It's a rainy Saturday afternoon when I pull up a chair to join Lobsang Sherab and Karma Lama at Shangri-la Tibet Kitchen in Jackson Heights. I'm wet and cold, and the warm mugs of milky-looking tea sitting in front of them look particularly inviting. After a few minutes of niceties Sherab, the restaurant's owner, offers me a cup, and I'm thrilled, thinking of the Indian masala chai that their drinks so closely resemble.
But before I can say yes, Lama, who is not officially associated with the restaurant but who spends most of his time here since being laid off from his construction job, stops me.
"You want Tibetan tea or sweet tea?" he asks, his voice thick with a kind of playful foreboding.
"Tibetan tea," I say without question.
"It's very salty," he says.
Intrigued, I insist and Sherab calls in Tibetan to a woman who is folding napkins.
As we wait, Lama explains that the tea, transliterated as bocha or po cha, is made creamy with butter, which provides extra calories needed at the high elevations in Tibet and neighboring countries where many Tibetan exiles live. In Tibet, the butter is made from the milk of dris, female yaks, but here in Queens, where Sherab has run Shangri-La Tibet Kitchen for the last year, cow's milk butter stands in. The tealeaves, however, are authentic. Sherab has Chinese and Indian businessmen bring them back for him when they travel to Asia. He says you can't get them in the local Indian markets where he does much of his shopping.
When my drink arrives, the two men look at me expectantly. I take a surreptitious sniff, and then a small sip. A savory warm broth, more soup than tea, fills my mouth. You can easily imagine that in mountainous Tibet, it would be incredibly soothing and nourishing. Here at ground level, it's delicious in the way that a buttery sauce might be, rich but a little overwhelming. The two men are drinking their cups slowly, taking a sip only every few minutes. I follow their lead.
While the tea is good and very similar to what he drank before coming to this country, Lama tells me later, there is a lingering feeling that "you didn't get the right butter, and so it's not right."