While butter tea usually causes confusion in most not familiar with it, it actually has a rich and interesting history. It has been a staple for people living in the Himalayas for centuries and continues to be so.
What Is Butter Tea?
Butter tea has many names in different languages but is commonly known as po cha. It originated in the Tibetan Himalayas but is now commonly enjoyed throughout Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India, western China and Mongolia. To make butter tea, four ingredients are needed: tea leaves, butter, water, and salt.
The History Of Tibetan Butter Tea
While tea was enjoyed throughout Tibet as far back as the 7th century, butter tea didn’t become popular till about the 13th century. Back then, pu-erh tea bricks were brought to Tibet from China along the Tea Horse Road. Butter has always been a staple in Tibetan cuisine, and it was often made from local yak’s milk. Nowadays, it is becoming more widespread to use regular cow’s butter instead of yak butter because of the significant price difference.
The tea is not just a drink in the cold Himalayas — it’s a necessity. The air is very dry, thin, and cold. The locals often spend all day outside working. The fat-filled tea helps keep them warm throughout the day.
Not to mention, the potent pu-erh tea gives tons of energy without the normal crashes that coffee gives. It is a power punch of energy and healthy fats.
Nowadays, with the high cost of yak butter, true butter tea is served only on special occasions and when guests are visiting. Otherwise, people will substitute the yak butter for cow butter or milk.
People of Tibet believe in the medicinal properties of pu-erh tea. They believe that it helps with blood circulation, which is important at high altitudes.
Traditionally, butter tea is enjoyed on several occasions and holidays throughout the Himalayas — for example, baby births, funerals, and during the Lunar New Year.
Monks highly regard butter tea, and it is a common staple at many Himalayan temples. The monks drink it in order to have sufficient energy and nutrition during long chanting hours.
What’s the Best Tea To Use For Making Butter Tea?
Traditionally the tea is made with hei cha. Hei cha is robust, sweet, and mellow. It balances well with the rich creaminess of the milk and butter.
Another great tea to use for po cha nowadays is ripe pu-erh. Much like hei cha, pu-erh is earthy and pleasantly sweet. They share many similar qualities in terms of taste. In addition, it has many great health benefits. Pu-erh is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to aid digestion. This is why it’s such a great breakfast tea in the Himalayas. It gently awakens our digestive system while providing us with energy for the day to come.
In fact, ripe pu-erh is a subcategory of hei cha!
Nowadays, many people turn to Indian black tea or even bagged tea instead of Chinese teas to cut down on costs. If possible, we always recommend using quality loose leaf teas for the best taste.
Other teas, like Chinese black tea (hong cha), is not recommended. Since po cha is boiled first, other teas may become too astringent from prolonged heat exposure.
How To Make Butter Tea - Po Cha?
If making Tibetan tea the traditional way, it’s actually not so easy and requires some time. People of the Himalayas would wake up early, break off some pieces from the pu-erh brick, and start simmering the tea. Sometimes it’s cooked up to a total of six hours. After the tea is cooked, a traditional “butter tea churner” is used to make the butter tea.
The Traditional Way To Make Tibetan Tea:
- Break off several pieces from the pu-erh or hei cha brick using a tea pick
- Boil the tea in a pot with water anywhere up to six hours — the longer, the better*
- Prepare a butter tea churner with yak butter and Himalayan salt
- Strain the tea into the churner
- Churn the tea until smooth and creamy — about the consistency of melted butter
- Pour into cups and enjoy
*This potent tea brew can be kept for as long as a few days. It's used for making dozens of cups of butter tea throughout the day.
In the coldest regions, butter tea is the saltiest. Locals believe that salt helps keep them warm and habitually add more salt in accordance with the dropping temperatures. In warmer regions and especially parts of India — the tea gets noticeably sweeter.
Easy Butter Tea Recipe (Using Good Quality Tea)
- Prepare 4 cups of water and break off a piece of the pu-erh brick or use hei cha tea leaves (about 6 grams)
- Bring the water to a boil and drop in the tea
- Let the tea boil for about 3 minutes (you can adjust the tea quantity and boiling time according to your own preferences)
- Add ¼ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt (or any other salt you may have)
- Strain the tea
- Add ⅓ cup milk and 2 tbsp butter
- Pour the butter tea into a jar with a well-fitting lid or blender and blend/shake until the tea is creamy and frothy (about 2 minutes)
- Pour into cups and enjoy!