I love new food. I love trying things I’d never heard of before and experiencing flavors I’d never known existed. I named this blog Malatang after my first experience eating Sichuanese cuisine and tasting the tingly, mouth-numbing pepper called huajiao. It was completely new to me, and I loved it.

I’ve just had another Malatang Moment.

After a week traveling in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan, I was introduced to a brand new culinary tradition. Sometimes it even challenged my notions of what “food” and “drink” even mean.

The staples of a Tibetan diet are barley and yak milk. Tibetans live in some of the harshest climates in the world, which means that fresh produce is scarce, variety is limited, and a high caloric intake is necessary for survival.

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The most common beverage is yak butter tea, which I think I drank almost every day while traveling in this region. It’s a hot beverage made from black brick tea steeped in water and churned with yak butter and salt. The tea is usually served in a beautiful metal pot and drunk from bowls. Tibetan people drink dozens and dozens of bowls of this stuff every day, similar to the way many Americans drink coffee, or to the way my family inhales Earl Grey tea morning and night. I can see the appeal of yak butter tea in such a cold climate—it’s hot, rich, and filling—but first I had to get over the psychological barrier of drinking something salty. It also tastes rather stinky. You know how goat cheese tastes goaty? Well, yak butter definitely tastes yaky. I almost spit out my first sip.

And yet, I hated the fact that I didn’t like a flavor that was beloved by an entire ethnic group. Since I hadn’t grown up on it, I simply wasn’t used to it. I therefore decided to drink yak butter tea at every opportunity I could, in the hope that I could teach myself to like it. I have done this successfully in the past with mushrooms and blue cheese (I’m still working on dill), so why couldn’t I now? One week later, I am proud to say that I don’t hate yak butter tea. It helped that the first one I tried was by far the stinkiest. Every other cup I drank afterwards was much milder. I still don’t want to drink it at every meal, but I can appreciate a little bit on a cold morning. Success!

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Moving on, the most common staple food for Tibetans is called tsampa/zanba, which consists of roasted barley flour mixed (with your fingers) with a hunk of yak butter and some yak butter tea to make a kind of dough. This is then eaten with your hands. I’d say it’s most analogous to eating raw pie dough, or maybe biscuit dough, something that consists of flour and butter and not much else. I only tried it once. It didn’t taste bad, per se…but again, I think I’d need to eat it a few more dozen times before I could start to really enjoy it. Although it isn’t technically raw, since the barley is roasted, there’s something about eating dough as an entire meal that just seems wrong to a western girl who always had to sneak licks from the cookie bowl.

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Besides tsampa and yak butter tea, the other Tibetan dishes I tried were much easier for my western palate to accept. We ate a delicious yak cheese that tasted similar to feta, which we dipped in sugar before eating. We had several different kinds of barley flatbread, meat dumplings called momos, yak meat hotpot, and many rice and vegetable dishes that were probably Han-influenced.

All-in-all, we only encountered one tiny corner of the Tibetan world, and I hope someday to explore more of their unique culture and cuisine. It was interesting to experience a diet so severely restricted by the limits of the natural environment. But then, when you’re surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, who has time to think about food?

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The village of Yubeng, located in the Meli Snow Mountain range, is accessible only by foot or horseback.

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