Tibetan Culture: Tsamba

Tibetan TsambaTsamba is one of the most important types of food for Tibetans, which they eat on a daily basis.  To make tsamba, roasted barley flour is usually mixed with butter, traditional Tibetan dried cheese, sugar, and Tibetan tea.  The result is tsamba, a sweet delicious cake consumed in every Tibetan village.

Tsamba Ingredients

Barley flour, the primary ingredient in tsamba, only grows in high-altitude, arid climates. Three types of barley are grown on the Tibetan Plateau – black barley, blue barley, and white barley. Black barley has the strongest flavor of the three types, and black barley is healthier than the other types.

The second most important ingredient in tsamba is tea.  Usually the barley flour is mixed with either milk tea, black tea, or butter tea.  Milk tea and black tea are the favored choice of Amdo Tibetans in the northeast, while butter tea is favored in Kham, located in the southeast of the Tibetan Plateau, and in central and western Tibet.

Butter made from the milk of dri (female yaks), dzomo (a female offspring of a yak and a cow), cows, or goats is added to barley flour to make tsamba.  Dri butter is generally considered by Tibetans to be best, because it is heavier and more tasty than the other types of butter.  In general, Tibetans prefer to eat heavy food such as tsamba and dri butter.  This diet helps Tibetans to withstand the biting cold, strong wind, and high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau.

Tsampa and Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetans believe barley flour, butter, tea, and cheese represent the four elements of the earth, namely earth, fire, water, and wind.  When making tsamba, the barley flour must form a small pile reaching higher than the mouth of the bowl.  It is said that the tea, butter, barley flour, and cheese that make this pile resembles the entire earth, and also resembles the universal mountain of Tibetan Buddhism, which is a representation of the entire world.

With every meal, Tibetans chant a prayer before they begin eating.  In the case of tsamba, however, Tibetans both chant and offer small bits of tsamba to all sentient beings by throwing the bits into the air or on the ground.

Barley flour is used by Tibetans when making incense offering to the mountain gods or protector deities, and is also used to make thorma, or traditional religious offerings in temples.