Sunday, January 7, 2024


Tsampae-drima kha (Having a Tibetan quality) - Tibetan proverb

At its simplest, tsampa is roasted barley flour. Hulled barley grains are roasted over fire until they turn a golden, slightly brownish hue. The grains are then removed from the heat, ground into a flour, and then set aside to cool.

Tibetans then combine tsampa in a bowl with butter and tea, rolling the mixture into small balls to be eaten. One may also see Tibetans combine tsampa with other ingredients to create a porridge called jham-thoo

However, tsampa is more than a fundamental staple food for Tibetans. It has a very meaningful story to tell. To understand this story, one needs to walk in the boots or shoes of the Tibetans themselves. If you are like me, and unable to actually travel to Tibet, then the next best way to traverse that path is to read about those who have done so. In the end, you learn that tsampa is not just any food, it is a fundamental aspect of the Tibetan identity.  This post represents the first of a few posts in which I explore tsampa and its connection to the Tibetan people. These posts will be available as part of my Beyond Borders project and my Mindfulness Foodways project. 

The Tibetan Tsampa Path

I have never traveled to Tibet, which rests mostly on the world's highest and largest plateau; but, from what I have read, the area is beautiful - with towering mountain ranges enclosing valley with rivers, plains, and lakes. The altitude, combined with the dry climate (Tibet receives only about 18 inches of precipitation annually), limits what vegetation can grow on the plateau. Grasslands cover nearly two-thirds of the Tibetan region, which provide areas for livestock -- from chickens to yaks -- to graze, but limit the types of crops that can be grown. The principal agricultural crop grown by Tibetans is barley.

Barley growing in Tibet. Source: Go To Tibet

Barley played a pivotal role in the settlement of the Tibetan plateau. The grain is hardy, with a high tolerance for frost and dehydration. Thus, Tibetans could grow barley with little effort or resources (like water). Once harvested, they could also turn the barley grains into tsampa, because the process (as outlined above) is relatively quick and requires little fuel. All of these factors led to an agricultural system that was built predominantly around that single grain.  

Thus, the singular importance of barley to the Tibetans also provides an important starting point on the map for the Tibetan food pathway. 

The Preparation of Tsampa

The preparation of tsampa.
Source: Ravencywoodpress

The traditional process of turning barley into tsampa is often described as long or arduous; and, before many of the modern conveniences, I can understand that characterization. If one were a Tibetan living out on the plateau during the 19th century through the mid-twentieth century, the process was, in fact, time-consuming. The process can be broken down into four basic steps: (1) acquiring the barley; (2) prepping the barley, if necessary; (3) roasting the barley; and (4) grinding the barley. While the first step would seem to be easy, given the availability of barley in Tibet, the rest of it required time and resources. Some of those resources, like fuel for the fire, are precious given their scarcity on the plateau.

During my research, I came across a personal account of how a Tibetan nun, Choe-la, prepared tsampa. According to the account: 

My mother would get barley grown at high altitude from Manali or Ladakh. [Manali is a city in India and Ladakh is region within India, so the account comes from someone whose family had left Tibet.] Once it arrived, Choe-la would get one or two helpers and they would start the washing process - which is tedious and time-consuming. Then comes my favorite part, which is the roasting. The washed and dried barley is roasted in hot sand until the barley is cooked through - like popcorn, one can smell the roasted barley or "yoe" as we call it, from a distance and Choe-la would allow us kids to fill our pockets with fresh "yoe" to eat on the way to school. Next is the final step of grinding the roasted barley into Tsampa flour .... Choe-la always said, the best Tsampa comes from the "chu-tha" - water mill.

This account tells us a lot about how tsampa was made. From the purchase of the barley, to the washing and drying of the seeds, and ending with the roasting over hot sand. 

Tsampa on the Tibetan Table

The roasted barley flour - having already been "cooked" - became a very flexible ingredient that could be used in a variety of ways. As the British travel writer, Peter Fleming, recounted during a trip in the Tibetan region: 

Tsampa ... is sustaining, digestible and cheap. For nearly three months we had tsampa for breakfast, tsampa for lunch and the diet was neither as unappetizing nor as monotonous as it sounds. One of the great virtues of tsampa is that you can vary the 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 flavored with sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar or (on special occasions for you only had one bottle) Worcester Sauce. And, 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 tsampa, but you would get tired of anything else much quicker. 

This food finds itself not only on the Tibetan Table, but in religious ceremonies as well. Some Buddhist rituals call for the throwing of pinches of tsampa into the air as a "mark of joy and celebration." Throwing tsampa has made its way into other occasions, such as throwing it on the new year, while chanting verses calling for good luck. To round out the occasions, Tibetans also throw tsampa at funerals, where, according to Buddhist ritual, it is intended to release the soul of the departed. 

The Mindfulness of Tsampa Preparation

Recently, I decided that I would prepare tsampa myself. Fortunately, I have a ready source for hulled barley and a ready fuel (namely, my stove). I also had a recipe in a cookbook, Beyond the Great Wall, which was written by Jeremy Alford and Naomi Duguid. While this book was given to me as a present, I had become familiar with Duguid's work exploring cuisines such as those in Burma or Persia (that is, Iran and the Caucuses). 

The process was not long or arduous to prepare tsampa, thanks to many modern conveniences. I did not have any barley on hand, but with the advent of the Internet, it was not hard to find a bag of organic, hulled barley berries. I also did not need any sand, I just used a good, solid pan on a stove. With the berries literally in hand, along with that heated pan, I began the roasting process. Once the berries were in the pan, things began to change. 

I look for moments in the day when I can use my mindfulness techniques. Some of those moments are forced, such as when I am dealing with a lot of stress, uncertainty or conflict. Other moments - such as my preparation of tsampa - come naturally. As I looked down at the seeds in the pan, I began to view them as one may view grains of sand. My pan had itself become a kind of sand garden. I took deep breaths and focused on the tasks presently before me. 

The recipe directed me to use a wooden spoon to move the seeds, so that they would not become scorched or burnt. As I moved the spoon, I focused on the movement of the seeds, as they were pushed ahead or fell to either side of the spoon. I moved the spoon in circular motions, occasionally flipping the seeds to bring the ones from the bottom to the top. As I did these moves, my sand began to slowly turn more golden and eventually a little browner in color. When the barley was roasted, I turned off the heat, moved the pan, and made some final stirs with the spoon. 

For that brief period of time, I felt as if I had a mindfulness moment. One that was quiet, where I could focus on the present, without thinking about what I had done previously or what I had left to do after the recipe was completed. The ability to take some deep breaths gave me a break during a relatively stressful holiday season. It also reinforced in me the need to find more such moments going forward. 


Recipe from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Daguid, 

Beyond the Great Wall, pg. 180


  • 2 cups barley berries (whole grain)


1. Roast the barley berries. Place the barley berries in an 11 to 12 inch heavy skillet (cast iron works very well) and dry roast over medium heat. Stir constantly with a flat-ended spatula or wooden spoon, moving the grains off the hot bottom surface and rotating them from center to the outside, to ensure an even roast with no scorching. The grains will crackle a little as they expand in the heart, will start to give off a toasted grain aroma and will change color. Keep on stirring and turning until all of the grains have darkened to more than golden, about 10 to 14 minutes. 

2. Check the barley berries. Test for doneness by trying to bite into one of the grains - it should yield easily. Times will vary depending on the amount you are roasting, the size of your pan and the heat. Remove the pan from the heat and keep stirring for another minute or two to prevent scorching.

3. Grind the berries. If you are using a coffee or spice grinder to grind the grain, you will need to work in batches. A flour mill works well if you have one, no need for small batches and your grind will be finer and more even. Transfer about 1/2 cup of the toasted grains to a clean, dry coffee or spice grinder and grind to a fine flour-like texture (you will hear the sound change as the granules get reduced to a powdery texture.) Turn out into a bowl and repeat until all the grain has been ground to flour. If you want to perfect your grind, pass the milled powder through a fine sieve and then regrind any remaining larger pieces. 

4. Finish the Tsampa.  Let cool completely, then store in a well-sealed wooden or glass container in a cool place. Tsampa keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.


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