A spoonful of salt, butter

The Ladakhi way to beat the cold

by Ravleen Kaur, Leh and Kinnaur

In 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.

“Chunks of yak butter in the cha provide energy that keeps the body warm at such a high altitude. Yak butter also helps prevent chapped lips and flaky skin from cold dry winds,” she said. “But people these days prefer using packaged butter instead of yak butter.”

But why add salt to it? Lamo explained with a grin: “Till a few years ago, people had cultural reluctance to have a toilet within the house, and the cold winds would make it difficult to go out for urination. Salt, instead of sugar, in the drink helps absorb excess water from the body and reduces thirst, thereby preventing frequent urination.”

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.

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. 
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
560 words