Sonam Curreri in traditional Tibetan dress  
 

Tibetan Tea and Tsampa
Judith Krall-Russo Interviews Sonam Curreri

 
  Several months ago, Linda Villano, owner of SerendipiTea, asked me if I would be interested in interviewing one of her employees, Sonam Curreri, about Tibetan tea and foods. 

Since I love learning about food and tea customs of other countries, I of course, said “YES!”   After many
e-mails and several phone calls, the interview came about. It was my pleasure to talk with Sonam and learn a little about Tibetan tea and food customs. She has worked for
SerendipiTea for seven years.  Being Tibetan, tea has always been a part of her life.
 
 
 
 

Were you born in Tibet?
No. My parents were born in Tibet, and I was born in India. My mother, Yanchen Sangmo, escaped from Tibet to India in 1959. Many Tibetans live in India, and there is a large community in the south of India.

What are the traditional beverage and food of Tibet?
Butter tea is the staple beverage, and tsampa is the staple food of Tibet. They are eaten together.

Do you drink butter tea and eat tsampa often?
Since my mother immigrated to the USA in 2010 and now lives with me and my family, she makes butter tea and tsampa several times a week.

Sonam Curreri and her mother, Yangchen Sangmo
 
     
 

What type of tea is traditionally used – a fermented black tea?
They use Pu-erh tea brick.  Hmmm, fermented is not a correct term for tea. The definition of fermented indicates that a by-product of alcohol is created.

I am quoting here a description about Pu-erh on the SerendipiTea website: 

  1. Pu-erh, a Yunnan Province offering, can be made from black or green tea, black or 'cooked' tea is called Shu.
  2. Green or raw tea is called Shang and is not oxidized.
  3. Pu-erh can be in loose form or compressed.  Traditionally aged in caves, now the tea is aged in specially designed “caves” or climate controlled rooms where the humidity level is carefully maintained at less than 80%.  Moisture is introduced to the dry, finished leaves which are regularly turned and tended.  During this “composting” procedure helpful bacteria growth is encouraged.  Aging is desirable as is the earthy aroma, fragrance and taste.  Once aged the desired amount of time, the leaves are compressed into cakes, disks, buttons, or bird’s nest shapes.  The natural aging produces a very mellow, smooth cup.  Some aged Pu-erh cakes and disks are highly collectible.

Traditionally, Tibetan tea/butter tea is prepared using water, black tea leaves from a Pu-erh tea brick, butter and salt.

 
 
 
 

What tea could you use other than Pu-erh?
Some Darjeeling teas would work, as well as Nigiri tea. I do not recommend Assam tea.

I want to share a story with you, if it is OK. I had the pleasure of visiting several tea gardens in India, and while we were at Selimbong Garden in the Darjeeling District, we had the opportunity to make black tea. After our visit to the Garden, I went down to the south of India to see my family and gave my mom the tea we made at Selimbong Garden. She made butter tea with the tea leaves I brought, and we all enjoyed it very much. It takes salt and butter very well.  I experimented with several black tea leaves, and not all black tea makes good butter tea.

Linda Villano and Sonam Curreri at the Selimbong Gardens in Darjeeling District, India

Linda Villano, owner of SerendipiTea, and Sonam Curreri at the compost shed at the organic, bio dynamic Selimbong Tea Estate in Darjeeling, India.

 
 
 
     
 

Please explain how to make butter tea.

Butter tea is the Tibetan tea (bhoe cha in Tibetan). Let me explain how it is made.

 

1) Boil the water and add tea leaves by breaking the tea leaves from a Pu-erh brick. (We Tibetans always “eyeball” the measurements – I would say 30 oz. of water and add about 3 teaspoons of tea leaves.)

   


2) Once it has boiled, strain the tea leaves and transfer to a churn.
 
   
 


3) Add yak butter and salt to taste.

4) Churn the ingredients and transfer to the tea pot.

 
     
 

What if you don’t own a churn?
A hand beater is a good substitute.

What can you use as a substitute for yak butter?
Regular unsalted butter.

