Olive Magazine
Three bowls of white rice, a man preparing food and a bag of roasted barley flour

Cook like a local: Tibet

Published: February 28, 2022 at 10:14 am

From sweet ceremonial rice to tongue-tingling chilli condiments – explore the complex flavours of this Himalayan region

Want to learn about Tibetan food? Looking for Tibetan recipes? Read Julie Kleeman's guide below, then listen to our podcast about the 10 things you need to know about Tibetan food and culture. We also have the best Sichuan ideas and Chinese recipes to try.


Recipes extracted from Taste Tibet: Family Recipes from the Himalayas by Julie Kleeman with Yeshi Jampa (£25, Murdoch Books). Photographs by Ola O Smit.

The average elevation of the Tibetan Plateau is 4,000 metres above sea level, an environment in which only the hardiest crops can survive. During winter, fresh food can be hard to come by and some Tibetans live off dried yak meat and tsampa (roasted barley flour). Barley thrives at high altitude and tsampa is the Tibetan staple and one of nature’s best energy foods.

Tibetan New Year, or Losar, heralds the end of the arid winter season and is typically marked by days of music, dancing and feasting. The first dish to be served on New Year’s Day is dresil, a sweet rice dish. The Tibetan cuisine is designed to warm hands and bellies, and features plenty of noodles and dumplings, often in a boiling broth. Seasonal vegetables and red meat make their way in, too, and fiery sepen – a hot chilli condiment infused with tongue-tingling yerma, or Sichuan peppercorns – is always within arm’s reach.

Mealtimes are not complete without tea, which Tibetans drink copious amounts of. Yak butter is usually added to the brew, along with salt and sometimes dried cheese. During Losar the tipple of choice is chang (barley beer) – it is also a part of the ritual Losar offering. Tibetans place it on a bonfire of juniper alongside butter and tsampa, releasing a fragrant smoke that is said to create a pathway to the Buddha.

Tibetan recipes

Sha balep (Tibetan pasties)

Sha balep (literally, ‘meat breads’) are widely and wildly loved by Tibetans. In central Tibet many people eat them for breakfast but they are more typically served for lunch or dinner, usually with a soup side.

Sepen (hot chilli dip)

This fiery dip can be used as the basis of many different chilli sauces, and is the perfect accompaniment to most Tibetan dishes. Because it’s a fairly dry mixture you can store it in the fridge for many months.

A bowl of fiery red chilli dip

Dresil (ceremonial rice)

In Tibet the colour white is highly valued as a symbol of purity and good fortune. Tibetans present each other with white khata (scarves) on meeting or bidding farewell – these symbolise the pure heart of the giver. This goes some way to explain why dresil, a sweet, white-coloured rice dish, is the first food to be made and offered on Tibetan New Year’s Day, usually alongside su-cha (butter tea).

3 bowls of white rice studded with unsalted cashews and golden raisins

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