“Across Many Mountains,” my new memoir, is the story of my Tibetan grandmother, my mother and myself. It is about confronting life-threatening situations, embracing new beginnings and finding serenity. Wound through our story is the significance of upholding cultural food traditions and keeping generational recipes alive. In the Tibetan culture, food is a form of communication. When invited to someone’s home, you will never have an empty plate or cup. Until you hold your hand over your dish, Tibetans will continue to give you more. Food is considered a gift.
My grandparents were simple people; my grandfather was a Buddhist monk and my grandmother a nun. For about 13 years, my grandmother lived in meditation with her Root Guru and other nuns up in the hills outside her home in eastern Tibet. She had nothing but a hut made of branches, a fireplace and a pot. For food, she went down to the village. The villagers gave her barley, which my grandmother roasted and made into a staple called tsampa, something of a healthy “fast food.” With the addition of nothing more than water, it provides a great meal. Tibetans also add tea with milk to tsampa.
When my mother was young, she and my grandmother would pour hot tea over tsampa and cheese for breakfast. For lunch, they ate wild vegetables, potatoes and tsampa. Dinner was tsampa as a soup with the addition of yak meat, when available.
Stocking up for Tibetan winter
In autumn, my grandparents stocked up for winter, storing long radishes, turnips and potatoes in a deep hole they dug behind the house. Other supplies for the long winter were dried peas wrapped in cloth bags, dried and chopped turnip leaves, and onions, which hung from the rafters in the kitchen. My grandmother pressed butter into cleaned pig and sheep stomachs, which she then sewed shut and stored in a cool nook of the house. This is how butter is still kept in Tibet.
As spring arrived and it grew warmer, my grandmother and my mother climbed the slopes of a nearby monastery to collect wild mustard, onions, nettles and the leaves of a mallow-like a plant called tshampa. After six months of winter with no fresh food, eating plants again was pure bliss. Whenever they had their first nettle soup of the year, my grandmother would offer a prayer of gratitude to nature for giving her family fresh plants.
The Chinese invasion
In the winter of 1959, Chinese soldiers were destroying monastery after monastery, looting their treasures, leaving only rubble. Tsampa saved my mother’s and grandparents’ lives when they fled the country in fall of 1959, following the Dalai Lama to India. For their escape, they had only tsampa while on the run. Without it, they would have died of the cold in the mountains. They could not even light a fire. But tsampa doesn’t require cooking, it can be eaten with just water and makes one feel full after just a little bit.
Later when my mother came to Switzerland, she started producing tsampa. For her, it was important that the barley was organic, as pure as it was in Tibet. This roasted barley flour was not available anywhere in Switzerland, so my mother started making it herself. She and my grandmother roasted organically grown barley, then ground it. My brother and I loved the batter my mother made with tsampa, water, butter and milk or yogurt, and our friends loved nothing more than rolling the nutty, sticky and wonderfully sweet mixture into balls and eating huge numbers of them.
A staple around the world
My mother started looking more closely at tsampa. She found that it is known under other names in different parts of the world. The indigenous people of the Canary Islands know this roasted flour as gofio. The inhabitants of the Ecuadorian highlands call it machica, and in Lapland it is known as talkkuna. The farmers on the high plains of Eritrea and Ethiopia in East Africa are also familiar with the method of making a tasty basis for their cold-stirred porridge out of roasted and ground barley. That proved to my mother that tsampa is a global food, but one unknown in her new home of Switzerland.
Today, a cottage industry that began in a Bernese villa supplies organic food stores across half of Europe with tsampa. Every bag boasts the label SONAM’S TSAMPA. My mother, Sonam, uses her name to guarantee the quality of a product that is slow food and fast food in one. Tsampa is primal, natural and delicious, but also fast and easy to cook if you wish. You can cook a soup of it, but you don’t have to.
Fifty years later, my country, Tibet, is still suffering under the Chinese occupation. And even as Tibet is under threat from a Chinese government intent on eradicating the last traces of a remarkable, complex culture, my grandparents and my mother managed to smuggle out a symbolic tradition, one they aren’t just keeping alive among Tibetans, but among people throughout the world. This continuation of our food heritage helps us maintain a sense of identity and recognizes the struggle my people are enduring. Without the tsampa, my grandparents would not have survived. This elemental grain is a symbol of a historic, storied culture and its fight to stay intact. By keeping traditional foods alive, we preserve a culture.
Photo: Yangzom Brauen Credit: Adam Sheridan-Taylor