Tsampa Became Unifying Force For Tibetans After Tibet invasion
Image Credit: Tsampa

"Curly black hair, ochre cheeks,

Because of fate we were both raised with tsampa.

Suddenly, I returned to the ancestors and siblings who have been in my previous lives as well as this one" 

Tsampa is a staple food for the people of Tibet. It denotes ground and roasted barley flour. These days, wheat or other grains may also be used, but barley is the traditional form of flour. Barley is one of the few grains that can be cultivated with relative ease in the forbidding Himalayan climes and has been a constant in Tibetan food and culture. Research studies have shown barley traces in 2000-year-old tea found in the region, so it’s not far-fetched to think that tsampa has probably been around for a very long time.

This flour can be used as a breakfast cereal or even used as portable, ball-shaped food by mixing with yak butter and tea to make it. In traditional tsampa, the grains are smaller in size and denser than your average oatmeal. As one writer noted, it has a nutty texture without the "gooeyness" of oats. The barley is not processed, so the nutrients in the grains are good for health. Tsampa is a prebiotic that’s high in fiber and minerals, which improves gut health significantly. Tibetan barley, because of the selective breeding of the plant over millennia, has a softer outer covering than barley found in most other places.

Tsampa also has cultural and spiritual significance. During religious festivals, it is sometimes tossed into the air to indicate celebration or joyous occasions. This is known as the sang-sol ceremony. It gained even more cultural significance when Chinese forces invaded Tibet in the 1950s. Today, tsampa is an anchor that holds great significance, a fact that wasn’t lost on anyone when the Dalai Lama said some years ago that he has tsampa for breakfast pretty much every day. With that assertion, tsampa became a marker of Tibetan identity and protest. From India to Taiwan to the United States, tsampa is a food that binds Tibetan refugees across culture and geography. As Tibetan identity was sought to be subsumed into a larger, all-encompassing Chinese identity, the people of Tibet banded together to distinguish themselves through ethnic and national identifiers. Tsampa is one of the most easily discernible identifiers for Tibetans.

Barley is "foreign" to traditional Chinese cuisine, which immediately sets Tibet’s cuisine apart, thanks to the primacy of barley. Tibetans have even gone on to refer to themselves as tsampa-eaters. Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya wrote in 1993, "If Buddhism provided the atom of Tibetanness, then tsampa provided the sub-particles of Tibetanness. The use of tsampa transcended dialect, sect, gender, and regionalism."

Tibetan writers and artists have taken forward this notion of being fiercely independent tsampa-eaters. The people in Tibet and also in the Tibetan diaspora have made the effort to maintain their traditions of tsampa by prioritizing tsampa-making equipment and habits. One can also see modern innovations like tsampa cookies in the markets of Lhasa these days.

In 2008, there were protests within Tibet against Chinese rule. In the course of the protest, authorities opened fire, killing two protestors including a herder named Norpa Yonten. The lines above are from a poem by a Tibetan blogger, Tsering Woeser, that paid tribute to Yongten and emphasized the importance of tsampa as a rallying point for Tibetans’ emotional ties to their home.

In 2009, some monks protested again, drawing on the importance of tsampa in daily Tibetan life to proclaim, "Rise up...tsampa-eating Tibetans!" Remember the custom of throwing tsampa in the air during important occasions? In 2012, during a protest, participants ate tsampa as a form of cultural assertion and threw it in the air during a community-wide prayer.

At other rallies, Tibetan monks ate tsampa in protest and chanted mantras, another assertion of their cultural distinctiveness. Tibetan rapper Shapaley released a song titled Tsampa in the same year. He sang about carrying his "tsampa bag" as the music video showed him sitting with a tsampa bag or a bowl of tsampa and butter tea in various locations across New York City. At the end of the video, he throws what appears to be tsampa in the air, a way of expressing solidarity by embracing the sang-sol ceremony in his music video. If anything, the events of 2008 and the crackdown that followed kicked off a cultural revival of sorts within the Tibetan community. Tibetan youth who had shrugged off the exile became keenly aware of their identity and led the charge in the surge of tsampa’s renewed popularity within the Tibetan population and diaspora. The resistance movement online and on social media also embraces tsampa wholeheartedly, calling itself The Tsampa Revolution.