By Email[Wednesday, February 09, 2011 11:41]
In some of his public talks, His Holiness makes a joking observation of how Tibetans are so sharp (drungu) that they took the best of all religions from India, the warmest of clothes from Mongolia, and the most delicious of foods from China. It is a good joke, and the validity of the observation, at least in the first instance, makes it work. I only disagree with him on his third example. Being the next-door neighbour, as it were, of a race whose cuisine is probably the most well-known and celebrated world-over, can give anyone (perhaps even His Holiness) a little inferiority complex about his or her own food culture.

Another great man, George Orwell, annoyed at the prevailing snobbery around French cuisine and the routine dismissive charges that “English food was the worst in the world”, was driven to write an essay, “In Defence of English Cooking”, for the Evening Standard. I am attempting to follow in the master’s footsteps with this exploration of Tibetan culinary culture. Some years ago I wrote a piece on Khabsay or New Year cookies which many readers wrote in to say they enjoyed. Since Losar is rolling around again I hope this essay on Tibetan cuisine will provide some reading pleasure to Tibetans during this season when, no matter how cruelly the political winds are blowing in Tibet, we might take a brief time off from the struggle and enjoy good food and drink in convivial company.

The fundamental staple food of Tibet is, of course, not borrowed from China at all. Tsampa or roasted barley meal is so different from the Chinese staple of rice and wheat, that when Chinese Communist soldiers first came to Tibet and tried to eat tsampa they choked and gagged on the powdery stuff – much to the amusement of Tibetan bystanders.

But as tricky as it can be to eat without mastering the proper technique, tsampa is the foundation of a noble diet, similar in part to what people ate in the classical world. In H.D.F Kitto’s remarkable introduction to ancient Greece (The Greeks) he tells us that “Barley meal, olives, a little wine, fish as a relish, meat only on high holidays – such was the normal diet.” Pliny tells us that gladiators in Rome were also called hordearii, barley men, because of the amount of barley, a muscle building food they ate. Hordeum vulgare being the Latin for barley.

In the Odyssey (T.E. Lawrence’s translation) when Odysseus returns home to Ithaca he is given a meal by Eumaeus the swineherd, who does not recognize the hero as his old master. “When the two roast piglets were done he carried them to Odysseus and set them in front of him, still on the spits and piping hot. He dusted them over with barley meal….”. Tibetans prefer boiling to roasting meat but I suppose like the Greeks they don’t like loosing the fatty juices. I’m not sure if this common practice but I once saw a Khampa man in Mustang skewer a large chunk of boiled mutton out of a pot with his knife. He then dusted the meat with tsampa so that the juices wouldn’t drip down his chin when he went to work on it.

If you think I’m trying a little too hard to elevate the culinary or cultural status of tsampa with all my references to Greece and Rome, check out this passage from Food Civilization by Carson Ritchie:

Roasted corn was one of the great culinary inventions. It was still in use in Tibet until the Chinese communist invasion, in the form of tsampa or roasted barley corns, ground into meal. It would keep indefinitely, and could be prepared by adding cold or hot water to it. Homer’s heroes even added barley meal to wine. It could be mixed with other foods, such as broths, and was so light that it could easily be carried about. Husked grain, whether parched or toasted or not, became the great food of antiquity.’

Ritchie also informs us that making tsampa was one of the ways in which Neolithic man grappled with the considerable problems posed by moving to different foods from those eaten by the earlier hunters. Various ingenious processes were carried out by Neolithic man to get to the edible part of cereals – threshing, boiling the heads, and so on, but roasting barley-corn and then milling it, in effect making tsampa, was one of the first ways.

