Zanthozylum americanum
Emma, a Tibetan spice

I’m sure my parents didn’t know when they named me (and still don’t!), but Emma is the Tibetan word for a spice – the dried berries of Zanthoxylum species, more commonly known in the UK as Sichuan pepper. I really must replace the two species I had, which didn’t survive life on the allotment.

That’s a bit of an aside really, but I have the day off today and the weather is awful and so it seemed like the ideal time to do something I’ve wanted to do for years, and try making Tibetan butter tea, Poecha. I have a copy of the Lhasa Moon Tibetan cookbook that has followed me through many moves and really deserves to be used rather than continue to languish on the shelf.

In the past, when I have mentioned to people that I am intrigued by the concept of Tibetan butter tea, quite often the response is “yuk!”. I’m not sure whether it’s because the butter is made from yak milk, or simply because people can’t imagine adding a fat to their tea. But for me it’s not so far removed from the tea with full cream milk that I grew up with, or the cream my parents used to put in their coffee. It has even found converts who follow the Paleo diet, and have invented buttery bulletproof coffee.

Obviously, since the cattle roaming the fields of Oxfordshire aren’t yaks, my butter isn’t made from yak’s milk. In fact, it’s ordinary cow’s milk butter, since the process of making butter seems to remove the parts of the milk my digestive system objects to. I’ve used goat’s butter in the past, too. It’s much the same, really. And I haven’t tried to get hold of the dry cakes of black tea they use in Tibet. So my first foray into Tibetan butter tea is a considerably anglicized version.

You start out normally enough, by brewing some black tea – but you use very little water, so you get a strong concentrated tea. Then you add the butter.

Tibetan tea - adding butter to tea concentrate
Adding butter to strong black tea

Mine was straight out of the fridge, and it took a long time to melt – it would be easier to use soft butter, I think.

Tibetan tea - adding the milk
Adding the milk

Milk is also added at this stage (mine was from a goat), and the Tibetans would add salt. I used salted butter, so I didn’t add any extra salt.

Tibetan tea - finished concentrate ready to use
Tibetan butter tea concentrate

This stage is surprisingly fragrant – it smells sweet, and a little buttery. When it’s all mixed up, what you’ve got is Tibetan butter tea concentrate – you don’t drink it yet.

Tibetan tea - blending
Blending butter tea

You pour a measure of concentrate into your blender, dilute it with boiling water, and give it a blend to thoroughly mix and incorporate all the ingredients. I don’t have a blender, so I used my hand whisk. I was starting to run out of bowls large enough to hold that volume of liquid, so I moved onto a saucepan.

Tibetan tea time

From there, the tea is ready to serve. I normally drink my tea with sugar, but in Tibetan butter tea I didn’t miss it – with the milk and the butter it was sweet enough. And yes, it tastes buttery. And yes, there’s a slightly oily note to it that some people may find off-putting. But it’s a lovely warming drink, and I can imagine it’s just the ticket in the frigid Tibetan climate. I was happy with the low levels of saltiness, but I might try adding just a pinch more salt next time and see how that tastes. It’s certainly nicer than the Butter Beer they serve at The Making of Harry Potter tour. Seriously, that’s nasty, don’t drink it.

Tibetan butter tea is not strong, and Tibetans would be constantly sipping it all day, to stay warm and avoid dehydration at their high altitudes. I was quite happy to stop at one cup for now, although I’d also be happy to try it again.

The recipe in Lhasa Moon makes a lot of tea concentrate. I’m going to try and reduce the quantities so that I can make just a cup or two at a time, since I suspect I won’t get many takers for a Butter Tea Party 🙂

Have you tried butter tea? What did you think?