In the Himalayan region of India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, butter tea is to the locals what espresso is to southern Europeans. Habitual and sustaining, locals sip it from bowls every morning and whenever guests arrive. In the mountain yak herding communities, the nomads drink it virtually all day. Made traditionally with a particular “brick” tea from the Sichuan region, the brewed mixture is blended with salt and butter (typically made from the milk of dri — the female yak — and usually rancid), giving it a taste that most tourists can only endure. My own experience of drinking butter tea in Bhutan, however, was genuinely pleasant. It wasn’t the assault on my palate I’d expected after reading various travel blogs but rather was mild tasting and well blended. There was no slick of melted butter, though the tea was opaque and almost purplish in color. (At least one other westerner — Dave Asprey — had the same good experience of butter tea; after a hiking trip to Tibet, he was inspired in 2009 to create the now-trendy energy drink known as bulletproof coffee, made by mixing coffee, grass-fed butter, and a medium-chain triglyceride oil.)
The traditional way of making po cha (Tibetan) or su ja (Bhutanese) is to simmer loose tea leaves in water for several hours, achieving a dark strong brew. It is then strained and poured into a small cylindrical churn with fresh yak butter and salt, which is used to blend the mixture. In the mountain hut where I first had butter tea, the process was even simpler: a pot of steeped tea was kept warm on the fire. When my host served me, he added a little butter and salt to a bowlful of the tea and then rubbed the handle of a small whisk back and forth in his palms to froth the mixture.
Today, the tea churn has been mostly replaced with blenders. Tea bags and cow’s-milk butter are other modern substitutions, as is adding a little milk powder, if desired. In making butter tea, the strength of the brew is up to you.
- 1 quart (4 cups) water
- 2 tea bags (black tea)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon milk powder (optional)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Heat the water to a boil in a 2-quart pot. Remove from heat, add the tea, and let steep at least 3 minutes — longer if you like strong tea.
- Remove the tea bags and add the salt to the tea. Add the milk powder, if desired. Pour the tea into a blender, add the butter and blend for about 2 minutes until very frothy and well mixed. Serve immediately.
Reprinted with permission from Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova and published by Algonquin Books, 2017.