Older Tibetans need little encouragement to hold forth on the wonderful properties of tsampa. But in colonial times, snooty European travelers in the Himalayas had less elegiac views of our national staple. An English lady in Ladakh was horrified to see the natives eating tsampa “…with their fingers …it almost makes you sick just to watch them wolf it down.” Strangely enough, our old friend Heinrich Harrer joins the sahibs and memsahibs in this condescending chorus. In Seven Years he writes “Of course one cannot compare the productivity of Tibetan workers with that of Europeans. The physical strength of the natives was much inferior.” He ascribes the low productivity of the Tibetans to their staple diet of tsampa. Henrig la seems to have forgotten that he survived his tremendous trek across the Jhangtang in winter on a near exclusive diet of tsampa, not Wiener schnitzels.

Peter Fleming who traveled across Amdo, Tsaidam, Turkestan and Baltistan in 1935, on a steady diet of tsampa, is more befittingly appreciative :

Tsamba has much to recommend it, and if I were a poet I would write an ode to the stuff. It is sustaining, digestible and cheap. For nearly three months we had tsamba for breakfast and tsamba for lunch, and the diet was neither as unappetizing nor as monotonous as it sounds. One of the great virtues of tsamba is that you can vary the flavour and the consistency at will. You can make it into a cake or you can make it into a porridge; and either can be flavoured with sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar, or (on special occasions for you only had one bottle) Worcester Sauce. And, as if that were not enough, you can make it with cocoa instead of with tea. I would not go so far as to say that you never get tired of tsamba, but you would get tired of anything else much quicker.

Even Melvyn Goldstein, usually not the most sympathetic of souls to things Tibetan, is positive on tsampa, claiming that it “…is a great trail food because it requires no further cooking and can be eaten with plain water if it is not feasible to make a fire and tea, for example during a storm (and…) it provides a highly nutritious meal that requires virtually no preparation.”

The fact of barley’s exceptional nutritional qualities – that Tibetans, Romans and ancient Greeks had long known and celebrated – finally received due recognition from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006. This is what that august body declared, “Scientific evidence indicates that including barley in a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by lowering bad cholesterol (low density lipo-proteins) and total cholesterol levels.”

The New York Times (Wednesday, June 28, 2006) added that “The new health claims for barley are substantial and are based on “significant scientific evidence.” Other claims being made for a “barley-inclusive” diet is ‘reduction of risk for cancer of the stomach and intestine’; ‘reduction of risk of cardiovascular diseases’; ‘reduction of risk of Type 2 diabetes ’; ‘stimulation of the immune system’; and ‘contribution to reduction of the risk of obesity’.

Traditionally, it is not only Tibetans who have made nutritional and medical claims for barley. The Japanese make a tea of roasted barley, called mugicha (boricha in Korea) which is said to cleanse the blood of impurities and reduce stress. In Britain you have Lemon Barley Water, a great tonic popular with parents and children alike. It has long been the official drink supplied to players at Wimbledon.

Okay, so tsampa’s good for you. But how is a non-Tibetan, or a Tibetan out of touch with his roots, supposed to eat it without suffering the fate of the Chinese soldiers mentioned earlier. Peter Fleming who wanted to write an ode to tsampa, describes the basic way of going about it:
You fill your shallow wooden bowl with tea, then you let the butter melt in the tea (the butter is usually rancid and has a good cheesy flavour); then you put a handful of tsamba in. At first it floats; then like a child’s castle of sand, its foundation begins to be eaten by the liquid. You coax it with your fingers until it is more or less saturated and has become a paste; this you knead until you have a kind of doughy cake in your hand and the wooden bowl is empty and clean. Breakfast is ready.

The watchword is “coax”. You have to go about the process slowly and gently, “folding” the tsampa into the tea like you would fold melted chocolate into egg-white when making chocolate mousse. Tibetans don’t use the word “knead” (zi) for the process of preparing tsampa for eating. The word used is “yoe” which would mean blending or mixing but, I repeat, done gently. When prepared in this fashion you get a mixture that is not sticky or doughy but soft and manageable. This end-product is now called paag, and not tsampa anymore. You can then make convenient lumps of the stuff, ready to be eaten, without tsampa sticking all over your hands and everywhere. A small lump or roll of paag squeezed in your fist is called daga.

