Tibet is unlikely to become a hot destination for foods. Though you wont starve, Tibetan food will probably not be a highlight of your trip. In Lhasa there are a few restaurants that have elevated a subsistence diet into the beginnings of a cuisine but outside the urban centers, Tibetan food is more about survival than pleasure, on the plus side, fresh vegetables and packaged goods are now widely available and you are never far away from a good Chinese fanguan or canting.
Tellingly, the basic Tibetan meal is tsampa, a kind of dough made with roasted-barley flour and yak butter (if available) mixed with water, tea or bear- something wet. Tibetans skillfully knead and mix the paste by hand into dough-like balls- not as easy as it looks! Tsampa with milk powder and sugar makes a pretty good porridge and is a fine trekking staple, but only a Tibetan can eat it every day and still look forward to the next meal.
Outside of Lhasa, Tibetan food is limited to greasy momos and thugpa. Momos are small dumplings filled with meat or vegetables or both. They are normally steamed but can be fried and are pretty good.
More common is thugpa, a noodle soup with meat or vegetables or both variations on the theme include hipthu (squares of noodles and yak milk in a soup) and thenthuk (more noodles). Glass noodles known as phing are also sometimes used. The other main option is shemdre (sometimes called curried beef), a stew of potatoes and yak mean on a bed of rice. In smarter restaurants in Lhasa or Shigatse you can try dishes like damje or shomday (varieties of friend rice with yak mean, raisins and yoghurt), droma drase (rice with sweet potato, sugar and butter) and shya vale (friend pancake-style pasties with a yak-meat filling).
Han immigration into Tibet may be a treat to the very essence of Tibetan culture but its done wonders for the restaurant scene. Even most Tibetans admit that Chinese food is better than tsampa, momo and thugpa. Chinese restaurants can be found in almost every settlement in Tibet these days. But dishes are around 50% more expensive than Chinese restaurants elsewhere in China.
Chinese food in Tibet is almost exclusively Sichuanese, the hottest of Chinas regional cuisines. Sichuanese dishes are usually stir-fried quickly over a high flame and so tend to be very hygienic.
Chinese snacks are excellent and make for a fine light meal. The most common are shuijiao (ravioli-style dumplings) ordered by the bowl or weight (half a jin, or 250g, is enough for one person), and baozi (thicker steamed dumplings), which are similar to momos and are normally ordered by the steamer. Both are dipped in soy sauce, vinegar or chilli (or a mix of all). You can normally get bowl of noodles anywhere for around shaguo mixian is a particularly testy form of rice noodles cooked in a clay pot. Chaomian (fried noodles) and dan chao fan (egg fried rice) are not as popular as in the west but you can get them in many Chinese and backpacker restaurants.
Breakfasts: You can get decent breakfasts of yoghurt, muesli and toast at backpacker hotels in Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse, but elsewhere you are more likely to be confronted by Chinese-style dumplings, fried berad sticks and tasteless rice porridge. One good breadfast-type food that is widely available is scrambled eggs and tomato.
The local beverage that every traveler ends up trying at least once is yak-butter tea. Modern Tibetans use an electric blender to mix them to provide you butter tea.
The more palatable alternative to yak-butter tea is sweet, milky tea, or cha ngamo. It is similar to the tea drunk in neighboring Pakistan. Chinese green tea, soft drinks and mineral water are available everywhere. The most popular Chinese soft drink is Jainlibao, a honey-and-orange drink (sometimes translated on restaurants menus as Jelly bowl). On our research trips we have never suffered any adverse effects from drinking copious amounts of chant. However, you should be aware that it is often made with contaminated water, and there is always some risk in drinking it.
The Tibetan brew is known as chang, a fermented barley beer. It has a rich, fruity taste and ranges from disgusting to pretty good. Connoisseurs serve it out of a jerry can. Those trekking in the Everest region should try the local variety, which is served in a big pot. Hot water is poured into the fermenting barley and the liquid is drunk through a wooden straw it is very good. Sharing chang is a good way to get to know local people, if drunk in small quantities.
The main brands of beer available in Tibet are snow and Lhasa Beer, as well as the usual suspects like Budweiser. Lhasa Beer is brewed in Lhasa, originally under German supervision and now in a joint venture with Carlsberg. Look out also for Lhasa Ice Beer and Tibet Spring Green Barley Beer. Domestic beer costs around Y5 in a shop, Y8 in most restaurants and Y12 in swanky bars.
Supermarkets in Lhasa stock several types of Chinese red wine, including Shangri-La, produced in the Tibetan areas of northeast Yunnan using methods handed down by French missionaries at the beginning of the 19th century. A bottle costs around Y50.