Warming a chilly Leeward morning

Bocha (aka Pocha): Tibetan butter tea
Bocha (aka Pocha): Tibetan butter tea

For the last month or so I’ve been thinking about a tea we tried last January when we took a quick trip to the Pacific Northwest to visit my brother’s family. Wouldn’t you know it, it was the coldest days they had had there in 30 years or something. The roads were icy, the wind bit through our wool coats, clouds hung practically on our heads, and only the bravest of souls were out. On a drive back to our hotel, we happened on a Tibetan restaurant, Lungta. Never having had Tibetan cuisine before, it was a no-brainer that we would stop and try it. The food was exquisite, with some of the most subtle and delicious seasoning I’ve ever encountered. But the true revelation was the unusual butter tea. On the menu it was called Bocha, and was described as “lightly buttered, salted & churned with milk.” We asked our waitress about it and she gave us fair warning that most people don’t like it on first taste, but that it was sort of the national drink in her country. She also said it was very “warming.” On such a day, it sounded like it might be a winner. (You have to figure that Tibetans know a little something about how to keep warm in bitter weather.) She soon produced large mugs of a milky tea with a trace of butter on the surface.

First sip: OK, that’s different — I’ve never had salt in my tea before, and I rarely add milk to tea either. But the spread of heat down and through the chest was a welcome sensation, and certainly worth a second sip. By the third sip, we were both hooked and loving the “heatiness” it provided — it was more than just the physical sensation of drinking a warm beverage, it was a warmth that went down to your toes. Before we left we asked the proprietor about the Bocha, and what special type of tea she used. She was genuinely surprised we liked the tea, and was kind enough to bring out a brick of dark pungent leaves to show us. We asked if it was something we could find in a shop nearby, but she told us she didn’t know of a source, and said that friends send her the tea. So that was that. Nice experience, recommended Tibetan cuisine to any one who cares about good food, and soon returned to Oahu.

Eight months later and I’m craving this butter tea. It’s not exactly cold here, but lately after midnight the temperature has been dropping below … 70°F/21°C!! I know folks on the Mainland and elsewhere will have little sympathy for us, but that’s pretty cool temperatures for around here. : – )

I found a few recipes for butter tea on the web, but the most helpful was from the Tibetan Assn. of Northern California at Lobsang’s Tibetan recipes. On this site it is called Po Cha and the recipe seems straightforward enough: you need black tea, salt, butter and full-cream milk. And a chandong, or churn for making tea. (If anyone knows where I can get one of these, please let me know!) The original Bocha is made with yak butter or milk, but we were a bit short on that so we went with unsalted butter from cow’s milk.

I’m not much of a black tea drinker, except as iced tea, so in deciding on a tea to use I opted for the kind I used to send my tea-loving mother by the bags full — Lipton’s Yellow Label black tea. This was not available on Guam, so wherever we have lived, one of my first missions was always to seek out a new source of Yellow Label to keep mom supplied. These are available in Oriental shops, especially Chinese groceries, everywhere we have lived except here in Hawaii. Fortunately the Indian grocery carries 2 types of Yellow Label, the regular one, and another that is produced in India (shown here). But plain black tea just didn’t smell as fragrant and earthy as I remembered the tea brick at Lungta being. One site I found mentioned using Pu-erh tea instead of black tea, so I used a mix of 1/3 Pu-erh and 2/3 Yellow Label.
Pu-erh teaYellow Label black tea
First we made a double strength tea (2 heaping TBL black, and 1 heaping TBL pu-erh, simmered with 4 cups water and reduced to 2 cups liquid). Then added 1 TBL butter, 1/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 cup half-and-half. And since I don’t have a chandong (yet) and I’m a little leery of spinning hot liquids in closed containers at high speed, I opted to use a stick blender. This step emulsifies the butter into the tea.
Blending to emulsify butter

Now what to nibble with this delicious heat-y tea? Seemed a good opportunity to try something from all those new recipes collected from the World Bread Day round-up. Something that wouldn’t require turning on the full oven. In the end, we went with Hannah’s vegetarian butterscotch bread, with the following adjustments. There was no vegetarian butterscotch pudding mix to be found at either of Oahu’s 2 main health food shops so I turned to my over-stocked pantry to see what I had for substitutes. We had a powdered flan mix that comes with its own caramel sauce: the ingredient list had no gelatin so I hope it qualifies as vegetarian.

Soy milk disagrees with both of us, but we do use almond milk, and Hannah emailed to say it was an acceptable substitute for soy (Thanks, Hannah!). I only have olive oil for cooking and baking, so I substituted an equal amount for the canola in Hannah’s recipe. Also, I used less sugar because I wanted to use the liquid caramel flavoring from the flan mix for the extra flavoring. As much as I hated to, I omitted the chocolate chips ONLY because we’re making this to complement the butter tea and it didn’t seem like the chocolate would mesh well with the salty tea.

Bocha and Butterscotch bread

The Verdict

The tea was delicious and hit the right notes from our memory of that first taste of Bocha. It is a very rich and filling tea, thanks to the half and half and butter, of course. Not something you really want to drink on a regular basis unless you have a chance to work it off outdoors in a cold clime. It would make a great pre-ski or pre-Volkswanderung drink. I wouldn’t recommend adding a sweetener to this beverage, and if you aren’t used to drinking tea without a sweetener, you might literally find this tea hard to swallow. You may want to have sweet cake or cookie on the side to round out your experience.

The bread was a super moist loaf with a great chewy crust and delicious caramely butterscotchy flavor. T admits that he is not a big fan of vegetarian baking (he usually passes on treats at the health food bakery), but he was the first to say how pleasantly surprised he was by how flavorful, light and moist this quick bread is. The mild sweetness was a perfect counterpoint to the salty rich tea.

Here is the final recipe, with the original quantities/ingredients noted in parentheses.

Butterscotch bread

Butterscotch Bread

(Original by Hannah, as adapted by manju)

1 cup/ 250ml almond milk (Soymilk)
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup/ 145g granulated brown sugar, aka “raw” sugar or demerara (1 cup/190g sugar)
1/4 cup/ 60 ml. olive oil (canola oil)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Caramel flavoring packet from flan mix
1 cup/ 100g all-purpose flour (1 ½ cup/ 150g)
1 cup/ 90g whole wheat pastry flour (½ cup/ 45g)
1 2.75 oz. package Goya flan mix (Dr. Oetker’s butterscotch pudding)
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
(optional) ½ cup chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven 350F/ 180C. Butter/oil loaf pan.

In large mixing bowl, add vinegar to almond milk and set aside to curdle.

In separate bowl, combine both flours, flan mix powder, baking soda and powder and salt, and sift well together.

Beat vinegar/milk mixture until frothy. Add sugar, oil, vanilla and caramel packet and beat again until sugar dissolves.

Slowly add dry ingredients to wet, mixing well after each incorporation. Pour into prepared pan and bake 35-50 minutes, depending on your pan, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cool in pan 15 minutes, then on rack until completely cool. Use serrated knife to slice.