leather are worn. Those worn in Kham have turned up toes.
Many women swath their head with scarves to keep out the sun and dust.
key ornament Some women cover themselves with spectacular jewelry: silver amulets, many necklaces of turquoise amber and coral, and long earrings. Coral is regarded as valuable because Tibet is so far from the sea. Zee, a kind of agate stone with black and white makings, is also greatly valued. Jewelry has traditionally been given as a dowry.
Tibetans like turquoise and silver. They wear jewelry on their fingers and wrists, around their necks and in their hair. A traditional prayer necklace has 108 beads, the number of books in Tibetan Buddhist scripture.
Earings are worn by both males and females. They have traditionally been tied on with chords. Most pilgrims were an amulet called a "gau" that holds a picture of the Dalai Lama or the owner’s protector god.
Some Tibetans have gold teeth.
Image Sources: Food and Drink: Weird Meat blog; Purdue University and Antique Tibet. Clothes: Purdue University, Snowland Cuckooo and Johompas.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010