Is tea prepared differently in different parts of the country?
To my knowledge, Tibetan tea is prepared the same way throughout all of Tibet.Tibetan Tea Bowl

What types of teapots, tea cups and bowls are used?
Our teapots are unique because of their simplicity and height and are made out of aluminum or brass. Tea cups/bowls are round (shape is similar to a gai wan) and are made out of a wooden frame with a silver lining inside. Tibetans always carry a bowl inside their chupa, which is a typical traditional Tibetan dress.  Interestingly enough, the bowl is tucked inside their chupa close to their heart.

How many types of tea are drunk in Tibet?
Other than butter tea, sweet tea is enjoyed by Tibetans living in the city (Lhasa). Sweet tea was introduced to Lhasa by Tibetan Muslims during the 1930’s. Those who drank sweet tea were seen as people who had traveled and were cosmopolitan, signifying also that India was the source of modern items and ideas.

How much tea is consumed daily?  Do children drink tea?
Tea is drunk all day long. I would say about 30 cups a day. Butter tea is a very warming drink providing lots of caloric energy, and is particularly suited to high altitudes.  It also prevents chapped lips. Tea leaves are a good source of vitamins and minerals, which are needed because food is scarce in Tibet.
Yes, children have always enjoyed tea.

During holidays, is tea consumed a great deal?
Yes, also Chang, a homemade Tibetan beer.

 
 
 
 
 
 

What foods are eaten with tea?
Tsampa is always enjoyed with tea.

What is tsampa made of, and does it take a long time to learn to make tsampa?
Traditionally, tsampa is made out of roasted barley, but Tibetans in India use roasted maize (corn).
It does not take a long time to cook. Unlike making bread, you don’t need to have precise measurements when preparing tsampa, but I find that the process is long.

To prepare tsampa, you need the following:
                Barley
                Water
                Strainer
                Wooden spoon
                Sand (yes, sand)
                Cloth
                Grinder

  1. Barley is soaked overnight and then drained, and the water discarded.
  2. Spread the barley on a clean cloth and leave it to drain for 30 minutes.
  3. Place a deep skillet on high heat with sand (but you can do without the sand at home). Once it is heated, throw in the barley, and stir it well with a wooden spoon. Let it pop.
  4. Use the strainer to separate the roasted barley from the sand. Transfer it onto a clean cloth, and let it cool.
  5. We would take it to a mill to stone grind, but you can use a coffee grinder to make tsampa at home.

How do you eat tsampa?

Please keep in mind that tsampa is roasted flour, and we add Tibetan tea to tsampa to make Paak (similar to raw cookie dough) and then we enjoy it bite by bite while sipping tea. My husband, who is American, enjoys tsampa with soy milk. 

 
     
 

Is there a “western” influence such as drinking espresso, green tea, chai masala, bubble tea and the like among the younger generation?

Because of the Indian influence on Tibetans born in India, like me, we drink more chai than Tibetan tea and now, since I am in America and work for a tea company, (SerendipiTea), I have been introduced to all types of teas and have learned to appreciate drinking straight tea (no added sugar, milk, salt, butter, etc.) so I would say younger generations are definitely influenced by the western way of drinking tea, depending upon where you are.

Are there any restaurants in New York City where a person can experience Tibetan food and tea, including tsampa?

Most of the Tibetan restaurants do serve butter tea and tsampa. If it is not on the menu, always ask the server. There are few Tibetan restaurants in the City, but I enjoy going to Tibetan restaurants in Jackson Heights, Queens: Himalayan Yak, Namaste, Thakali and Wasabi Point.

Other than butter tea, what are your favorite teas?

Since I work for SerendipiTea, I drink a lot of tea!  Some of my favorite teas are Masala Chai, Strictly Strawberry, an herbal blend of strawberry and hibiscus, and Figi, an organic green tea blended with pineapple and papaya – I drink a lot of this!

 
     
 

It was a pleasure talking with Sonam and discovering more about Tibetan butter tea and tsampa. 

I am now inspired to find a Tibetan restaurant and sample the cuisine. There are two in New York City that have received good reviews: 

  1. Tsampa, 212 E. 9th Street, NY, NY, Phone 212/614-3226 and
  2. Tibetan Kitchen, 444 Third Avenue, between 30th and 31st Streets, NY, NY. 

I hope readers of this interview are also inspired to become more adventurous in their eating and drinking habits.

 
     
 
 
 

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2006 Judith Krall-Russo, L.L.C.
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