I remember as a child my nanny, Dawa Bhuti (from Kharag in Shigatse district) telling me this story where a daga of paag featured prominently. The story had a flavour of Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River. Three sisters (the older two selfish and mean, the youngest kind and beautiful) have to go on a quest. One by one they walk up a mountain and each in turn encounter this little dog. The puppy begs them for food with this couplet that concludes with three barks:

If you give me one lump (of paag)
I will tell you one tale
Arf! Arf! Ar!
daga chig tayna
tam chig shay yong

Ak Ak Ak.

Another way to eat tsampa is straight and dry. Tibetan’s call this method tsang-gam. You take a spoonful of the dry meal and pop it in your mouth. Another way is to just lick the dry tsampa from a bowl. When old tsampa hands do it, it looks deceptively easy, but the practice is not recommended. If you insist, you should know that the trick is never to inhale when performing tsang-gam. If you do, even a little, you will suffer a coughing spell, possibly even a nasty choking experience. Death by tsampa! More improbable things have happened in Tibet.

Tibetan peasants, especially those from the Tsang region like to add a handful of tsampa to their bowl of barley-ale (chang) and eat it with their fingers in a fashion called kyo-mak da. I once tried adding tsampa to red-wine as Carson Ritchie tells us Homer’s heroes did. The result was, well, interesting.

For breakfast tsampa is usually consumed as cham-dur, or, as Tibetan restaurants feature it on their menus, “tsampa porridge”. It is a dish much loved by children. My daughter Namkha Lhamo regularly eats cham-dur when we have tsampa in the house. You put a pat of butter in a bowl with some powdered cheese (chu-shib) and a little sugar (preferably brown sugar) and pour in some hot tea (or hot milk) in the bowl getting the butter to melt and blending with everything else. You then stir in enough tsampa so that the mixture is more runny than doughy – porridge consistency – and get on with your breakfast.

Children in Tibet also love to eat the barley grain (ney) after it is roasted and popped. This Tibetan pop-corn is called yod. The popped barley is milled at a water-mill called the chu-thag and made into tsampa.

Quality tsampa milled from high-grade barley, the grain washed and prepared in a special way, is not only delicious but has a wonderful sweet aroma to it. When I was in Mustang our phokhang or commissariat at Kag-Beni had a special supply of tsampa that was so good that one of our instructors, Thondup Gyalpo la (a former sergeant in the Guards regiment in Lhasa) would just mix it with water from the stream and eat it without any side-dish or sauce. He insisted that adding anything else would spoil the taste of the tsampa. Tsampa eaten in this way is called chu-paag.

For dinner you could make a nice soup or broth called tsam-thug with tsampa, meat and vegetables, but more on that in Part II of this essay.

In ancient Tibet, tsampa was served at banquets in large brick-like cakes called masen. At the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), Sonam Wangdu la, one of my star comedians who was also a master-chef in old Lhasa, once served this dish at a New Year dinner at TIPA. The tsampa cakes were accompanied large joints of cooked mutton and radish. This ancient banquet was called sozi masen.

Tang dynasty accounts mention that Tibetans pressed a lump of tsampa with their thumb, and used the hollow space as a spoon to scoop up stew or vegetables.

A largish wooden bowl or gog-phor is generally used for mixing and eating tsampa. This bowl has a tight-fitting lid which can be taken off and used to hold your side-dish (paag-drel) of stew, soup or vegetables. This will be discussed in Part II.

You might also also use a jha-phor or tea bowl, for drinking tea or beer. It is smaller and shallower than the tsampa bowl and the inside is sometimes lined with silver. Your set of wooden bowls might include a tiny bowl
(with lid) in which you keep a supply of your favorite hot-sauce. This bowl can be stored inside the large gog-phor after you’ve had your meal. These wooden bowls are manufactured in southern Tibet and in Mon Tawang. They are also made in Bhutan by skilled wood-turners. Some of these bowls are credited with being able to detect poison.

