Learning the dance
In Tibetan culture, the way we make, serve and consume Tsampa is good manners. This is how everyone in the communities of my youth does this amazing spectacle.
To enjoy this Tibetan soul food, it is customary for the woman of the house to layer the initial ingredient for Tsampa in individual deep-sided bowls. First, chura (ཆུར་བ), a fairly sharp, dry cheese followed by a rich dollop of ‘dri’ (female yak) butter. Next, I would be asked whether or not like sweetener, often granulated or brown sugar. Finally, a hot beverage—milk tea, butter tea, or black tea, depending on which region you are from—is poured into each bowl. Milk tea is the choice in my region, Amdo. A bowl is handed, typically in order of oldest to youngest male adult and then oldest to youngest female adult.
We let everything in this bowl full of goodness melt for a few minutes. Then each person takes the wooden serving spoon from the tsamgam (a wooden box specially made for holding tsampa flour) and scoops generous amounts of tsampa flour into the bowl.
The toasty flour floats over the hot liquid. Next, I would poke a hole in the edge with my finger and begin mixing gently. A delicate index finger begins the dance with the other ingredients. It feels almost meditative, like a child playing in the sand, enjoying the gentle waving current.
Tsampa-making ends with a buttery delicacy inside a clean hand. The fine chura in Tsamba, the combination of butter and roasted barley mingle in the air, filling up the soul. And the room fills with a wonderful aroma—comforting, heavenly, and nutty—so familiar to all at the table. Each piece forms as a unique and organic shape with the hand—no modern electronics or utensils required—a morsel that suits this artful culture.
As a girl, my Grandmother or Parents helped my siblings and me to make Tsampa. It is a learned skill, getting the right proportion of ingredients, of balancing between tsampa and the amount of liquid to make it wetter or drier, and being neat without dusting the flour all around. When I was still a novice Tsamba maker, I worried about spilling it over the bowl. Sometimes I still do. “Slow, slow…go slow a few rounds; tighten your palm to the edge of the bowl,” I hear my Grandmother saying to me. Once everything starts coming together, I could be more energetic with mixing the Tsampa around, and pushing it up against the sides of the bowl until I have a solid handful that nestles snug in a fist.
Until the young master making it, adults give children fist-sized pieces to nibble on. It’s like biting into cookie dough almost, but a bit drier, coarser and less sweet. We routinely keep hot tea available, so it’s quick and easy to whip up Tsampa when someone stops by. Chatting around the fire, sipping warm tea and watching the lady prepare the simple yet culturally significant meal are fond memories.
Read part 1: Tsamba: First Food of the Tibetans, part 1