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The Importance of Ladakhi Butter Tea

I first encountered the unique tradition of Ladakhi butter tea during an early morning puja (prayer) at a local monastery. As the hour long ritual reached its midpoint, the monks poured us all cups of an unfamiliar beverage that I would soon begin to recognize as butter tea. Butter tea is exactly the combination of food products that it sounds like, and at first, I was not sure what to make of it. I stared into my cup and saw bits of the oil swirling on the surface, as it refused to mix with the tea-infused water down below. Despite its polarities, however, I had no idea that butter tea was about to become a balancing force of nature in my life.

My second encounter with butter tea happened as soon as I stepped through the door of my homestay family’s house in a Himalayan village known as “Thar.” My homestay mother poured us cups of butter tea upon our arrival, as we sat together, doing our best to learn about each other despite difficulties presented by our Ladakhi-English language barrier. After this first afternoon together, however, butter tea became a daily ritual, something we could both enjoy without a copious amount of verbal communication. As the days progressed, this drink became a central part of my days in Thar, and I was curious to discover the reasoning behind taking a large slab of butter, as well as salt and sugar, and dropping them into a cup of perfectly normal tea. This unique process spurred many unique theories in my imagination, however, none were quite as clever as what turned out to be the original logic. Butter tea, as it turns out, was made with the intention of speeding up the body’s biological process of acclimatization to altitude. The tea itself is very hydrating, while the salt in the butter and added sugars help to replenish rapidly dwindling electrolytes. The butter itself, something that had quickly grown to be my favorite part of the drink, acts as a natural moisturizer to dry and cracked lips.

I was immediately thrilled with the homeopathic genius behind butter tea, especially as I started to feel noticeably revitalized after drinking it. What really took me by surprise, however, were the changes I noticed in my own mental psyche as I continued the daily ritual of butter tea with my homestay mother. One day, as we sat together sipping our tea, I realized that I could not remember a time when my only obligation in any given moment, was to simply sit silently while enjoying a hot beverage. The opportunity to simply sit with another human being and reflect on myself opened my eyes to a necessary process that I had been sorely missing in my life. Just two weeks ago, the idea of sitting in silence with nothing but a cup of tea and my own thoughts would have scared me half to death. I never realized it, but my busy life at home was always a perfect excuse for me to avoid reflecting on uncomfortable, but important themes in my inner life. This strange, oily, beverage, full of fatty acids and electrolytes, had done so much more for me than I ever could have imagined. It had begun to connect me to a new culture, as well as a new family, and made both my body and mind feel at peace in this new environment.

Many people like to say, that you cannot truly appreciate something until you no longer have it. I believe, however, that this saying works both ways. I never fully understood the harm that my busy life caused me, until I no longer had the option to engage in it. This strange mountain tea, as well as the kindness my homestay mother had to offer it to me, gave me an incredible gift. Being given the time to sit quietly and reflect, without the obligations of my busy life running through my head was something that I will never truly be able to repay. Butter tea forced me to confront the fact that I, like many modern people, rarely allot enough time for self- care and reflection. I did not understand quite how important this was until I had no choice but to sit down on a rug in front of a low table, and drink this strange, wonderful drink presented to me out of the kindness of strangers.

P.S. Happy Birthday Charlie!