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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Losar -- Dipping a Doneky-ear in Butter-Tea

February 3, 2010

Jamyang Norbu
Shadow Tibet
January 30, 2010

(Most Tibetans, it seems, want to celebrate Losar
this year. I agree that a modest observance of
our most important cultural holiday would not
come amiss right now, no matter how grim our
current situation may be and how paralyzingly
depressing it is to see, once again, our
officials rushing to Beijing to ingratiate
themselves with some supercilious functionaries
of the United Front. I definitely want a drink
right now, and a few more on Losar day.
Moreover, all the brave freedom fighters in Tibet
and the resolute activists outside need some R &
R  for the struggle that is to come. My
contribution to the reader's Losar enjoyment are
some bits of writing that will hopefully take
their mind of our immediate political problems,
but be appropriate to the spirit of the season.
This first piece appeared in the Tibetan language
paper MANGTSO on 15 February 1994.  It also came
out some years later, in English, in,
under the title "The Story of the Losar Khapsay".
The photograph is from The
ink sketches are by a young Amdowa artist at
MANGTSO whose name I have regretfully forgotten.)


The Losar cookie the khapsay, (Literally
"mouth-eat" or "kha-ze") is an absolute
requirement for the proper celebration of the
Tibetan New Year. Khapsays are made for other
formal celebrations like marriages, the
enthronement of a lama and so on, but the New
Year is when the khapsay comes into its
own.  Probably the most well known khapsay is the
bhungue amcho (Donkey Ears) as it is called by
most Tibetans-in-exile, but which should properly
be called the khugo. Older Lhasaens get annoyed
by this crude description of the standard Losar
khapsay. The khugo which looks like a large
telephone handset, or, oh, all right, like a
donkey's ear, is a Lhasa specialty and probably
spread to other parts of Tibet around the end of the nineteenth century.

The oldest variety of khapsay is almost certainly
the mukdung, which is the length and thickness of
a man's forearm, and made from four long strands
of dough braided together and deep-fried in
butter. All Tibetan government derga, or khapsay
display arrangements use the mukdung not the
khugo as the standard building block for their derga.

The Tibetan government would in the old days have
tens of thousands of mukdungs fried and then
stacked in gigantic derga displays fifteen to
twenty feet tall, at the Tsomchen hall in the
Potala Palace. On the second day of the official
New Year festival, at the conclusion of the
official ceremony (zego) the spectators would
charge into the hall and grab as many khapsays as
they could. The confusion and chaos can only be imagined.

Some major monasteries used the mukdung as their
standard khapsay and they were also distributed
to the monks. There is a funny story about a
Mongol monk from Drepung, (Hamdong khamtsen
college), trying to describe (in broken Tibetan)
to his sponsor, a pious Lhasa amala, the big
mukdung he wanted to give her and her daughter,
but it is probably too obscene to be repeated here in full.

There are a number of different types of khapsays
that go into the construction of a regulation
derga display for the home. Of course the basic
khapsay used is the khugo, of which at least a
minimum of eight pieces are necessary for an
adequate derga display. There is also a little
controversy about which way the khugo should be
laid. The practice in exile, also in the Bhutia
(old Tibetan) community in Darjeeling and
Kalimpong, and among the Sikkimese, is to have
the hollow part of the khugo facing up, so that
sweets, dried fruits, sweet cheese and so on, can
be filled into it. But the proper Lhasa way is to
have the hollow side down, otherwise it is temday
lokpa or inauspicious. Whichever way the khugo is
laid out, the practice of having a khapsay
display on Losar is now widespread in the entire
Tibetan cultural world from Tawang, Bhutan, Solokhumbu, and Mustang to Ladakh.

Other varieties of khapsays are required for the
proper derga and I will go into them one by one.
It is important to note that the first khapsay to
be fried is not used in the derga. This is a
single cookie shaped like a scorpion that is
fried before anything else. It is not for eating
and must be hung up somewhere in the kitchen till
the 15th day of the New Year. It is there to ward
off bad luck and possible accidents that could
take place during the khapsay-making. As large
pans of very hot oil are used in the operations,
burns and injuries are not uncommon. The scorpion
is a fairly common symbol in pre-Buddhist magical
practices and old Tibetan kitchens often have a
scorpion drawn with chalk on the wall.

