A spoonful of salt, butter

The Ladakhi way to beat the cold

By Ravleen Kaur
Published: Monday 15 February 2010

A spoonful of salt, butter

imageIn the chilly month of December when nerves freeze and hands shiver, there is nothing more comforting than a hot cup of tea. But even the spiciest and strongest brew would fail at 3,500 metres above sea level, where temperatures plunge below -20°C in a ruthless winter. People in the Himalayan region, the highest mountain range in the world, know how to beat this cold—with a cup of warm gurgur cha.

The beverage, also called butter tea, is a must in Ladakh and the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh, including Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti. But don’t get misled by the name; the beverage is not made from tea leaves. Instead, it is a heady concoction of milk, yak butter, salt and an infusion prepared from plants available in the Himalayan region.

“In the winters when all businesses shut in the valley, we sit with a flask of gurgur cha and knit socks,” said Norsing Lamo. She runs a tea stall in the only market in Leh, the largest town of Ladakh.

Gurgur cha keeps the body warm in the high altitudes of Ladakh; it prevents chapped lips and flaky skin from cold dry wind

The main ingredient of the  cha is the infusion prepared from chathang leaves or yamdal  bark. The plant used differs from region to region depending on the altitude. People in Ladakh, for instance, prepare the concentrate from fresh leaves of chathang, usually found in the upper reaches of the Himalaya.

“The leaves impart a subtle flavour to the beverage,” said Wangchuk, the manager of Shamba-la hotel in Leh. “They also protect against cold and fever, and help reduce flatulence,” he added. The leaves are boiled and then allowed to simmer for seven to eight hours.

The concentrate is then skimmed and stored for preparing gurgur cha. Preparing the beverage is an elaborate procedure. So, the concentrate is usually prepared in large quantities to last for three to four days.

High tea
Ingredients (for three cups)

Milk: 2 cups
Concentrate: 1 cup
Yak butter: 3 tablespoons
Salt: 1 teaspoon
Soda: 1 pinch

Add milk to the concentrate and boil it. Pour it into a cylindrical wooden mixer, called the dombu. Add yak butter, salt and soda to it and plunge it with a plunger attached to the dombu. The salted butter tea is ready. Soda gives the beverage a pinkish tinge.

While plunging, the dombu produces a sound, from which the beverage derives its name. The cha is usually served in shallow china or copper cups, called zombat, and should not be served piping hot.
People in Kinnaur prefer using the yamdal bark. They roast the bark and grind it before boiling it in water.

“One can drink as many cups of gurgur cha in a day as one wants. It has no ill effects; in fact, it protects from heart diseases,” said Nawang Raftan, an octogenarian in Leh.

“Earlier, in Kinnaur gurgur cha was the first thing to be served to guests. We used to add ground walnuts and wild flowers like pauu for an exotic flavour,” recalled Tejwant Negi, an mla of Kinnaur. But people these days like regular tea. “The region is not as cold as it used to be. Probably that’s why people can afford to shift from gurgur cha,” he added.




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