In this two-part series, we’ll focus on Tibetan New Year holiday food traditions.
At Tibetan New Year — Losar — which usually falls sometime during February or March, a typical central Tibetan family in the countryside will take a 5-day holiday to pray, sing, dance, drink a fair amount of chang, (a kind of beer typically made from barley), and eat a whole lot of food.
In the days leading up to Losar, folks seriously clean the house, especially the kitchen, shop for new clothes and food for the celebrations, and fill up all the food and drink containers in the home, such as for rice or water, to augur a year of plenty.
Cooking preparations can be intensive, with families deep frying batches of all kinds of the favorite Losar pastries collectively known as khapse and preparing chang.
In Tibet, the chang will usually be made of barley, while in exile, it could be barley, millet or rice.
There’s so much to do that one Tibetan expression jokingly says “Losar ma ray, Lesar ray!”, meaning “This is not New Year, it’s New Work!”
Let’s have a closer look at some of the foods that are prepared or eaten in the days leading up to Losar.
Left to right: 1) lotus-shaped khapses 2) bulug 3) uncooked nyapsha. Credits 1 and 2: Bellachao blog, 3: Philofoto.
Writer Jamyang Norbu offers a witty and beautifully considered account of khapse in Dipping a Donkey Ear in Butter Tea: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Preparation, Display and Appreciation of the Losar Khapsay, which he kindly agreed to let us excerpt here:
The Losar cookie the khapsay, (Literally “mouth-eat” or “kha-ze”) is an absolute requirement for the proper celebration of the Tibetan New Year. Khapsays are made for other formal celebrations like marriages, the enthronement of a lama and so on, but the New Year is when the khapsay comes into its own. Probably the most well known khapsay is the bhungue amcho (Donkey Ears) as it is called by most Tibetans-in-exile, but which should properly be called the khugo….
The oldest variety of khapsay is almost certainly the mukdung, which is the length and thickness of a man’s forearm, and made from four long strands of dough braided together and deep-fried in butter… The Tibetan government would in the old days have tens of thousands of mukdungs fried and then stacked in gigantic derga displays fifteen to twenty feet tall, at the Tsomchen hall in the Potala Palace. On the second day of the official New Year festival, at the conclusion of the official ceremony (zego) the spectators would charge into the hall and grab as many khapsays as they could. The confusion and chaos can only be imagined.
All these khapsays not only looked different but had their own unique flavours. The khapsay I am fond of is the standard khugo which is plain dough flavoured with a little salt and deep fried in mustard oil…. Other khapsays like the kongchen and nyapsha have shortening (sol) and sugar in the recipe, and are sometimes deep-fried in butter. The recipe for bulug also requires sugar and a lot of milk so that the batter is runny and is squeezed out of a contraption like a cake-icing bag, into a deep pan of very hot oil. After cooling the bulug is usually dusted with powdered sugar.
We encourage you to check out Jamyang Norbu’s full article, well worth a read.
Guthuk: The Eve of New Year’s Eve Soup
The one Tibetan food that is completely unique to Losar is guthuk, the noodle soup that is made on the eve of New Year’s Eve.
This will be the 29th day of the twelfth month of the Tibetan calendar year, and the “gu” in the word “guthuk” likely derives at least in part from this date, as “gu” means the number 9, while “thuk” refers generally to noodle soups, as in “thukpa.”
On the 29th night, Tibetan families will gather for the guthuk dinner, which typically includes rituals for driving out evil spirits and ill health from the home.
One of these rituals is the creation of a little dough man called lue that is placed on a dish.
Over the course of the evening, this effigy comes to represent all that is undesired in the household.
For example, members of the family each get a handful of dough which he or she waves over or presses to parts of his or her body that may be sick or injured, with the wish of the ill health being expelled.
These pieces of dough get tossed onto the dish with the effigy.
The soup itself is made of nine ingredients that can include meat, dried cheese, and labu (a type of large, white radish), for example. The general style of the soup will be a thukpa barthuk, which has smallish, round, hand-made noodles. (See Lobsang’s thukpa bathuk recipe, which is a meat version, and his guthuk recipe, which is a vegetarian version of the same soup.)
Into each bowl of soup will be added larger dough balls that contain either various special objects — like coal or wool — or papers with the names of the objects written or drawn on them.
These objects are jokingly meant to relate to the character of the person who gets it.
So if you get wool it means you are kind, while if you have the bad luck to open a dough ball with coal, it means you are “black hearted.”
The more positive objects are:
- wool — bay —kind hearted
- a thread rolled inwards — kuba nandrim — a person who draws luck and money
- sun — nyima — the goodness related to light
- moon — dawa — also, the goodness related to light
The unhappy objects are:
- chili — sepen — sharp tongue
- salt — tsa — lazy
- glass — karyul — someone who is happy when there’s fun, but disappears when there is work to do, like a good time charlie
- coal — sola — black hearted
- a thread rolled outward — kuba chidrim — someone who spends or dissipates luck or money
- small prickly ball — semarango — prickly person
A sweet habit is that if any family member is absent, he or she still gets a bowl of guthuk served up, with the extra dough ball, and someone will call them to tell them what object they got.
Everyone saves a bit of the soup, which is dumped into the dish with the little effigy. A candle is also placed in the dish and it is carried out of the house by a family member who is careful not to look back at the house, to the nearest intersection, so that the bad spirits now attached to it will get confused and not return to the home.
For a deeper exploration of the fascinating nyi-shu-gu and guthuk traditions on the Eve of Losar Eve, see the Banishing Evil Spirits and Bad Health post.
On Losar Eve, families set up their Losar shrines, with a prominent bo, a painted container holding chemar, which is tsampa (roasted barley flour), butter and sugar.
This chemar is not really for eating. Guests, on entering your home, will take a pinch and offer it with three waves of their hands and a tiny nibble, saying:
“Tashi delek posumtsok. Ama badro kunkham sang. Tendu dewa thobar sho. Dusang tukyi tatsoe yanggyar zomgyu yongwa sho.”
This is almost impossible to translate properly, but the general idea is:
“Blessings and good luck with a pure mind, heart and body. Wishing for the good health of mothers. May all beings become enlightened. May we all be here next year and celebrate together.”
After Losar Eve, the preparations are done, and no one will touch a broom during the first day of Losar, as the parties begin in earnest.
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By Lobsang Wangdu