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The sweet taste of a salty tea

This week, Tibetans everywhere are celebrating Losar and a fine accompaniment to the feast is their unofficial national drink, tea

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy

This week, the Tibetans are celebrating Losar, or the Tibetan New Year. While Losar itself goes on for about two weeks, the first three days are when families gather to celebrate. There are prayers, rituals, and a feast. Interestingly, Tibetan cuisine does not include many sweet dishes. And this extends to their unofficial national drink, tea.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama of Tibet sought asylum in India, and several thousand of his people followed him. In 2009, the community commemorated half a century of exile with events across the country. It was at one such event that I first tasted Tibetan tea, or po cha. The chef was Tsering, who ran a popular restaurant, Amdo’s Corner, in Bengaluru. He was from Amdo, more famous as the birthplace of the present Dalai Lama. Like many Tibetans choosing exile over an occupied land, Tsering left Tibet for India in his late teens.

Tsering had cooked a large spread for the event but most memorable was the po cha that greeted every guest.

Because po cha looks like regular chai, the first sip is slightly disorienting. Where you expect a familiar sweetness, you taste a salty, almost soupy broth. It takes getting used to but is a warming and hearty drink. In Tibet, po cha is made with pu-erh, a form of fermented black tea compressed into bricks, along with yak milk, yak butter and with salt mined from Tibet’s famous lakes. I asked Tsering about the ingredients he had available to him; strangely enough, it was the salt he missed the most. “In Tibet, the salt is...," he searched for the right words, “so... good, so...sweet!" There was poignancy to that statement, with its implication of an exile state, of homesickness, and deep yearning.

To make po cha, you can use pu-erh or any store-bought black tea. You can replace yak butter with Amul butter, Tibetan salt with iodized salt, and yak milk with cow’s milk. Traditionally, the tea is boiled for several hours, and the decoction churned along with salt, butter and milk in a cylindrical churner called chandong. At home, you can steep the tea for a few minutes and use a blender to produce a cup of passable po cha. And yet, this is not a tea I would recommend you make at home.

To truly appreciate a cup of po cha, find the right place or the right company. If you are in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Bhutan, Ladakh, parts of Nepal or Sikkim, ask for a mug of po cha when you make a pit stop at a tea house. It will moisturize chapped lips, offer warmth, and much needed energy if you are trekking.

If you are visiting McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala, or Bylekuppe near Coorg, or the Tibetan colony in Delhi’s Majnu ka Tila, or even Bengaluru, it’s not hard to find a Tibetan restaurant. Ask for a cup of po cha, even if it’s not on the menu. Drink it while you make small talk with Tibetans. And make sure you follow their lead and slurp, not sip.


Po cha was the inspiration for bulletproof coffee, made popular by Dave Asprey, who created the Bulletproof Diet.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.

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