Sunday, June 12, 2011

Butter Tea

Those that travel with me to Bhutan are for the most part impressed with all things pertaining to the country. And almost across the board they are unimpressed with even the mention of the words 'butter tea'. I think to our English speaking ears and USA nurtured palates, these 2 words, unobjectionable and inoffensive on their own conjure up some vile flavor that no one wants their taste buds to experience.

It usually takes my clients a full week in Bhutan before they'll consider trying butter tea. I have to slowly ease them into this, yet another of many Bhutanese experiences and this I tell you is the one that is hardest one to convince them to try. The climb up to Tiger's Nest Monastery, the most difficult endeavor that many have undertaken in years, and a strenuous hike even for those who are accustomed to physical activity is an easier sell than butter tea, or suuchaa as the Bhutanese call it.

So what is it? It's a collection of various locally foraged wild herbs, so first you need to think herb tea and not caffeinated black tea.  These herbs are packed into bundles, about the size of a loaf of bread, though the shape of a brick. Black in color, and sold in the local markets (where most Bhutanese buy most everything pertaining to food, there are no supermarkets and just a few small markets). It's brewed with water, and then butter is added, from a yak or a cow, but far more common from a cow, as cows are more common. Added to this is not sugar but salt. The amounts vary according to the whim and taste of the person making the suuchaa, same as your coffee might not taste like the stuff I brew, but anyone will still recognize it as coffee. There's not pronounced smell to it, so in this respect it's unlike coffee, no heady aroma. It's high in fat and there was a time when Bhutanese needed this fat as fuel, living a hard life in the cold mountains, without lots of variety in foodstuffs. These days city dwellers don't need this high fat and protein drink to fortify them for a day of labor in the cold mountain air, but for generations they did, and the liking for butter tea remains, understandably strong.

So what's it taste like? Pretty tame, like broth, a sort of salty vegetable broth, beige, buff or even reddish in color. Had suuchaa been translated as broth or soup (salted herb consome), no one would hesitate a moment before tasting the stuff. By the time I'm able to convince my groups to try it, they've worked up a mental image of something they are going to hate, so they're generally surprised at how inoffensive it is. Some decide they like it, and then ask for it, in lieu of coffee or black tea in the morning. This usually scores them some point among the Bhutanese servers, accustomed to foreigners vigorously refusing offers of suuchaa.

It's a product that will need rebranding to make it in the USA. Bhutanese salted herb consome, you heard it here first.


  1. All the rage in the US now is a butter tea derivative, butter coffee or coconut oil coffee. I kid you not. And -- it's very good for your brain. Check out the site bulletproof coffee.

  2. but I thought pocha was salty and suucha was sweet?