I stayed with Goulongzhu and her family in Tibet for four days in June, and every morning, without pause, she’d serve me a creamy bowl of yak butter tea for breakfast. In the early hours, she’d make a batch of crude black pu’erh tea — a fermented dark tea from China — brewed along with a great deal of salt. Then, a fat serving of yak butter would go into a bowl along with toasted barley powder and milk curds, and she’d pour the tea in until the liquid nearly reached the rim. I’d mix it all together with my chopsticks and sip. It was creamy and substantial — overflowing with healthy fats. The highland barley gave it a nutty finish, and in those four days, yak butter tea was something I looked forward to immensely in the mornings.
Goulongzhu resides in a small village called Zhongchacun at the Jiuzhaigou Valley. Located in the modern-day province of Sichuan, China, Zhongchacun is in the historic Tibetan region of Amdo on the northeast corridor of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quite chilly there, at 50 degrees, in the morning and evenings — even in the summer — and for tourists like me, the altitude is challenging.
Butter tea has become a necessity in this climate, where the air is brutally thin and cold. "Nomadic people drink it because they’re outside a lot and it keeps them warm," says Tibet resident Jamin ‘Lobsang’ York. "It gives them energy, fat, and calories." But contrary to popular belief, not all Tibetans drink butter tea on a daily basis. Later on, I learned that butter tea is something Goulongzhu brings out only for guests and during special occasions in the summer. Yak butter is expensive and especially difficult to obtain in the winter (but because Goulongzhu lives in an agrarian village, she has more spending power for butter than her nomadic counterparts). Normally, Goulongzhu and her family drink a simpler salty yak milk tea, composed of exactly what it sounds like: salt, yak milk, and tea.
That difference reflects regional variations of yak-based beverages — the region’s main source of dairy — depending on where one resides. The Tibetan Plateau was historically divided into three broad regions: Ü-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham. Ü-Tsang comprised the modern-day Tibet Autonomous Region. Kham was divided between the Tibet Autonomous Region, western Sichuan, southern Qinghai, and northwest Yunnan. Amdo was divided between northern and eastern Qinghai, southwest Gansu, and northern Sichuan. Although these three traditional regions no longer have modern borders, they are still very much relevant with it comes to differences in culture, language, and food.
In Tibet’s nomadic Amdo region, where Goulongzhu lives, salty milk tea instead of butter tea is the norm because "in this area, the people are quite poor," says Li Yi, owner of a horse trekking company in an Amdo town called Langmusi. Yi has been living in Langmusi for 12 years and organizes tours into the homes of nomadic Tibetan families. These families depend on their herds of yak and sheep for a living, selling the butter instead of using it for tea in their own homes.
"The saltiest tea comes from the Amdo area. When the temperature drops in the wintertime, the tea gets saltier."
According to Tsehua, a Tibetan nomad who grew up in the grasslands of Honyuan in Amdo, yaks only produce milk for a small portion of the year, making the butter an even more in-demand commodity. As a result, "rich people have more butter and more fresh butter," says Tsehua, noting the "hard work" that goes into producing it.
In Amdo, women are in charge of making the butter, and it’s created only from June to September — in the region’s grasslands, yaks are milked daily in the spring and summer. To make the butter, producers heat the milk to body temperature and then place it in a solar-powered device that separates butter from milk. The resulting butter is mostly reserved for tsampa — a high caloric paste made from butter, highland barley paste, an optional dose of curds, and a bit of cheap black tea: It’s a quick meal mixed and eaten by hand. In the past, the nomads didn’t own their own yaks and sheep, and had to give the butter to their landlords. "Because of that tradition, people are more used to milk tea than butter tea here," Yi says.
York, the author of popular Tibet travel blog Land of Snows and owner of a Himalayan trekking company, says that different preferences in milk tea can also be traced to climate. In Kham, in the northwestern side of the Tibetan Plateau, the beverage of choice is a slightly sweet yak milk tea, and in Ü-Tsang in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the milk tea is enormously sweet. "The saltiest tea comes from the Amdo area," York says. "[People have] told me that it’s for the cold weather... When the temperature drops in the wintertime, the tea gets saltier," which locals believe helps keep them warm.
