Tibet is not noted for its culinary arts. China, however, is – ergo, find a Chinese-run restaurant if you want more variety. There’s lots of variety in Lhasa – Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, Nepalese and Western cuisines are all available. On the streets you can find fresh fruit and vegetables in abundance, and fresh bread and tangy yoghurt. You can even get good fresh cheese imported from Nepal. Yak cheese is excellent, but only when made with Swiss or Norwegian technology (as it is in Bhutan, Nepal and in parts of northern India). There are some small cheese-making concerns in Lhasa that employ European technology, but more commonly what you’ll find on sale are small pieces of rock-hard yak cheese, strung together like a necklace. These are almost impossible to eat, and are treated like sweets by the nomads, who suck on the pieces all day.
Tibetans are more inclined to run teahouses with low carpeted tables, which serve tea and momos (meat dumplings) and perhaps the odd potato. They offer lots of atmosphere, but not a whole lot of food. Lhasa is fine for food and so is Shigatse, but once out in the countryside, it’s pretty much just noodles. In the wilder areas, it’s tsampa (roasted barley flour) all the way. Tsampa is boring but quite sustaining, and you can mix it with soup or noodles (some connoisseurs add powdered milk or other substances to this Tibetan goulash).
Not many travellers take to tsampa, though more take to army-ration biscuits. Chinese packaged goods are not much more appetising. Olive-green army cans with stewed mandarins or pork or something equally disgusting are resold on the black market. When travelling in Tibet, you should always bring along some food as a backup, for the times when you’re stuck. You can load up in Lhasa on packaged soup and so on. Some bring in freeze-dried food from the West.
Bottled mineral water is available in Lhasa, Shigatse and larger towns in Tibet, where brands include Tibet Magic Water and Potala Palace Mineral Water. Cheaper than bottled water is Chinese beer. Since beer goes through a fermenting process, it’s safe to drink, but this is not advisable at altitude until you’ve acclimatised (beer should not be drunk if you have the runs, either). Available Chinese brands include Huanghe (Yellow River), Lhasa Beer, Snow Beer and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Tibet is not famous for its cuisine. As anyone who has attempted to choke down a few cups of yak-butter tea can tell you, this drink is an acquired taste. And yet, paradoxically, yak-butter tea contains all the ingredients needed to counter altitude. It has a high fat content to counter the cold, and it has salt to restore hydration. It is healthy, but it could take a long time to get used to that rancid yak butter floating around.
Here’s the thing: your taste buds don’t work as well at altitude. The air is cold and very dry – and when the air lacks humidity, your nasal passages, mouth and throat lose their moisture, impairing your sense of smell and taste. At extreme altitude, everything tastes terrible – or else appears to be lacking in taste. Your perception of salt can drop by as much as 30%, while sugar perception dulls by up to 20%. But not all food turns out the same way. Some tastes actually improve at altitude. Airlines have discovered that flying along in a cabin pressurised to 2,000 metres, passengers develop a sudden craving for tomato juice – because it actually tastes better in the air than on the ground. Something to do with greater acidity. Certain red wine vintages do well at altitude, while others do not.
In 2017, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific introduced Betsy Beer, touted as the world’s first hand-crafted beer designed to be enjoyed while cruising above the clouds at 11,000m. Heavens to Betsy! Among the ingredients is Dragon-Eye fruit, known for its aromatic properties, New Territories-sourced honey, and Fuggle, a hop that is a mainstay of British craft ales.
The most memorable dish I have ever eaten in Tibet was a plate of golden mushrooms that appeared in a humble restaurant in the middle of nowhere, was lightly cooked in sauce, and tasted fabulous. After that, I sought out these wild mushrooms in markets to buy, and would take them into a restaurant kitchen to have cooked up. There is tasty Tibetan food out there – especially when liberally interpreted by others, in India, or in the West. Here are some Tibetan fusion ideas.
On travels in Tibet, you will inevitably come across yak burgers (a matter of time before someone opens a chain called YakDonald’s), yak sizzler (yak steak sizzling on a wooden platter), braised yak ribs, and yak-meat momos. In Tawang (India) you may be served yak-meat stew flavoured with spices and stinky fermented yak cheese that is aged several months or years. But here’s another combination to consider: yak pizza. Want some yak cheese with that? Or olives? It opens up a whole realm of possibilities. When it comes to yak fusion, China has never been short on ideas for medicinal variations said to cure various ailments – cooking up yak tongue, braised yak hooves (don’t ask), and yak-penis soup (definitely don’t ask).
