TIBET, “YAKLAND”: Amazing Land of Butter Sculptures
Marty Martindale

Some say Tibet is “the roof of the world,” also a “sea of song and dance,” This is where Mt. Everest and the Himalayan mountains stretch 29,000 feet up into crisp, vivid  blue skies. Clear rivers gush from generous sources and beautiful lakes reflect the tranquil spirit of a spiritual people.

There’s not much that’s lavish or self-indulgent in Tibet, except for certain shrines, in this spartan country. Tibet’s rugged geography coupled with hard work and self-discipline is not for everyone. Yet, Tibetans consider their heritage rich, as well as their belief system,  Buddhism.

Their recent history has been disruptive. Their lifestyle choice was isolationism until China invaded and occupied their land in 1950. Soon after an uprising, the Dalai Lama fled to India to live in exile, declaring he wanted autonomy for Tibet. “Whether we like it or not,” he urged, “we have to live side-by-side, — the Tibetans and the Chinese. We must follow nonviolence.”

Tibet is extremely yak-dependent. This wild, shaggy-haired ox, is central to Tibetan culture. Worth more alive than dead, these pack, draft and saddle animals yield excellent milk, from which butter is made, and fat in a cold climate is  essential in everyone’s diet. And, the yak’s usefulness doesn’t stop with dairy products. Every yak organ appears in favorite dishes; Its flesh is excellent roasted or dried.  Externally, a yak’s hair is spun into rope and cloth; yak hide is used for leather.

Barbara Banks’ story, “A Tibetan Picnic,” in the book, Travelers’ Tales, describes her mid-feast thoughts while dining on a large yak meal prepared by a former chef to the Dalai Lama. She states, “… soon we came to the grim realization that … we were going to eat NOTHING BUT yak, from snout to tail and everything in-between.”

Culturally, Buddhists cannot slaughter or witness the slaughter of animals; but they can and do eat animal flesh as long as they are not responsible for the animal’s death. The Buddha, himself, ate meat. The same goes for fowl, silkworms and shellfish.

Probably their most spectacular celebration is the Tibetan Festival of the Butter Gods, which is an excellent example of geographic abundance. In her book, “Much Depends on Dinner,” Margaret Visser describes the spiritual celebration: “Immense panels of [high]-relief panels representing Buddhist deities and mythical subjects [are] carved in yak butter by scores of lamas … taking months. The multi-colored carvings are amazingly intricate. Tibetans’ dependence  upon their yak herds is typical of pastoralists (shepherds), the original ‘butter-eaters’ the world over.”

Even vultures eat well in Tibet. They assist in death observances, called “sky burials.” Special funeral priests cut up deceased people the night before massive winged birds lift body pieces skyward at dawn. The logic here is wood is too scarce for cremation and graves impossible to dig up on high, frozen plateaus. Believers feel this ritual hastens the ascent of body/spirit to a higher place.

Festivals in this land do not include a heavy emphasis on eating. Annually, their new year is ushered in with families making special fried cookies, called kha-zas.

The warmer Tibetan valleys produce a wide range of green and leafy vegetables. Staple crops are millet, buckwheat, hemp and mustard. This, however, is a country which must import its most popular drink which is tea.


·      CHINESE TEA: made with tea, salt, soda and yak butter in a wooden tea churn. Sometimes, it’s made by individuals in the bottom of their own partially-finished teacup.

·      COLD DISHES: yak stomach, air-dried beef, mutton or blood blood sausage, sheep marrow

·      HOT DISHES:  fried sheep lung, yak tongue, beef stew with turnip, wild duck with insect-plant, beef and potato with curry sauce, braised ox tenders

·      PAG CAKE: careful mixture of tsamba, tea, butter and sugar

·      SAUSAGES:  blood, meat, flour and liver

·      SPLIT PEA PANCAKES borrowed from Napal, also  pickled vegetable greens borrowed from India.

·      TSAMBA:  this is a toasted grain used in drinks, soup and special tea.

·      TUBO:  a savory gruel with tsamba, dried meat and a tuber called “yuangen”

·      YOE:  popular popped grain cereal product

Adapted from Wagmo’s cookbook: “Ngotsa manang ne choe”  – “ Eat Shamelessly.”

KONGPO SHAPTAK (Kongpo-style Browned Beef, serves 4)

  • 1 lb.                 Top round beef
  • 2 tbsp             oil
  • 1                        large red onion chopped coarsely
  • ½ tsp              paprika
  • 2 cloves         garlic, chopped
  • 1 inch             ginger, chopped
  • ¼ tsp              ground emmo (can substitute Chinese Five Star Powder)
  • 1                        tomato, chopped roughly
  • 1 ½ tbsp        churu, or crumbled blue cheese
  • 1 cup               water
  • 1                         jalapeno pepper, sliced

Cut beef into thin slices, 1/8 inch by 1 inches.

Heat pan, add oil, fry onion until brown with paprika, garlic, ginger and emmo. Add beef and stir-fry until cooked. Add tomato and cheese and cook until cheese melts. Add water and chilies, cooking two to three more minutes. Serve with bread, or over rice.

For more butter sculpture information visit:

Recommended reading:
by Tsering Wangmo and Zara Houshmand
Snow Lion Publications, Incorporated

© Copyright 2001, Marty Martindale, Largo FL

Latse Contemporary Tibetan Cultura Library
132 Perry Street
New York, NY 10014

Marty Martindale

About Marty Martindale

Foodsite Magazine and Marty aim to help the cooking-challenged avoid dependence on others due to lack of cooking knowhow. We concentrate on quick breakfasts, portable lunches and “good-4-u” night meals. With readily available web translation, the magazine explains separate foods, a little of their history, their nutrition, suggested “go-withs,” serving ideas and links to foodsites with recipes.

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