The utterly buttery appeal of butter

Tibetans are well-known for their piousness and lesser known for being thorough butter enthusiasts.

Ma, as butter is called in Tibetan, or SoMa, if you prefer to use the honorific term, is a chief occupant in any refrigerator at a Tibetan home and the primary ingredient in many a recipe. If you, per chance, happened to study the contents of such a fridge, it is highly likely that you will find in there more than one variety of butter — salted butter, churned butter, cultured butter, unsalted butter, and ghee.

Many non-Tibetans, who’ve been fooled thus far by the relatively butter-free Momo(s) and Thukpa(s) of Tibetan food, would be horrified to learn that Tibetans use butter liberally in their food. It’s a wonder most Tibetans are not bursting from their seams at the rate at which we dunk dollops of butter into seemingly unsuspecting bowls of soup and the relatively unwary salted Tibetan tea, or Bhoeja.

Butter sculptures -- sacred offerings to the Gods

Butter sculptures — sacred offerings to the Gods

Still, if you thought the uses of butter were restricted solely to eating and flavoring, then you are gravely mistaken. At weddings, house-warming parties, baby showers, prayer ceremonies, rituals and important gatherings, the all-important Mr. Butter would make its way to the most prominent spot in some form or the other — be it in a large slab of 1Kg Amul Butter on the altar, or a plastic container or bottle full of unsalted butter on a table laid out with food, or in the variety of colors, shapes and structures it is molded into as offerings for the Gods during prayer ceremonies.

I was still unfazed by the prominence of butter in the Tibetan world, until it made its presence felt in the most unlikeliest of events and circumstances — my parents, during my wedding, presented my to-be-in-laws with butter, salt and tea to mark the auspicious event and express their gratitude for getting a son in return. Likewise, in the wedding ceremony at my place, my in laws thanked my parents the same way — with butter. Then, as is true with most other ceremonies, butter assumed its rightful place as master of ceremony, accompanied by a packet of salt and a tea brick (called Bag-chung).

Like butter, no important Tibetan ceremony or event is ever complete without the customary serving of the Tibetan ceremonial sweet rich dish, called Dre-sil. Dre-sil also has ample amounts of butter, which, along with the other ingredients (dry fruits and the Droma), turns this simple rice dish into a delicacy in its own right. Dre-sil is usually served with Bhoeja or Tibetan salted tea on the first day of the Tibetan new year or Losar or as breakfast/snack for the devotees during prayer initiations presided over by the Dalai Lama and for the participants at important meetings held by the Central Tibetan Administration or by its representatives in different parts of the world.

I have plenty of memories of my mother scurrying to and fro with last-minute preparations for the first day of the Tibetan New Year or Losar, and of father agreeing to help out by making Dre-sil. My father usually took to this task with a flourish, and I still remember the expression of pure joy on his face as he gently mixed the warm rice with the butter, Droma, raisins, sugar and any other dry fruits, usually cashew nuts. Once he was through, he would take two cup fulls of Dre-sil and place one cup, face down, over the other, holding it firmly that way until he was sure that the rice from the cup at the top had settled securely above the Dre-sil in the cup below. He would then gently remove the cup at the top and produce an almost-regal-looking-cup-shaped Dre-sil that appeared to be placed precariously atop a cup full of rice.

Dre-sil or Tibetan ceremonial rice dish

Dre-sil or Tibetan ceremonial rice dish — This one was made by Pala

Having said that, I sometimes feel my mother takes this obsession with butter to a whole new level. Unlike most Tibetans, my mother’s fascination with butter extends to Momos as well, albeit the vegetarian ones. Many a Chura (cheese) Momo-making session involved my mother telling me to put a little bit of butter on the flattened do
ugh before adding the Chura filling. Initially I found the process tedious and failed to see the necessity of adding this extra layer to an already time-consuming project I knew to be Momo-making. However, I soon discovered the delicious, lip-smacking, butter-flavored version of my mother’s Chura Momos and all doubts, complaints and apprehensions were promptly laid to rest.

Truth be told, the Tibetan homemaker’s fascination with butter leaves me wondering if the famous Julia Childs had some Tibetan genes in her for having said that…

“With enough butter, anything is good.”

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