Yak meat and milk have long been the two main Tibetan food staples, and remain the two most prominent items on most restaurant menus. Traditional Tibetan dishes include hearty thukpa noodle soup, steamed tingmo bread, and steamed or fried momos, meat and vegetable dumplings. Brutally hot chilli sauce washed down with yak butter tea is typically the only condiment accompanying these items.
Ironically, high quality restaurants serving Tibetan are easier to find in the neighboring Chinese province of Sichuan than in Tibet itself. Even the traditional dishes on most Tibetan restaurants in Lhasa are outnumbered by pancakes, spaghetti, pizza, and other Western food.
Traditional tea houses, on the other hand, are ubiquitous. Most Westerners find the sweet tea on the menus of tea houses in larger communities to be a more palatable alternative to the salty yak butter tea, which the locals call pocha. The churned yak butter added to black tea is often described as closer to Roquefort or blue cheese than the butter most Westerners are familiar with.
Another uniquely Tibetan drink is a barley beer called chang. Although this frequently home brewed beer’s strength and taste may vary dramatically, its flavor is generally lighter than most Western bottled beer. As the yeast in chang is still alive, it continues to ferment and make alcohol in a drinker’s stomach. The yeast does, however, prevent bacteria from multiplying.
Many isolated villages contain surprisingly good quality Chinese restaurants. The Chinese restaurants where crescent moons and green flags are prominently displayed are owned by ethnic Chinese Muslims known as Hui and abide by traditional Muslim halal food laws.
The most practical food supplies on mountain excursions are instant noodles and a roasted barley flour called tsampa, which can be eaten two different ways. Tsampa can be mixed with sugar, water, and milk powder for a high energy snack or prepared with salt, butter, and tea for a more savory taste.