Traditional Tibetan food was nutritious and hearty. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the harsh climate of the Himalayas and the scarcity of pasture and agricultural land.
However, with the recent technological advancements, such as building greenhouses, and connections with nearby regions, we can enjoy a wider variety of delicious meals in Tibet. In this article, you will find information about both traditional Tibetan dishes and all the choices available to you now.
- Staple food in Tibet
- Tibetan specials
- Vegetarian Dishes
- Indian/ Nepalese/ Western dishes
STAPLE FOOD IN TIBET
Tsampa is the most important food for Tibetans. It is roasted barley flour. Tibetans mix it with butter, dried crumbled cheese, and tea. If you add sugar to your butter tea, it becomes a little sweet and tasty. It is the most popular breakfast meal. Tibetans can eat it all the time, as a snack, and as the main meal during long traveling or treks.
According to Tibetan tradition, they will always share tsampa with anyone who is hungry.
Tsampa plays an important role in religious rituals as well. Monks use it to prepare blessed snacks to share with monastery visitors. During the New Year celebration, monasteries and families make sculptures (choe-ba) from tsampa and decorate it with figures made of butter.
Momos are Tibetan dumplings. The most common fillings are yak meat, vegetables, potatoes, and farm cheese.
Momos are usually steamed, and only sometimes fried. The shapes are versatile, but momos are a must-try when you are in Tibet!
Tibetan noodles can be served with soup or fried. When you order Tibetan noodles in a tea house or a restaurant, they will be served with soup, and either with some vegetables or meat.
Traditionally, in winter Tibetans eat handmade noodles (Bak-thuk and Thin-thuk). The dish is more heavy and hearty than regular noodles. On the tables, you will find chili sauce that everyone adds to their meal.
For most foreigners, butter tea tastes more like soup than tea. To prepare the butter tea, Tibetans blend butter (it is not melted) and mix it with black tea. It warms you up fast and gives you a boost of energy. Tibetans often have it with tsampa or with boiled potatoes as a snack between meals.
Butter tea had another unexpected benefit. It protects the lips of Tibetans. Because of Tibet’s high altitude, the air here is thin and dry. The air can dry lips very fast. Drinking butter tea is a remedy that all Tibetans enjoy every day.
Yak is the most common meat in Tibet. You can also find dishes made with chicken, lamb or porc in some restaurants. However, away from large cities, yak meat is often the only choice. There are two main reasons for it: practical and ethical. Tibetan yaks can graze by themselves during the summer months. Yaks adapted well to the high altitude and cold climate of the Himalayas and one of the few large animals striving in these harsh conditions.
Yak meat along with yak butter, milk and yogurt are often the only sources of protein in the Himalayas. Very few vegetables grow in this climate, and it is hard to substitute yak meat with any other protein sources.
Another reason for the popularity of yak meat lies in religion. As Buddhists, Tibetans avoid the unnecessary killing of animals. One yak can feed many people multiple times, while smaller animals sometimes can be eaten in one meal. It is best to avoid killing several chickens, for example, when it is possible to have yak meat instead.
Typical breakfast for Tibetans is tsampa with butter tea. Many Tibetans eat noodles with soup even for breakfast, either vegetarian or with meat. Many tea houses also serve fried meat pies for breakfast.
You can also order an omelet for breakfast in some restaurants.
On the streets of Lhasa, you can see many sellers with different types of bread. They start selling freshly baked or steamed bread early in the morning. Tibetan special is a bread called locomomo.
When you are staying in Lhasa, you can also buy fresh yogurt in small street shops. Sellers will give you sugar if you request.
Yak meat, being the staple of Tibetan cuisine, will be in a variety of dishes. Yak steaks, fried yak meat, dried meat, yak meat fried with vegetables, and so many others. One very popular dish is rice, potato, and yak meat curry. Some restaurants serve dishes made with chicken and pork.
Important to note: Tibetans don’t eat fish or seafood because they don’t want to disturb creatures from the water sources, sacred in Tibet. They believe in Naga, powerful protectors that live in oceans, rivers, and lakes. All living beings in water have a strong connection with Naga. That’s why Tibetans don’t eat any fish.
Only in some high-end restaurants or Chinese places you can find seafood.
The most popular soups in Tibetan are tomato and egg soup (vegetarian), various noodle soups, golden mushroom soup, potatoes, and glass noodle soup and cabbage soup.
One of the most popular vegetables in Tibet is potatoes. Tibetans eat it in all possible forms and shapes. They fry it as fries or as chips, boil and eat with butter tea, mash it with yak butter, use in curries and stews.
Salads are not common in Tibet, and you can only see it in hotels and some restaurants. The only non-cooked vegetable dish is cucumber salad. In this salad, cucumbers are mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, and chili.
You can expect to see many seasonal vegetables in restaurants. Nowadays, there are many greenhouses in Tibet, so most of the vegetables are grown locally. The most common types are string beans, peppers, bok choy, corn, cabbage, carrots, radish, and a few others.
Vegetables are usually fried, used in stews or added to soups.
