Tibetan days and making of butter tea

Last week Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama) visited Slovenia. He came together with a group of monks from Dharamsala, India who dedicated a few hours of each day of the visit to the construction of a sand mandala at Maribor’s central square. The visit was highlighted by several lectures and workshops, some of them given by Dalai Lama himself. After two such events, I hosted a tea gig, making a lot of Chinese tea and talking about it.

Tibetan monks spent several days creating this mandala from sand

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From a political perspective the situation was a bit ironic because Chinese and Tibetans don’t get along too well. The roots of the conflict go back to the late 1950-s when the newly established Communist regime forcefully “reclaimed” Tibet. And yet, there I was: with a mandala and Dalai Lama’s portrait right behind me, talking about the intricacies of making and enjoying Chinese teas. The monks that were putting the mandala together were from India, a country which has its own tea culture and tradition, albeit smuggled in secrecy from China back in the 19th century. To avoid potential awkwardness, I gave a brief review of the relevant history of the regions and emphasized that we were there to have fun and enjoy tea, so everything went rather smoothly. Unfortunately, I had no camera on me, so I could only take a few photos with my phone.

The tea and the tea party

Whenever I combine tea ceremony with lectures, I try not to do both at the same time. This is especially true if I have a large audience. Traditionally, tea ceremony is performed in an intimate atmosphere, which means not more than five-six participants. Hosting more than ten people is still manageable, but not as enjoyable since I barely have enough time to make new tea and refill the cups. So, whenever I host a tea gig with a lot of people present, here’s what I do to make the most of it.

  • Short lecture on the history and culture of tea drinking, including a few images and reviews of some of the literature.
  • Presentation on harvesting and processing of tea leaves in China. I also try to address some of the common misconceptions, such as the belief that black teas are grown on some “black tea bush” while green teas come from some completely different “green bush”.
  • Next, I show my guests the different teas that I’ve prepared, underlining the differences in texture, shape, and smell of teas like wulong, black, pu’er, and some flower infusions.

The second part of a typical tea gig is more practical in nature:

  • First, I present the so-called gongfu tools: tea table, gaiwan, bowls, clay charcoal brazer along with some other more modern tea gadgets.
  • Then I talk about the steps and highlights of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony.
  • At the end, everybody gets to make a cup of tea using gaiwan. This is where people get a chance to put in practice what they learned about choosing and heating water, preparing tea leaves, steeping and pouring techniques, etc.

The last stage can develop into a highly enjoyable social event, which is exactly what happened during the last week’s gig in Maribor. If the number of participants is around ten or lower, I can get into brewing right away. There is less handwork to do, so I can talk about tea without losing focus.

Tibetan butter tea

Since this gig was hosted under the auspices of the Tibetan Days, we also talked about Tibetan tea (po cha). I visited Tibet in 2007 and that’s where I had my first shot of po cha (tea mixed up with butter and salt).

The smell and taste of this beverage are so specific that those with sensitive stomachs run the risk of vomiting after the first sip. But po cha can actually grow on you, provided, of course, that you give it another chance. If you travel through Tibet, you will quickly understand why Tibetans drink butter tea before, during, and after work. At high altitudes, this drink is an excellent source of calories. it is prepared in special wooden containers called churns in which extensively brewed black or puer tea gets mixed up with yak butter and salt. Tibetans drink it as it is or with tsampa, a special Tibetan snack, made ​​from roasted barley flour.

Because it’s impossible to buy yak butter in Slovenia I had to substitute it with cow butter. You can make tibetan tea at home by soaking black tea (e.g. dianhong) for several hours until it reaches the consistency of “tea soup”. You should then pour it into a thermos bottle, add a bit of butter, some whole fat milk, and a pinch of Himalayan salt. Then you should shake the thermos well for about a minute. Serve the tea while it’s hot and foamy; it doesn’t taste that well if it’s cold and unshaken.


This post was written by Miha and translated into English by Roman. Slovenian version is also available (Tibetanski dnevi v Mariboru in masleni čaj). For more posts on tea please visit daoli.eu.

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3 Responses to “Tibetan days and making of butter tea”

  1. gingko May 29, 2012 at 12:20 am # Reply

    Oh, Chinese and Tibetans could get along very well. Politics are politics, people are people :-) Tibet has more than a dozen ethnic groups living together. Throughout history, they’ve got along a lot better than people did in many other regions. The first 13 Dalai Lama were all officially deemed as some of the religious leaders in China. Although the current government is generally hostile to religions and to Dalai Lama, many Chinese Buddhists still see 14th Dalai Lama as an important Buddhism leader.

    • Roman May 29, 2012 at 11:42 am # Reply

      True. But the fact that Dalai Lama sought refuge in India – China’s number one geopolitical adversary – makes the prospect of Chinese and Tibetans coming to peace a very remote possibility. Sad. Very sad.

  2. George June 29, 2012 at 5:19 am # Reply

    I just wish yak butter was more available in the United States. The tea is just not the same with regular butter.

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