By: Chen Liming, Tibetan Folk Customs
Updated: May 15, 2018

Zamba, is a staple food for Tibetans. It is made from the flour of highland barley (nas in Tibetan, qingke in Chinese), which is special to the high-altitude religions of the Tibetan Plateau. Across Tibet, the same method for grinding barley is used. The barley is stir-fried, then ground into zamba flour with a water mill or a hand-powered mini-mill.


In areas where ethnic Tibetans live, water mills are commonly used to grind barley. Such mills are often built by a mountain stream or a river that has enough drop to generate hydro force to push the blades of the mill. Where the water flow is slow, people also dig channels to divert river water to create a drop where the mill is constructed. Manual mills are also common among the Tibetan people. In pasture areas, almost every family has such a small mill because they are easy to carry, which is essential for people leading a nomadic life. Besides the water mill and hand mill, electric mills have become widely used in Tibet in the past few decades. Electricity has liberated people from heavy manual work. As a staple food through all four seasons, zamba is eaten in many ways. The most common method is mar-spags, or pinched zamba. Pour hot tea into a wooden or porcelain bowl with a chunk of butter, then add a suitable amount of zamba, with a bit of cheese or white sugar according to taste. Mix the ingredients well with your fingers and pinch it into your mouth. Another common way to eat zamba is skyo-ma-ldags, which is a thin porridge of buttered tea with zamba flour, cheese and white sugar, commonly served at breakfast or in between formal meals.