Yak cheese, European-style
Cheese addicts will be ecstatic to learn that Swiss-style yak cheese is made in Langtang, Nepal. Huge barrel cheeses are said to be connected to a Swiss NGO aid programme. This nutty-tasting cheese finds its way to Kathmandu and Lhasa and is highly nutritious, being rich in protein because yaks eat a much wider range of herbs and grasses than cows do. Also, up Langtang way is a small operation run by Francois, who heads up Himalayan French Cheese. He produces a small yak cheese in the foothills and is working on making yak feta. He also thinks yak blue is going to work. That’s right – a stinky blue yak cheese.
Vodka butter-chicken momos
When momos, the dumplings that are Tibet’s original fast food, crossed over the Himalayas to India, some weird things happened. Chefs in Delhi and Mumbai began experimenting, catering to fussy palates, and branched out with paneer momos, Mongolian momos, Afghani momos, Punjabi momos, and Mexican-style momos. Pineapple momos are popular in Mumbai. So are shitake momos. Taking the momo to dizzy new heights, a Delhi restaurant came up with a recipe for vodka butter-chicken momos. Vodka is kneaded into the dough and added to the filling of butter chicken. And in Mumbai, a chef has come up with a momo burger, which sees several momos placed between buns, slathered with red sauce, coriander sauce and mayonnaise.
Tsampa, the roasted barley-flour staple of Tibet, is highly nutritious but tastes very bland. Some might say it tastes awful. Solution: add it to thukpa (Tibetan soup) to thicken the soup. While on Himalayan expeditions decades ago, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard discovered his sherpas relied totally on tsampa while on expeditions, turning their noses up at his donations of freeze-dried food. The sherpas would rehydrate their tsampa with boiling water, spices and yak butter to make a basic soup. Years later, Chouinard experimented and came up with some tasty variations on tsampa, by adding powdered soup, salmon jerky, parmesan and olive oil to the mix. This is sold by Patagonia Provisions as a kind of freeze-dried food. Or just bring your own parmesan and cans of olives into Tibet, and the tsampa might just work.
Except in larger towns like Lhasa and Shigatse, be prepared for very low standards of food and lodging. It’s best to bring your own supplies as backup: bring a Therma-Rest (ultra-light air mattress) and a good sleeping bag to soften the beds and to stay warm, and bring packets of soup, or whatever, to compensate for the lack of restaurants. As an official guide and driver are required for all travel in Tibet these days, the tour operator that arranges your itinerary will book you into hotels that suit the budget quoted, usually ranging from 2-star to 4-star hotels. However, pre-departure, you should check on some of these hotels online to ensure that they are up to scratch – particularly in Lhasa – and that the operator is not trying to cut corners.
Hotels and guesthouses
Low-end guesthouses, teahouse inns and truck-stop places generally offer a bed and not much else. These usually work out at US$2–5 a bed, in dormitory-type accommodation with perhaps four beds to a room. If there’s a dirt floor, a lumpy bed and a tap in the yard, you’ve hit rock bottom. Bedbugs can be a problem in low-end hotels.
A notch up are Chinese concrete-blockhouse hotels, usually with several storeys, and possibly some internal plumbing. These places charge about US$10–25 for the room, no matter if your party is single, double or triple, so you can reduce costs by sharing. The more creature comforts you get, the higher the tariff. If you get your very own bathroom, with your own plumbing, rates are even higher. Because of shoddy workmanship, it often turns out that half of these gadgets fail to function, and yet you are paying for them being in the room. Some foreigners have successfully bargained down the price of a room due to absence of electricity to power devices such as the television. In this range are hotels designed for visiting Chinese, some of which may be off-limits to Westerners.
At the high end are group-tour hotels, with rooms from US$30–80 and up (if you have three people sharing a room, this may still only be US$20 a bed). These definitely have plumbing – and even hot water – and rooms with real light bulbs, and possibly even television reception. Even so, the prices for the rooms are often inflated, and discounts are frequently offered to tour operators. The hotel lobby often features a dining hall, souvenir shop, bar and so on. It may even have a foreign exchange counter and a small business section able to handle faxes and IDD calls. Even if you don’t stay in a high-end hotel, you can wander in and shop or use the services there: naturally, the tariff will be higher than normal. There are hotels of this standard in Lhasa, and several in Shigatse, Gyantse and Tsedang. These high-end hotels may have cheap dormitories tucked away, so it’s worth enquiring.
At the time of writing, homestays were not possible for foreigners visiting the TAR, but can be arranged outside the TAR in the regions of Kham and Amdo.