And so, on the first cold morning of October, a morning so cold that no one dared any longer to wear shorts and flip-flops on the morning dog walk, I made hot butter tea. I had made a mental note to do so ever since reading the first scene of “The Oldest Boy,” with the following exchange:
LAMA: Very good tea! Just like in Tibet. How did you learn to make real butter tea?
MOTHER: My mother-in-law taught me. She went back to Nepal because she said she wanted to die in a place where the tea tasted familiar. With salt. And butter.
It was the second time I had tasted this comforting brew, or po cha. The first took place only a few days previously. I wanted to prep myself by experiencing a fairly authentic version of the beverage, as authentic as one can achieve, in New York, without using butter and milk from the yak, which in Tibet are called “dri.” I had no illusions that I could find this ingredient, even in Brooklyn, which prides itself on the availability of artisanal everything. Even so, I called up the Park Slope Food Coop, where a nice young woman asked around the dairy section before reporting that, no, she was sorry, but there was no yak butter for sale. She added that she thought the store should stock this product in future, in solidarity with “the Tibetan people’s struggle.”
For my initial fix I went to Café Himalaya, in the East Village. I had planned to order only tea, but the lack of NYU students with laptops told me that the place was more restaurant than hang-out, and thus it would be rude to take up space without also ordering food. I selected “tsel momo,” which are traditional Tibetan steamed dumplings. They were quite tasty. I requested that the tea come with my dessert, deysee, which is warm sweet rice pudding with raisins and yogurt. This was a mistake. Tea with honey or coffee with sugar would have enhanced the sweetness of the deysee, whereas po cha with it was a bit like washing down apple pie with chicken broth.
That’s the thing about “po cha.” It’s less like a cup of Lipton than like a slightly viscous soup, although many Westerners make butter tea with Lipton, since the traditional method involves steeping black tea for several hours to form a concentrate known as chaku, which is then combined with butter and salt in a tall cylindrical wooden churn until the mixture is smooth.
The po cha I had at Café Himalaya was soothing: I was prepared for the savory, fat-laced flavor, so experienced no shock to the palate. The same cannot be said to some Western visitors to remote areas of Tibet, where yak butter may be stored in such a way to impart a taste to the tea that strikes some Westerners as, well, pungent.
When I made po cha, it was not pungent at all. I used the following recipe, given to me by another diner at Café Himalaya, a Tibetan-American named Choden with whom I struck up a conversation:
Boil six cups of water. Steep a tablespoon of black tea in it for 5 minutes.
Strain. Add 2 tablespoons of butter, and blend in a blender with a quarter teaspoon of salt until well mixed. Serve with warm half-and-half.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com