And it’s only in the extremely high-elevation grasslands where nomads drink the hard-to-produce butter tea regularly. "The Tibetans that do drink butter tea on a daily basis are usually nomads that live on the higher plateaus," says York, referring to altitudes above 17,000 feet. "It has a high calorie content."
In Tibetan medicine, the combination of butter and tea is regarded to give greater mind-body balance than either item individually.
According to Selena Ahmed, an ethnobotanist who wrote a book called Tea Horse Road about China’s different teas, in Tibetan medicine, the combination of butter and tea is regarded to give greater mind-body balance than either item individually.
Per Ahmed, the consumption of pu-erh tea creates an internal balance and strengthens the body’s blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow, and regenerative fluids — essential for those who work and farm at the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau, where residents often suffer from joint pain and blood circulation diseases. "The antioxidant attributes from the catechin compounds in tea are regarded to provide an adaptive strategy to cope and buffer the stress of high altitude," she says. "Caffeine, the key central nervous system stimulant methylxanthine in tea, further provides energy for grazing, farming, meditating, trekking, pilgrimage, and other daily activities."
Science suggests butter tea’s other ingredients have health benefits, as well. Salt regulates water balance and counterbalances the diuretic properties of tea. Barley is a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals — including magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and selenium, plus the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. As for the butter itself, "Yak butter contains approximately 80 percent fat, of which 2.5 percent is classified as conjugated linoleic acids," Ahmed says. "These compounds improve bone mineralization activity and have pharmacologically been shown to have anti-carcinogenic and antidiabetic properties."
At high altitudes, the benefits of butter tea are quite noticeable. A brisk walk into the surrounding hills near Goulongzhu’s home would quickly leave me breathless; Zhongchacun is 7,614 feet above sea level, and in an area where 14,000 feet above sea level is the average altitude, the village’s elevation is relatively mild. But I live in Los Angeles, which peaks at only 223 feet, so even at the region’s "mild" elevation, I found activity challenging. But the butter tea made by Goulongzhu made me feel significantly less drowsy, and gave me an instant energy boost.
In 2004, Dave Asprey, founder of New York City-based Bulletproof Coffee, had a similar experience in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. "I first learned about the power of blending butter into hot drinks from a tiny Tibetan woman in a remote village near Mt. Kailash," he says. "I staggered into her guesthouse, exhausted and weak from the –10°F chill and 18,300-foot elevations. She handed me a creamy cup of traditional yak butter tea and I couldn’t get enough of it. I immediately felt alert and energized, despite the massive elevation and frigid temperature."
But the butter tea made by Goulongzhu made me feel significantly less drowsy, and gave me an instant energy boost.
When he returned home, Asprey decided to combine high-quality grass-fed butter with coffee instead of tea and thus, the Bulletproof Coffee brand was born. "Adding grass-fed butter to your tea or coffee can boost energy, increase cognitive function and help you lose unwanted fat," Asprey claims. "[When] you consume quality fats in the morning, your body will preferentially use that fat as fuel, resulting in steady energy throughout the morning without the need for much food. The caffeine in coffee actually helps release the fat from butter into the bloodstream so it can immediately be used as an energy source."
However, while butter is a beneficial ingredient, it should be consumed in moderation. "Fats from sources such as butter are also integral parts of healthy digestive systems and a lack of fat can result in constipation," Ahmed says. "However, adding fat to your beverage if you don’t have a history of such fat consumption may require time for your body to adjust."
Asprey also says grass-fed butter is high in butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid known to increase cognitive health and reduce inflammation in the body. "In rodents, studies suggest that higher butyrate levels may protect against mental illness, improve body composition and increase metabolism," he says.
Today, Bulletproof Coffee is marketed as a hyper-productive breakfast beverage, intended to help folks lose weight and start off the day with energy. To the skeptics who claim drinking butter isn’t good for the body, Tsehua points to the type of butter consumed on the Tibetan plateau. "The yaks are free range and we only milk once a day. We don’t over-milk our yaks. We only milk part of what the baby yak drinks," he says. "Yak butter is really organic."
And while butter-in-coffee reached trend status stateside, in high-altitude Tibet, butter tea is more than just a de rigueur beverage. For Goulongzhu, it’s a daily necessity and a symbol of hospitality. During my breakfasts with her, she’d constantly refill my cup until I was forced to refuse. "Drink up," she’d tell me. "You’ll need the energy."
Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist backpacking to all the provinces of China.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
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