An important article for a tsampa based meal is the sol-ray or napkin. Its usually the name size as a napkin in the west, but sometimes bigger. It is important to have this on your lap as tsampa tends to spill a little, no matter how careful you are when you mix it. When you were traveling the napkin could be used to tie up your bowls and things in the napkin. Such napkins are handy as they can, at a pinch, substitute for a bowl to hold lumps of tsampa or meat. In Bhutan people use a wooden bowl for their soup like Tibetans but their traditional rice dish is always served in a large napkin called the tho-ray, that everyone carries about with him. I saw a photograph of the former king, Jigme Singe Wangchuk, using such a napkin when having a meal with a crowd of ordinary Bhutanese people. A nice democratic gesture.

Anyhow, If you haven’t picked up the skill of mixing tsampa in a bowl you can use a bag to do the mixing in. In Tibet a pliant bag of thin leather with a drawstring (oto) on the opening, is used. It is called a thang-khug. You can use a plastic bag at a pinch. I have seen Tibetans doing that. It mustn’t be too stiff, but I guess it shouldn’t be too thin either, and tear.

There is a larger tsampa bag of leather and fabric which is called a tsam-khug, and is largely used for storing and sometimes serving tsampa at a table; but not for mixing. I saw a beautiful tsam-khug leather bag trimmed with brocade, at the monastery of Gar Rimpoche in Rarang, Kinnaur. The bag had a serving spoon inside called the tsam-thur, which is used to serve out the tsampa.

Generally you would use a special wooden container with a lid, called tsam-phor, to store and serve tsampa at a table. These bowl-like containers are often painted with designs on the outside and laquered red on the inside. Some of these vessels are even decorated with turquoise, coral and
semi-precious stones on the outside. In the old days a high lama, a merchant prince or an important official might have such a fancy tsam-phor on his side-table. One tsam-phor I saw had a special lid which incorporated a small bowl on the top. That small bowl was used to hold a supply of thue, which is a rich concoction of powdered-cheese, butter and brown-sugar (bhurom) used to flavor the tsampa.

The Vocabulary and Voice of Tsampa
Tsampa is also eaten in Turkestan where it is called “talkhan”. In Bihar and some parts of north India a kind of tsampa (sometimes mixed with milled chick-pea) is called “satthu” and eaten by peasants and labourers. In certain parts of north China where tsampa is eaten it is called “tso-mien”. All Chinese Communist publication, even those in English, invariably refer to Tibetan barley, not by its native name of “ney” or “dru”, but in pinyin as Qingke – probably pronounced “chinky” (I think).

The honorific for tsampa is su-shib. Of course the Dalai Lama has a very special tsampa made for him which is called jamin. On the other hand inferior tsampa eaten by poorer people is called kamsob or tsam-sog. This is sometimes mixed with pea-flour (ten-tsam or ten-shi) which is generally cheaper, though quite flavorful in its own right.
Since tsampa played such an important role in Tibetan life, it should come as no surprise that there were special tsampa officials called the “tsam-shipa” and the “tsam-nyer” in charge of procurement, storage and distribution of tsampa. A special department of the government called the “tsam-sher laykhung” collected agricultural produce for distribution to monasteries and the army. Wages in old Tibet, for soldiers of the army and the like, were paid in large part with tsampa. This was called tsam-phog. A payment in cash was made for the remainder, called the sha-phog or “meat wages”

Tsampa is used in religious ritual for making sacramental cakes called tsok and torma, and in the sangsol ceremony where handfuls of tsampa are tossed in the air (tsam-tor). Tsampa is also burnt and the smoke offered not only to various deities, but sometimes as an act of compassion to yidags (tantalized spirits) existing in a special subdivision of the Buddhist hell. Since these creatures are said to take in nurishment only through smell, the burnt-tsampa offering (soor or tsam-soor) was an effective way of feeding them.

Tsampa appears in many Tibetan expressions and proverbs:
Tsamkhu tongpa dap pa: To beat an empty tsampa bag. To try and get something out of nothing.

