For Tibetans, food is mainly tsampa, yak and sheep meat, various dairy products and butter, grey flour (usually a buckwheat flour called nas), vegetables, butter tea, and wine made from nas. Several of these are special items and are discussed below.
Tsampa: The main staple grain for the Tibetans is nas, a wheat-like crop grown in high mountains and plateaus. To make this into flour, whole grain kernels are dried and roasted, then ground. This flour is then pan- fried to yield a product they call tsampa. This is also sometimes referred to as fried nas flour. Tsampa is used in many ways, such as to make a congee which can be mixed with fried soybeans, cheese, butter, and salt. Tsampa can also be mixed with butter-tea, butter, or ground pieces of brick tea. When mixed with butter, it is most often formed into a flat shape, sort of a thick pie ready for serving.
Made this way or into a ball, tsampa is a type of convenience foods for monks and others. Tsampa balls are often made mixing nas flour with melted butter (crispy oil), cheese powder, and sugar. They can but do not need to include hot butter-tea. These balls are usually slightly flattened to about an inch in thickness. This most important food is used daily, and at banquets, and when Tibetan’s travel, especially for long distance journeys.
Kapse: Another special snack is kapse. This dough uses flour, water, sugar, butter, and red coloring. It is cut into pieces and they are twisted into the shape of a lotus flower. The flower is then fried until it is light yellow. The red color is inside and the light color outside.
Butter-tea: Tibetans have a special churning cylinder for making their butter-tea. First they boil the tea (almost always brick tea) for ten to fifteen minutes or use Darginlin tea boiled for three to four minutes. Next, they remove the tea leaves (brick tea leaves can be re-used two or three times). They then put the tea in the churning device, add butter, salt, and milk and mix for three minutes. It is important to mix using moderate force. After making the tea, they let it stand for a while and then tsampa and other items can be added. The cup used for butter tea is traditionally made of wood.
In Tibet, dairy products are mostly made from yak milk with some cow’s milk. There are three main dairy foods: crispy oil (butter oil), sour milk, and milk solid residues.
Crispy oil: This is made from yak, cow or sheep’s milk. Traditionally, women warm up fresh milk and then transfer it to a wooden barrel. They beat the contents of the barrel several hundred times to separate the oil. This oil is yellow and floats on the top. It is collected in a leather bag, cooled and solidified. When used, it is called 'crispy oil' and is popular in butter-tea and for a traditional pie they make called Tsampa Pie. Crispy oil is also used to stir-fry meat and to make wheat flour pies. Crispy oil made from yak milk is also used to make a Crispy Oil Biscuit, a uniquely-flavored Tibetan staple.
Sour milk: One type of sour milk is made from milk after the removal of the crispy oil. Another type is made from whole milk; this latter kind is considered more nutritious.
Milk solid residue: After making the crispy butter oil, the remaining fluid is boiled, the liquid is then removed and the milk solids left in the container formed pie shape for storage. The solid residue left in the container can be made into cheese. If it is from yak milk, this would be a yak milk cheese. During the step when the milk is boiled, Tibetans often remove the milk film, and similar to making bean curd sheets, they dry it for later use.
Air-dried meat: Tibetan people eat fresh and air dried meat of yak and sheep; they do not make air-dried meat from horse, mule or donkey. They seldom eat goat meat and are forbidden to eat dog meat. Yak and sheep meat are air dried in early winter. By late November the temperature in Tibet is about zero degrees Celsius. Yak and sheep meats, either as whole carcasses or as one-foot long--inch-wide strips, are hung in very well ventilated places and allowed to dry. These dried items can be and are stored for long periods.
Wine: The most famous wine in Tibet is made from a nas grain. It is indispensable for holidays and banquets. When making this wine, the grains are washed and cooked. Then, after cooling, the nas is transferred to a porcelain jar or a wooden barrel. A wine starter (usually yeast) is added and the contents are mixed with some water. The top is covered and the grain is allowed to ferment for two or three days. Fresh water is added and the fermentation continues for another day or two. At that time, the process is considered finished. The wine is consumed that way or it can be distilled to make a liquor with higher alcohol content.