Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tibetan tea, tea cups and blenders

©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

While working on some Tibet articles today I came across this colorful image of lidded teacups, which I took in a village home between Gyantse and Shigatse. Tibetans love their tea as much as the English do and a good cuppa is always offered to any guest. Butter tea is called po cha or cha süma in Tibetan ("churned tea") and su you cha in standard Chinese. It's customary to flick into the air a little tea gathered on your fingertip before drinking. In this way you honor both the gods and your host. 

Two fallacies that many people think are true about Tibetans:

1) "That they prefer their tea with rancid yak butter." Not at all. They prefer fresh butter of the best quality if they can afford it. On the other hand, yak butter has a naturally "gamey" taste to it so bland Lurpak it definitely is not.

2) "That they drink up to 60 or 80 cups of tea per day." Tibetans do drink a lot of tea, but they CANNOT possibly drink 60 - 80 cups of tea a day as some travel writers like to say. Each cup is 2 dl of very filling, thick buttery liquid. Do the math and see that this is just physically impossible. It would mean drinking 12 to 16 liters of liquid a day and a cup of tea every 16 minutes in a 16 hour waking day.  80 healthy sips is more like it, as most Tibetans take a sip then set the cup down, whereupon it is immediately topped up by the ever vigilant host. 

Interesting fact: Most modern Tibetans who have access to electricity churn their butter tea in electric blenders and not in the traditional churns that the nomads use. For large gatherings even a washing machine might be used solely for the purpose of making large quantities of tea! (I've heard that many rural Chinese use their washing machines to wash vegetables.)

And to all you business school smarty-pants out there, the above mentioned blender is the in-thing among Tibetans, a much coveted household object that both rich and poor alike own or want to own. On my street here in the Tibetan section of Chengdu, several shops sell a very basic model and I have seen blenders in every Tibetan home I have visited in recent years. (For some reason all of them seem to be yellow in color.) Some genius saw and interpreted this basic need and marketed it: very smart. This, along with the cheap, common, large thermos - which I will stick my neck out and say is one of the greatest contributions the Chinese have made to Tibetan society as a whole - are consumer goods that obviously made it straight to the heart and needs of the Tibetan people. I also love it when someone figures out a simple, affordable solution that alleviates the daily chores that usually fall on the women of the world. 

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