Tsampa sholpa. To sprinkle or throw tsampa. To flatter.
Tsampa gam lingbu tang. Eat dry tsampa and play the flute at the same time. Do two incompatible things. Conflict of interest.
Ngu-khug tsam-khuk la bhechoe tang. Using your money bag for storing tsampa. Squander your wealth. Charles Bell renders this as “The Good father had a full money-bag/ The bad son uses it as a bag for flour.”
Tsampa rang ge zay, thang-khuk mi la yok. You eat the tsampa but put the tsampa-bag on someone else’s (head). To profit from a situation but let others suffer the consequences.

Tsampae khyekyag bhutog ki chay. Baking-soda acting as guarantor to tsampa, (both can be blown away by the wind). One insubstantial person cannot support another.

Tsampae-drima kha. Smelling of tsampa. Having a Tibetan quality. Tibetan-ness.

The word tsam-zen, is a contraction for tsampa-zangen or tsampa eater. Two separate sources told me that when the first demonstration started in Lhasa in 1987, and Tibetans were called out from their homes to join the protesters in the streets, the rallying cry was “All tsampa eaters come out”. “Tsampa zangen tso ma dhon-sho.”
Babu Tharchin la, the editor of the Tibetan newspaper in Kalimpong, The Tibet Mirror, in an editorial (October 1, 1952) called on all Tibetans, specifically the people of Kham, to unite.

We, the tsampa eaters, chuba wearers, dice players, raw and dried meat eaters, followers of Buddhism, Tibetan language speakers, the people from The Three Circuits of Ngari (Ngari Korsum), Four Horns of Central Tibet (U-Tsang Ru-zhi), Six Ranges of Eastern Tibet (Dokham Gangdrug) and the Thirteen Myriarchies of Tibet (Bhod Trik-khor Chuksum) we must make the effort to end the [Chinese] occupation.

On October 1, 1957, The Tibet Mirror published a “reminder song” which had as a refrain these lines “Don’t let silver coins lure you, /Stand up, stand up the tsampa eaters!”
In an article in Himal in 1993, the scholar Tsering Shakya la: wrote that “During the height of the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese in 1959, a letter appeared in the Tibet Mirror, symbolically addressed to ‘all tsampa eaters’. The writer had gone down to the staple, barley as the most basic element which united the Tibetan-speaking world. If Buddhism provided the atom of Tibetanness, then tsampa provided the sub-particles of Tibetanness. The use of tsampa transcended dialect, sect, gender and regionalism”

The website High Peaks Pure Earth recently came out with a well-documented article describing how a cultural re-assertion of Tibetan identity was taking place all over the plateau since the protests and crackdown of 2008, and that tsampa was enjoying something of a cultural revival. The report mentioned the singer Tashi Dhondup who was sentenced for 15 months in labor camp for his album Torture Without Trace. In one song Tashi la sang: “Remembering my brother in exile / I carry a bag of tsampa on my back / And take this road to / The western land of scholars.”

Perhaps we could join our brothers and sisters in Tibet in this culinary revival. The health benefits are undeniable and tsampa has the unqualified blessings (jhinlap) of the FDA, which many Chinese food imports deservedly don’t. Eating a tsampa meal, even occasionally, with your family would be a good way to remind ourselves, especially our children, of our Tibetan heritage. Perhaps we could do it on Losar. In old Tibet your always had the Sozi Masen banquet on Losar (especially at the Potala) even if other bills-of-fare were enjoyed on that day.

Jews eat unleavened bread at their Passover meal to remember the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt to the promised land. So perhaps we could incorporate tsampa in our March 10th breakfast. This is just a suggestion. I’m sure readers will be able to come up with other and better ideas of how we could create a meaningful ritual meal for that day. Send in your thoughts. Any information you might have on tsampa-manufacturers or retailers in the USA, India and Europe and other related subjects would be really welcome. Thanks.

Note: This is the first of a Four Part series on Tibetan culinary culture. So many people have given me bits of information at one time or the other that I haven’t quite been able to keep track of everything. A full acknowledgement will appear at the end of Part IV.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.