Horniman Museum: Collections People Stories: Tibetan Food and Feasting Workshop

A few weeks back we filmed a Tibetan Food and Feasting workshop at the Horniman Museum. Tom had arranged the workshop with two members of Tibetan diaspora, Padma and Premila.

The workshop began with some introductions. The group was compromised of quite a wide range of people with varying interests and expertise ranging from Tibetan exiles,  bloggers and activists to former Museum curators. There was also a Lama and a monk from Kagyu Samye Dzong, a buddhist temple in Bermondsey.

The majority of the morning was spent looking at and handling Food and Feasting related objects from the collection. Tom, the curator, was hoping that objects would inspire discussion and perhaps elicit information from the attendees and I certainly think that was the case. Some of the “Tibetan” objects it seemed where in fact Chinese or from Bhutan. There was much discussion as to why this might be but it was generally agreed there was a lot of object migration across this region so it was likely that they were collected in Tibet. There was a range of objects that were both ornate and functionary including an incredible grater (although it was primarily made from wood with metal, cutting sections, that had rusted, its function was pretty clear even to me), plenty of tea pots and drinking bowls, storage containers for grain and tsampa. Tsampa is traditionally the staple food of Tibet and is made from barley. One of the most resonant objects for the older Tibetans was a pouch, of goat(?) skin, that was for carrying tsampa and would allow you to mix it in the bag before eating.

You can see the grator in the top left and the tsampa pouch underneath that.
You can see the grater in the top left and the tsampa pouch underneath that.

Later in the day we had a demonstration of Tsampa Making which involves mixing the tsampa flour with water or Tibetan Butter Tea and then rolling into a kind of doughy ball. We had three different people rolling Tsampa in very different ways. Sadly my palate wasn’t up to distinguishing between the types too much beyond texture. One of them included some dried yak’s cheese which was very exciting for this cheese lover!

Three different ways of preparing tsampa
Three different ways of preparing tsampa

Tibetan Butter Tea sounds like a creamy rich kind of tea but it really doesn’t taste like that. Perhaps I was lucky not to taste the tea at the Losar in the end as it would not have tasted at all as I imagined. Luckily, I was forewarned to imagine I was going to drink something more like a slightly tea flavoured salty soup. It was a very odd sensation and was certainly more different to drinking English Breakfast Tea than even the name might suggest.

The feasting didn’t stop there as one of the attendees had brought a variety of different breads and snacks to share. Mostly these foods were related to Losar but she also had examples of the Tibetan brick tea and commercially produced tsampa biscuits.

Some of the Tibetan snacks

Two younger members of the Tibetan diaspora, spent a lot of time in the kitchen preparing a kind of stew that, sadly, had meat in it so I couldn’t taste it but it was full of green leafy veg and then they added lots of dough that cooked in the stew. The cooked dough pieces floating around looked really appetising. Something like fresh pasta I imagine. This meal was shared around for everyone to taste.

Stew Preparations

There was also a demonstration of Torma making by the representatives from the temple. Torma are ritual figures made from flour.  We learned a lot about the significance of the torma and also the wide variety of torma used and how they can differ so much in size, who makes them, colour, ingredients, intricacy. They showed us a slide show of some very elaborate torma from India. You can learn a lot more about tormas on this blog: http://tormas.wordpress.com/

One of the kinds of Torma is eaten traditionally and this was what was made during the workshop and which we got to taste. The ingredients for this food offering Torma included oats, rather than barley, raisins and honey so when we tasted it it was surprisingly sweet. With the honey, oats and raisins you might not be surprised to hear that it reminded me of flapjacks but it certainly surprised me at the time.

The 'petals' on the outside of the painted torma are made from butter.
The ‘petals’ on the outside of the painted torma are made from butter.

We tried to speak to as many of the attendees as were willing to be on camera and there was a very common message through the day that all of the talks were incredibly interesting, that handling the objects was fascinating and particularly emotional for the attendees who had left Tibet many years ago. As a genuine novice to the topic I left with a richer and deeper understanding of traditional Tibetan culture and also the contemporary struggle for Tibetan identity both in and out of Tibet.

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