Aside from Traditional Tibetan noodles served with soup, you can find fried Tibetan noodles with meat or vegetables or chowmein.
In summer Tibetans also eat cold wheat noodles or jelly cold noodles made of bean paste.
Tibetans eat a lot of white rice as a side dish with their meal. In addition, you can find fried rice on the menu of most restaurants.
Tibetan hotpot is a little different from the Chinese. In Tibetan hotpot, all ingredients are already cooked. The special container with boiling soup is placed in the middle of the table on a stovetop. You dip the desired ingredients into the soup and eat them after they warm-up. It is best to share a hotpot with a company.
There are many fruit sellers in central parts of Lhasa. Nowadays, they have a good variety of fruit. Local fruit is limited to apples, pears, and peaches and only available in certain seasons.
One popular meal that can be a dessert is rice mixed with sugar and the silverweed root. Tibetans always eat it during the New Year celebration and other special occasions.
There are many types of cookies made of barley, some fried, and some crunchy. You can get them from outside sellers or in supermarkets.
There are pastry and cake shops in the cities. Also, you can find cakes and desserts in coffee shops.
On the streets of cities you will see sellers offering fried potatoes: cut as chips or as fries. Another popular snack for Tibetans is biscuits, also fried.
Tibetans love snacking on dried yak meat, and you can also buy it in many stores and small shops in the cities.
When walking in Lhasa, you can find sellers with dried cheese, often sold on a string. There are different shapes of cheese. However, all of them are hard and you have to patiently wait until it softens in your mouth.
- Yellow mushrooms
- Silverweed root
Most Tibetans are Buddhist and they are trying to eat vegetarian dishes during religious holidays. You can always find several delicious vegetarian options even in the small tea shops. Keep in mind, that generally, you will have more options in big cities. In smaller towns, the varieties can be limited to simple food, such as tsampa (barley flour), fried rice, vegetable noodles, vegetable momos (or dumplings), tomato and egg soup and yogurt. In many places, tofu dishes are on the menu.
Fried eggs can be served with other dishes throughout the day as an added protein.
We had many vegetarian tourists visiting Tibet and there was never a situation when they couldn’t order vegetarian food. On the contrary, Tibetans always respect your choice to avoid eating meat.
The most popular hot drink is tea. You will find traditional Tibetan butter tea, sweet milk tea, plain black tea in some places (with added salt in mountain regions), and green tea. Some Western-oriented restaurants have ginger lemon tea on the menu.
For coffee lovers: good coffee is not always available. Most hotels serve instant coffee for breakfast. There is a very popular with tourists Summit Cafe in Lhasa with the most common types of coffee varieties. You can also find a coffee shop in Times Square shopping center and some small places serving fresh coffee and teas in the Old Town.
Water is widely available in all cafes and restaurants. You can also find all standard carbonated drinks (like Coca Cola, Sprite, etc), and some fruit juices. Only very few places have fresh-squeezed juices. In many restaurants, you can order Lassi, a yogurt drink with sugar or fruit.
Remember, that drinking alcohol can slow down acclimatizing to high altitude and make the symptoms of high altitude sickness worsen. It is best to avoid drinking alcohol while in Tibet or at least limit it to a minimum. We also recommend having alcohol drinks towards the end of your tour, but not in the beginning.
Tibetan traditional alcoholic beverages are barley beer and barley wine. The barley beer is light and sweet. Barley beer along with black tea and milk is offered to protectors in monasteries’ chapels. You can see small stalls selling it outside in the Old Town in Lhasa.
The wine, on the other hand, is quite strong although with a pleasant taste. So be careful if trying it!
Lhasa beer is a more traditional type of beer. It is classified as European Pale Lager. The Lhasa brewery is relatively new and it is the highest brewery in the world. Lhasa beer is also the only Tibetan beer that is selling internationally.
In large cities in Tibet, you can find the most common international varieties, such as European/American beer, wines, and hard liquor. There are also some bars in Lhasa serving drinks.
Tibetan cuisine was influenced by nearby Nepal and India, and you will find many varieties of Himalayan dishes in restaurants in large cities.
You will see different curries, sizzlers, and Nepalese and Indian sets on the menu. The quality of the dishes is mostly very good as some restaurants have chefs from neighboring Nepal.
In hotels and some large restaurants, you can find a selection of Western dishes. The most common meals on the menu are pizza, burger, some appetizers, and soups. Some Western ingredients are hard to find in Tibet, so the taste of familiar dishes might be a little different. However, it is a good choice for those who are looking for familiar meals away from home.
WHERE TO TRY TIBETAN FOOD
When traveling in cities in Tibet, you have two main options. The first option is to go to a restaurant. There are many great restaurants in Lhasa and Shigatse serving traditional Tibetan food, as long as Indian, Nepalese and western dishes. In addition to restaurants, tea houses are very popular in Tibet. You will find them in all cities and villages, even in remote areas of Tibet. Tea houses serve traditional Tibetan food. There are usually not as many options as in restaurants, but the food is served fast and prices are low. For information where to find the best places to eat, check our guide on the best restaurants and tea houses in Lhasa: