“The main product of our fields is barley. Roasted and ground into a fine flour, it is called “Tsampa” in Tibetan. Even now in exile I eat Tsampa every day. Of course you do not eat the flour. You add some liquid, most of the time tea, or – what I like best – milk, yoghurt or even Chang, the Tibetan barley beer, and knead it with your fingers in a bowl to make small balls, which are then eaten. You can also prepare porridge with it. Tibetans love Tsampa. “
– The 14th Dalai Lama*
*Extract of the autobiographical book Freedom in Exile by the 14th Dalai Lama
History of Tsampa
What is Tsampa?
The basis of all TSAMPA products is the Tibetan basic food Tsampa. It consists of barley, which is first roasted and then ground to a flour. For the Tibetan population, Tsampa is their companion throughout the day and for all activities. Whether it is for breakfast, lunch, dinner or whilst traveling: Tsampa is always there! Tsampa also plays a very important role in Tibetan culture. Here we would like to give you a brief overview of the history of Tsampa.
In Europe Tsampa is still quite unknown and the idea of roasted barley is not common, although the use of barley is widespread. Why is barley so important in Tibet? And what makes Tsampa so special?
Barley the source of energy
In the high mountains of the Himalayas the landscape is very rough and the soil is not fertile. Barley is the only grain that meets the demands of the soil. Thus it is one of the few sources of food that can be cultivated in sufficient quantities. Which is no problem, because barley has excellent properties: it is rich in carbohydrates, protein, fiber and minerals. Barley plays an important part in a balanced diet because of these ingredients. What makes barley different from other grains is that it is a huge source of energy! The large proportion of long-chain carbohydrates supports a long-lasting energy supply. The important vitamin B stimulates energy production and processing in the body. The beta-glucans of barley are used by intestinal bacteria as a source of energy; they support the intestine during digestion and can prevent over-acidification.
Tsampa in the Tibetan culture
Barley was cultivated for practical reasons in Tibet and proved to be a very useful source of food and energy for the Tibetans. Its versatility as a food, barley – and the resulting Tsampa means that it has secured an important place in Tibetan culture. The use of Tsampa goes back more than 1000 years and had already been used even before the spread of Buddhism. So it is no surprise that Tsampa has played an important role in Tibetan Buddhism. It is also referred to as “food of the gods”. According to the Dalai Lama, it is part of his daily diet. Even in ceremonies like weddings it is thrown in the air as a symbol of joy.
The history of Tsampa is also political; it gained importance for Tibetan culture after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1952. Due to the size and geographical characteristics of Tibet, the Tibetans are not unified people. Language, religion and ethnicity can differ from region to region. Tsampa is what unites all of them together. Before the Tibetan Revolution in 1958, the Tibet Mirror newspaper published a public notice: “Tsampa Eaters”, addressing all Tibetans. Tsampa was then regarded as a symbol that unified the people of Tibet. Since then with the Tibetan diaspora, the common link for the Tibetan identity of Tsampa has gradually shifted to Tibetan Buddhism.
For centuries the Sherpas and nomads of Tibet have used Tsampa as food on their journeys. Tsampa is stuffed into a traditional Tibetan bag and later prepared for consumption. Tsampa is commonly mixed with butter tea which consists of water and yak butter. From this it is eaten either as Pa, small Tsampa balls mixed with butter tea, or as Tsamthuk, a Tsampa soup. It is mixed with different spices and depending on the region it can vary in taste and texture.