Tsampa, the taste of Tibet

Col. Satish Singh Lalotra
“The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating— John Walters”
Healthy food habit is turning to be the way of life with people constantly making good food choices that are tasty, healthy and helps them stay fit. Food has successfully paved its way as the favoured luxury in every family, emerging as an ample opportunity for a lot of businesses to grow. Skipping the long queues to get tasty food and walking out of a store has become an outdated concept. Gone are the days of not having ample opportunities to choose from, with current era beaming with a plethora of options to dabble in various locations as well as ready to be delivered at our doorsteps safely. India has a humongous food industry, the 6th largest in the world. Retail startups account for 70% of the total sales in this segment. India has developed a vibrant entrepreneurial landscape and steadfastly strengthened its position as the 3rd largest start up ecosystem globally. This is visible in the food processing sector and associated ventures (F&A). India’s (F&A) sector is witnessing a transition towards technology driven environment across the value chain such as, Supply chain management ,e-commerce based B2B and B2C models (Business to business &business to customer) ,processing technology and equipment ,storage and logistics etc to name a few.
Not to lose traction provided by the new found love of startups in the host country (India), Tibetan diaspora too has off late jumped on to the bandwagon of this new path breaking venture and accordingly girded up their loins and are “Painting India Red” with their entrepreneurial skills based on a new found zeal. Having served with the elite “SFF -Special frontier force” way back in 1993, I was in for a cultural shock both in terms of the troops I was to command subsequently as also exposure to a very distinct way of life encompassing their dietary habits ,culture and mannerisms to say the least. Of all the dietary items bearing a distinct stamp of Tibetan hue, the one which beguiles me the most to no end even to this day is their quintessential staple food the “Tsampa” .a nutty ,tasting flour made from roasted barley which allowed their past generations to survive the harsh climes of Tibet.
When you ask ordinary Indian about the most common Tibetan food he or she has tasted, pat comes the reply-momo, chowmein and Thukpa. But the ultimate staple food of the Tibetan community and others residing in the harsh climes of Ladakh,Utrakhand and Arunachal Pradesh is the simple Tsampa or Tsampa& Ney -Thuk (Barley porridge). Often consumed with salted butter tea or cheese salt and Yak milk,Tsampa is what many Tibetans consider their true food rich in nutrients and part of their dietary heritage. Nestled in the salubrious climes of Baijnath valley of Himachal Pradesh at a place called as “Bir”, “Tibetan food limited” is a startup venture initiated by the husband -wife duo of Tsering Dekye and her husband Tehor Wangdue Dorjee. Started in June 2019, alongsideher husband Tehor Wangdue Dorjee all of 41 years of age is also the member of CTA(Central Tibetan administration) . As per the duo, who have spent their entire lives in a TCV(Tibetan children’s village)in Ladakh ,eating the all prevalent Tsampa was part of their everyday life since the time they were born. It’s a staple food for them .Tsampa has immense health benefits , since it is high in fiber and essential minerals. As per the husband -wife duo of the startup Tibetan foods limited, Indian doctors recommend Tsampa and other highly healthy barley products in areas which have a preponderance of Tibetan population . Even the Tibetan “Sowa Regpa” (Tibetan traditional medicine) is a rage among the Indians living all along the trans Himalayan belt starting from the Ladakh highlands to the misty valleys of the Arunachal Pradesh.
Having anti-diabetic properties these traditional Tibetan foods are rich in antioxidants too .In fact Wangdue went in for research for the health benefits of Tsampa and its associated Tibetan culinary delicacies as also the availability of the nutritious barley in India and found that the best grades were found in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. Because the barley used in tsampa doesn’t have to be heavily processed, it retains more nutrients and the flour’s healthfulness rivals that of other ancient grains. As brought out earlier since tsampa is high in fiber content and essential nutrients and its prebiotic qualities are very predominant it underscores the fact that it helps build in the healthy gut bacteria, has low glycemic index which helps blood sugar from spiking. Today out of a small manufacturing unit at their home in Bir, Himachal Pradesh, Tibet foods limited makes and sells packets of traditional Tsampa and Ney-Thuk (barley porridge) and distributes it all over India ,while it has a variety of Tsampa cookies and barley tea ever ready for production.
Both husband -wife duo are product of the TCVs (Tibetan children village) where maximum number of our Tibetan troops of SFF had their children admitted for pre schooling and even for secondary and higher secondary education . These schools were the brain child of Jetsun Pema, sister of HH Dalai lama to ensure a proper grounding of the diaspora with their Tibetan culture and way of living. The brain behind this whole adventure of “Tibetan Foods limited” is that of Wangdue as stated above, off course with the official sponsorship coming forth from the world famous IBC(International Buddhist confederation ) . IBC too had a similar line of thinking as that of the husband-wife duo to make the fire of Tibetan art ,culture and way of living alive and kicking by way of promoting healthy food concepts amongst its diaspora living all over the world and more so in India. The preparation and production of Tsampa is not all that simple and straight forward, since most of the Ladakhis and Tibetans eat Tsampa it is much, more easier for them to eat the contraption but for rest of the world it is a messy affair. The main USP of the Tibetan foods is to innovate old Tibetan and traditional Himalayan food according to modern tastes and lifestyles, but keep the original taste intact. Moreover a startup of this kind is creating job opportunities in refugee settlements and also supports farmers in Ladakhand Lahulspiti from where the husband -wife duo source 100% of their high grade organic barley. The corner stone for the Tibet foods limited to stay on top of the game of the startup venture and the culinary excitement thus generated is hidden in the call taken by them to indulge in a very high standard of quality control and vigorous search of the organic barley at more than 4200 meters above mean sea level all along the Himalayan spread. This entire exercise is highly tedious, time consuming, and fraught with lots of intangibles demanding a high quotient of energy, money and effort which is not everybody’s forte.
The traditional way of making Tsampa involves taking quality barley grains as stated above from the higher reaches of ladakh and similar terrains as obtaining in India ,washing it thoroughly and thereafter roasting it in hot sand like pop corns till it smells like “Yoe” as the people of ladakh call it and I discovered the same on one of my visits to the choglamsar settlement of Tibetan refugees in Ladakh in 1996 after my Siachen glacier tenure while on a R&R (Rest & recoup). The final step is grinding the roasted barley into Tsampa flour which is best done in a water mill set up on numerous rivulets which criss cross the terrain of Ladakh. Tibet Foods limited has opened a new vista of opportunity for the long marginalized Tibetan society which deserves their praise under the benign protection of we Indians. Unfortunately in the 80s/90s this concept of startup had not caught up the fancy of the masses otherwise the now cherished Tibet Food limited too could have managed to send their products along with the famous “Venky’s chicken” in their vans which used to park themselves early morning on the tarmacs of Chandigarh for loading their products on to the IL-76/AN-32 aircrafts of the air force heading for those air field. At least now available Tibetan Tsampa could be savoured by the Tibetan troops stationed all along the LAC or the AGPL (Actual ground position line).
The writer is a retired army officer and can be approached on