How to eat like a local in Tibetan China

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Visiting Tibetan China without sampling tsampa is a bit like going to Beijing and skipping the roast duck. Made from roasted barley flour, tsampa is incredibly healthy. It's the staple diet for many Tibetans, and if you stay with monks in a monastery it could well be the only food on offer.

That's fine so long as it's pre-prepared for you and kneaded into bite-sized pieces. But in more remote places, or in monasteries, you'll be presented with what looks like a bowl of sawdust. And you'll be expected to tuck in.

The trick is to mix that sawdust (the barley flour) with the blob of yak butter and warm butter-tea that's underneath it. The catch? You've got to do it with nothing but your fingers. Believe me, it's easier said than done.

I'm been traveling in western Sichuan for weeks now, but that clearly doesn't make me a tsampa expert, so if you've got any tsampa-eating tips, I'd love to hear them. In the meantime, here's my beginner's guide to eating one of the simplest dishes on the planet:

1. Ingredients: barley flour, yak butter, yak-butter tea

Related article: Bunk with the monks in Tibetan Sichuan
All you need for the perfect bowl of tsampa

Step 1, the ingredients.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

2. Stick a blob of butter, a bit of tea and a few spoonfuls of barley flour into your tsampa bowl.

Ready for mixing

Step 2, combine ingredients.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

3. Use two fingers to press the flour down into the warm tea below it. Keep twisting the bowl round as you press.

The "press"

Step 3, press.  Image by Daniel McCohan / Lonely Planet.

4. Cup your hand sideways to squeeze the mix together, again twisting your bowl.

Cupping your tsampa

Step 4, squeeze.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

5. Finally, get stuck in with your whole fist and squeeze the tsampa mix tightly, again twisting the bowl so that the whole mixture is well kneaded.

Get stuck in

Step 5, get stuck in.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

Don't worry if your hand looks like this:

The goo

Coming together nicely.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

... because everything suddenly falls into place.

Good enough to eat

The finished tsampa mixture.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

6. Finally, mould the dough into sausage-shaped pieces, and tuck in.

Oh yes

Enjoy with yak-butter tea.  Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

Tsampa is a bit dry on its own, so you'll find a pot of yak-butter tea makes the perfect accompaniment. You'll be addicted to both before you know it.

Daniel McCrohan is researching the 12th edition of the China guidebook.