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Tsampa: The Tibetan Cereal That Helped Spark An Uprising

This roasted barley flour has been a Tibetan staple for centuries. When China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, tsampa became a rallying point for the resistance. But will it catch on in America?
A bowl of tsampa flour pictured with other dishes in a typical Tibetan lunch. Counterclockwise from left: potatoes in turmeric and cumin; liangfen; mung bean jelly and spring onions with cilantro, triple-fried in red chili pepper; and black tea. To make pa, the tsampa would be mixed with butter, tea, salt and sometimes Tibetan cheese. Source: Courtesy of Tsering Shakya

On rare occasions as a kid, Renzin Yuthok and his family got to share a special breakfast. They'd gather around a table in their home in Bellevue, Wash., his dad would roll tsampa flour, butter and tea into balls called pa, and then he'd hand them out to his kids.

The meal served a symbolic purpose for Yuthok: "From a very young age, [Tibetans] are taught that ... reclaiming our homeland ... is what our highest aspiration could be," he says. Yuthok's family fled Tibet in the 1950s, but their breakfast — and its grounding ingredient, tsampa — kept him connected to that dream.

The word tsampa in Tibetan usually refers to ground-up, roasted barley flour, although occasionally the flour comes from wheat or another grain. It can be made into cereal, mashed into a or mixed with yak butter and tea at religious ceremonies and can be incorporated into wedding cakes. The Dalai Lama he eats it for breakfast.

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