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Tibetan food--Tsampa

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Zamba, was spelled tsampa; it is made from roasted flour called nas, mixed and rolled into balls with the fingers of the right hand. It is often eaten when having tea. Once when visiting a Tibetan family in Qinghai, they worried that Americans do not like thick beverages and so the tea served us on that occasion was thin and called boeja. It was loaded with butter and salt and milk, even some cream, and many in the room put their finger around the edge of the cup and rubbed the butter fat on the sides of their noses, their foreheads and on other dry skin places.

That day, there was little zamba--no balls of roasted flour in sight. As is common in families, it came after several cups of tea were downed; and when it did, we each prepared our own. My ineptness generated the dozen people in the house to individually provide a lesson on technique. Not all were similar but the results were as if made by machine, perfectly round and all the same size, that of a small walnut.

On that occasion, I was asked to make at least five extra balls, as were the others there, to be boiled later with large bones, chunks of meat and some vegetables. This was dinner for that night, served with more zamba to be made, if wanted, along with butter-tea, large yak rib bones with little meat on them, some dried milk residue that looked like dark sweepings but that they called cheese (chura), and lots of qingke wine. All solids were eaten with the right hand, a difficult task for this lefty, or if liquid, they ate them using a wooden spoon. When drinking, we said gambei (which translates to bottoms up) and at least half of the people emptied the tiny one-to-two ounce cup each time.

Tsamba, the staple food of Tibetan people, is a kind of dough made with roasted highland barley flour and yak butter with water. Method of making: grind the roasted Highland Barley into flour, and mix it with ghee. It is similar to parching wheat flour in northern China. People in northern China grind the wheat into flour before parching it, but Tibetan people do the opposite. They roast the barley seeds before grinding them into flour. What’s more, Tibetan people do not remove the husk of the barley.

When eating Tsamba, Tibetan people put some ghee in a bowl, pour some boiled water into the bowl, then put some roasted flour into the water, and mix them with one hand. When mixing the tea, they press the flour slightly against the edge of the bowl with their fingers to avoid spilling the tea. After mixing all the roasted flour, the tea and the ghee until the thing gets thick, people knead it into dough balls and eat them.

The Tibetan people often bring barley flour with them in small leather bags when they leave home to do business.