Image 1. Compressed tea from Sichuan sold at the door of a shop in northeast Tibet[Note: this post is written by Jinghong Zhang, not by me as I accidentally claimed for two days by failing to change the author field! AW]
I did research in Tibet for one month in August 2012. Though I could still breath well without problems, the high altitude of Tibet made me in low spirits, with bad memory, and sleepy all day long. The average altitude of Tibet is 4000 meters, whereas my home town in Yunnan is only 2000 meters.
One day when I suddenly had a higher spirit and became clever, I realized that it was buttered tea that saved me. Mixed together from yak butter, salt and boiled tea brew, buttered tea is said to be an important supplement to the Tibetan diet which is dominated by meat.
I experienced the real value of buttered tea not only from tea that contains caffeine and has a stimulating function, but also from butter that lent me energy and wisdom. A Tibetan old man in his eighties told me an old saying: “no good buttered tea, no good work.”
So what is the standard for being good? I summarized the answers from several informants as: rich butter, strong tea flavor, thick, and salty.
It seemed to me that Tibetans don’t care too much about the quality of tea, as long as it is the compressed tea from Sichuan or Yunnan, but care more about the quality of the butter.
Image 2. Butter sold at a shop in Lhasa
But I also saw that Tibetans were having complex feelings about buttered tea. They must have it everyday, with every meal, but many had also realized that too much butter and salt are no good to health. High blood pressure is a common disease in Tibet. Many locals attributed this to excessive drinking of buttered tea, and turned to only drink pure tea without butter but with some salt.
In Yunnan I drink pure tea without salt everyday, but in Tibet I felt that I must drink buttered tea that was rich, thick and salty.
Image 3. Tibetan monks waiting in front of a temple to serve buttered tea to their classmates who are studying inside the temple.