Tsampa: It Doesn’t Get More Tibetan Than This!

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.

Roasting barley to make tsampa.
Roasting barley to make tsampa.

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.”

"Pa": Tibetan tsampa dish made with tsampa, butter tea, dried cheese and sometimes sugar.
“Pa”: Tibetan tsampa dish made with tsampa, butter tea, dried cheese and sometimes sugar.

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 🙂

  • Arrowhead Mills Pearled Barley
    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.
Tsampa: Heating sand to roast tsampa.
Tsampa: Heating sand to roast tsampa.
  • 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.)
  • Ground Roasted 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 annlachman@gmail.com.
    • Also, our friend Dhondup la, sells tsampa online at Tibetan Tsampa.

    Footnotes

    * 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 🙂

    Disclosure: If you purchase items on Amazon after clicking there from this site, we make a small commission on the sale. (The cost to you is the same  🙂

    Tibetan Home Cooking

    Tibetan Home Cooking

    Bring joy to the people you love by making your own delicious, authentic Tibetan meals

    Updated on February 12, 2020. First published on September 29, 2012.

    Your Tibet travel advisors, Lobsang and Yolanda

    Most people who want to go to Tibet don't know how to get there or who to trust for help. We’re Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon, and we help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical so you can feel peace of mind about your trip. Learn more about us and YoWangdu here.

    Reader Interactions

    Comments

    1. dar b says

      Sand not needed. I use heavy cast tron skillet. Works great for roasted barley for tea or flour.Also sprout barley for making malt powder. A (sprouted, dehydrated, , then powdered ( flour))lso sprout barley for sprouted seed tea (SST) for fertilizer.. Barley sprouts are great health food.

    2. Frank A. Lojewski says

      Barley was the main cereal of the ancient Germans, according to the Roman historian Tacitus. And yes, they also made beer with it, again, Tacitus. I bake Tsampa bread: Wheat, whole wheat, and Tsampa. This bread has body and fills the empty spaces. The wheat is to make it ride and prevent excessive crumbling, the Tsampa provides flavor and nourishment. Thank you two for enabling me to rediscover barley and the process of making Tsampa.

    3. Timothy Dunn says

      My family and I wish you well, and welcome you to the United States. We live near Seattle, to your north.

    4. Anne Dramko says

      I am reading a story that takes place in Tibet, and they mention eating tsampa quite a bit. Once the tsampa flour is made, how is it used? Do you make it into bread or cookies or pudding etc? Thank you!

      The process you demonstrated was described in the book so it was so cool to see it in the video!

    5. TR says

      How long can you store dried tsampa?
      I was given some in November 2015 by my friend Ani Dolma here in Mclo and after making pa a few times sealed up the bags (it’s in plastic bags inside a sealed plastic bowl)
      Would it still be any good now in April 2016?!

      • yowangdu says

        Hi! We store it for a long time, like over a year, in the fridge, in ziplock bags. Tibetans store it for a very long time in Tibet, but that’s dry and not so hot. Yours is likely to be fine but if you can keep it in fridge after this.

    6. chime says

      thank you. I have to give a presentation about food recipe and this help me a lot.thanks for the kind information about pa.

    7. Jacob H. says

      Thank you for these great instructions. I have only an electric stove at home. I was wondering if there was any advice on how to know when the sand is hot enough to begin roasting, and how to tell when to stop roasting?

      • Yolanda says

        Hi Jacob, You are so welcome. Sorry, we don’t know exactly how hot the sand should be. We haven’t actually done this one ourselves. We think it should be about as hot as you can make it. For the stop roasting question, you’ll know when the barley is cooked when it pops open with little cracks in it. You definitely don’t want to burn it. Hope this helps!

      • yowangdu says

        Hi Evelyna,
        Sorry, we don’t know exactly, though if you are near any Tibetan community, you can ask there. They will almost certainly know. Best of luck and let us know if you find a vendor.

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