Guests in a Tibetan household are offered tea called Pu-erh. The tea served is from the same plant (Camellia sinensis) as the bagged tea poplar here in Canada. The Tibetans do not add milk and a bit of sugar. They have a unique form of preparation. During a trip to Tibet in the 1940, write Fredrick Chapman describe the tea.
The leaves are boiled for several hour, then the infusion is poured into a section of hollow bamboo, where it is churned up with a plunger, together with a handful of salt, a pinch of soda, and a good lump of butter – usually rancid. The result is a purplish liquid of unusual taste for tea, but as soup is excellent.
In Tibet, Pu-erh, before the Chinese invasion, was considered essential for good health. The health benefits of the tea are remarkable. So remarkable that during the peak of the Pu-erh market in 2007, buyers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Guang-zhou, $44,000 USD for a single cake.
What makes Pu-erh so special? Its journey.
Camellia sinensis is grown in the warm, moist climates of the Upper Mekong Region. The best Pu-erh comes from what is called the Ancient Tea Gardens. These are agro-forests where the tea plant grows several metres tall amongst other indigenous plants. Lower quality Pu-erh is harvested from the tea terrace plantations where the loss of bio-diversity as is present in the argo-forests requires the use of pesticides and herbicides to manage the tea crop.
Once the tea leaves are harvested, they are semi-dried; lightly pan fried to remove remaining moisture and laid out on bamboo mats “to taste the sun.” The leaves were then moulded into cakes and packed on the backs of mules, horses, yaks and humans to begin their journey into Tibet.
During the journey the tea is touched by hot dry winds and cold moist winds. It travels through low marshlands and high plateaus. It mingles with innumerable micro-organisms, all of which leave their mark on the tea.
By the time the tea reaches Tibet it is Pu-erh, high in anti-oxidants, probiotics and statins.
To really understand the medicinal benefit of Pu-erh, it is necessary to consider the environment of the Tibetan plateau where the people labour in a harsh weather conditions. The Tibetans were and are for the most traders and nomadic herders. The soil in the Himalayans is not the rich fertile soil of the Upper Mekong. Because of this, the Tibetan diet is high in meats.
Pu-erh’s statins keep the Tibetans cholesterol in balance. Simular to the statins sold in pharmacy. In a diet high in animal proteins is generally high in cholesterol.
A good nutritional rule of thumb is to eat food of every colour of the rainbow. Colourful foods are high in anti-oxidants. Eating a rainbow of foods in Tibet is difficult. Yet, the high levels of anti-oxidants in Pu-erh, nourished the Tibetans bodies, easing oxidative stress. The high altitude of Tibetan plateau, and the low oxygen levels in the aid, oxidative stress on the body is considerable.
The probiotics in Pu-erh, are essential for healthy immune function and absorption of nutrients. The probiotics keep gut flora balanced. A variety of food is one of the best ways to keep the gut flora happy and healthy. Again, long, stormy winters on the Tibetan plateau makes variation on yak meat and more yak meat difficult. Hence the 7-8 cups of Pu-erh a day.
The salt added to Pu-erh is essential in maintaining the mineral balance while working hard in a harsh climate. It also counter acts the diuretic effect of the tea. The yak butter supplies omega 6 fatty acids.
In Tibetan medicine, Pu-erh is considered essential for building bones and flesh, keeping immune function and circulation strong, and reducing inflammation.
In Tibet itself, many indigenous healing plants grow. Tibetan Doctors consider the local plants too strong to be taken daily as preventative medicine. The local plants have a more corrective effect. I recall a First Nations saying, “Strong medicine grows in harsh climates.” For preventative nutritional medicine, or food as medicine, the Tibetan looked to their neighbours living in gentler climates.
It is the journey of the tea from the soft breezes of the Mekong to the bitter winds of mountain passes that make it medicine for sturdy, kind hearted Tibetans.