Tsampa is a hearty, nutty-tasting flour made from roasted barley. It is the most uniquely Tibetan of all foods. In fact, the grain is so integral to Tibetan culture that Tibetan people are collectively referred to as tsampa-eaters, or po mi tsamsey.*
The most common way to eat tsampa is to mix it by hand with butter tea, dried dri cheese (the dri is the female of the yak species) and sometimes sugar, to form a dough. In this form it is called just pa, and many Tibetans used to eat pa three times a day, every day. ** Today, it is still a common food in Central Tibet, and for travelers, who bring a leather pouch for mixing the ingredients on the road. For a modern twist, check out these tsampa snack balls recipes.
In a beautifully researched and entertaining article on Tibetan food, In Defense of Tibetan Cooking, Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu, focuses on the “virtues of tsampa:”
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.”
How Do you Make Tsampa?
While in the Tibetan countryside, even today, many people make their own tsampa, few Tibetans in exile still make it at home. In the San Francisco Bay Area, we buy ours at Cafe Tibet, the restaurant of our friend, Samten Chinkarlaprang. We asked Samten la if we could tape her tsampa-making process, to give you a general idea of how it is done, and she kindly agreed. In the video below, see Samten la and Cafe Tibet’s Chef, Dawa, making tsampa in the Cafe Tibet kitchen last month.
The Basic Process of Making Tsampa (Cafe Tibet Style)
This is not a recipe, since the process, as you will see in the video, is quite work intensive, and we think most of our readers are more likely to purchase tsampa than make it (see links below for where you can buy good tsampa). Here, we wanted to outline the basic steps to help you understand what you are seeing in the video :-)
- Start with dried pearled barley. “Pearled” means hulled. At Cafe Tibet, Samten la uses “Organic Pearled Barley” from Grain Millers Specialty Products out of St. Peter, Minnesota, but they seem to be only wholesalers. If you don’t have access to barley where you live, you can check out Arrowhead Mills Pearled Barley at Amazon.
- Wash the barley thoroughly with water. Drain off the water.
- Spread it out to dry on a large flat surface. Samten la dries hers overnight in the oven on a large flat pan at a very low temperature. Samten la does not totally dry out the barley, but keeps a little moisture.
- Once it is mostly dry, you are ready to roast.
- Heat sand on high on the stove.
- Pour some barley on top of the heated sand and roast the barley, shaking it together with the sand in the pan.
- Sift out the sand by pouring the sand and tsampa mixture into a sifter or mess pan and shaking out the sand onto a flat surface. (You can reuse the sand to roast more barley.)
- Repeat the sifting three or four times, until you get the sand out.
- Grind the clean roasted barley. Samten la uses The Kitchen Mill by Blendtec (pictured above.)
If you would like to try making tsampa at home, there is a recipe on a forum at NewBuddhist.com. We haven’t tried this one ourselves but it looks reasonable :-)
Where can I get Tsampa?
- If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, Samten la sells bags of tsampa at very reasonable prices from her Cafe Tibet restaurant in Berkeley, California. 2020 University, Berkeley, CA (510) 548-5553
- We can also recommend buying from Ann at Purple Mountain Tsampa, who will ship to you. Ann makes tsampa fresh to order from hull-less barley, a “whole food” barley grown without a hull, and nutritionally superior to “pearled” or “hulled barley.” Contact Ann at email@example.com.
- Also, our friend Dhondup la, sells tsampa online at Tibetan Tsampa.
* Read more about the way that tsampa is at the core of Tibetan identity in a great post by High Peaks Pure Earth: Tsampa Eaters and Sweet Tea Drinkers: Tibetan Identity Assertion Through Food.
** You will find a recipe for pa along with a video showing you how to do it, on our Tibetan Home Cooking ebook and video series. Also, one of the free videos available through our Tibetan Culture newsletter is one of Lobsang showing you how to prepare pa. If you sign up for the newsletter, you will get the free video on pa in the stream of newsletters, though you should know that the pa video doesn’t show up until the sixth week or so :-)
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