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 (but these days,packaged butter is used instead of yak butter) salt and an infusion prepared from plants available in the Himalayan region.
The Ladakhis are particular about using fresh, not rancid butter. This is added with salt and milk to a well-boiled infusion of tea to which a little bicarbonate of soda has been added. The mixture is then churned in a churn or `gur-gur` (the word is onomatopoeic) till all the ingredients are well blended. `Gur-gur` tea is made in bulk, can be kept hot, traditionally in a decorative copper pot on a charcoal brazier and more often in the prosaic thermos. This special kind of tea is drunk in enormous quantities by the Ladakhis, thirty or forty cups a day being quite a normal quota. It is both warming and nourishing, particularly when mixed with `tsampa` and is altogether a comforting drink in a cold climate.