A smaller version of the mukdung is also used for
household derga displays (one layer above the
khugo).  Other khapsays are the kongchen, which
probably originated in Kongbo in Southern Tibet.
It is a narrow rectangular piece of dough with a
cut in the middle through which one side of the
khapsay has been pulled through and is deep-fried
in butter or in mustard oil (though corn oil is
now used in exile). The narrow rectangle can also
be a diagonal.  The nyapsha (split fish) or
nyashok (fish wing?) is made of dough rolled out
like a length of rope, coiled flat and then stretched out.

The bulug is a flat circular khapsay made up of
crisp strands of deep-fried batter, and looks
like a larger version of the Indian jelabi (before it's been dipped in syrup).

One strange khapsay, fried last of all, is called
the pimbi-tok-tok (or pindo) which looks exactly
like an igloo with an Eskimo who's crawled
half-way into it.  This piece is used to crown
the whole derga display. The last khapsays to be
fried are generally called hrug-hrug (or small
pieces) and are small squares, triangles etc.,
that are generally more convenient for serving.
One khapsay, sometimes called the tzegma, or
ribcage and which looks like one, is often
included in the derga, although some say that it is of Chinese origin.

In Amdo they fry a very different kind of khapsay
which Amdowa call sog-sog, but which in the
Sining patois is known as senz. These are long
thin strands of dough wrapped together and twisted.

In Mustang (Lo Menthang) the people have a flat
round fried bread (with two slits cut in the
centre) for Losar that is known in Central Tibet
as the taygor. Another version of the taygor
which uses sour-dough is the yushang bhaglep,
whose origins are probably Chinese.

A cookie of Newari origin, but baked very
differently in Lhasa, is the sanga-bhaglep, or
literally, "the bread costing one srang" (the old
Tibetan currency). This is strictly speaking not
a New Year cookie, but is often used as such in
exile. When I was the director of the Tibetan
Institute of Performing Arts, our chef, Sonam
Wangdu la, would bake them for distribution to
TIPA members and for presentation to the
ministers of the Kashag and members of
Parliament, as a New Year gift from our Institute
(I was lobbying to get more government funds for TIPA)

All these khapsays not only looked different but
had their own unique flavours. The khapsay I am
fond of is the standard khugo which is plain
dough flavoured with a little salt and deep fried
in mustard oil. It has a subtle flavor, which in
no small part is created by its shape and the
method of frying. Other khapsays like the
kongchen and nyapsha have shortening (sol) and
sugar in the recipe, and are sometimes deep-fried
in butter. The recipe for bulug also requires
sugar and a lot of milk so that the batter is
runny and is squeezed out of a contraption like a
cake-icing bag, into a deep pan of very hot oil.
After cooling the bulug is usually dusted with powdered sugar.

The Amdowa senz or sog-sog is even flavoured with
a little Sechuan pepper (the numbing kind). Red,
green and blue food colors are sometimes used for
the lesser khapsays like the nyapsha and
hrug-hrug. More conservative Lhasa types
disapprove of the practice as it is (of course)
Chinese, and is often found in khapsays made in
Amdo and Kham. In exile the practice is fairly
widespread but the dubious food colors sold on
the Indian (and Chinese market) do not recommend it.

Khapsay making is a fairly complicated process
that usually requires a specialist. Home made
kapsays generally taste fine but the shapes don't
seem to always come out right. Large families and
institutions often hire a khapsay chef for the
job and he comes armed with the tools of his
trade, which are: a flat metal basket with a
bamboo handle, a long stick with a Y shaped end,
a long handled ladle, and a WWI (or WWII) surplus
aviator-goggles to protect his eyes from
oil-fumes and spatters. He also brings his own
dough kneading and rolling boards, one of which
is scored with many lines, and which gives the
khapsay a distinctive striped pattern. Pawo
Thupten Ngudup who immolated himself on April
27th 1998 was a fine cook, and he would pad out
his small military pension by making khapsays for Losar.

The Chinese also make a kind of khapsay called
youtiao (fried dough-sticks) that they eat with
rice porridge for breakfast. But I disagree with
some who say that our khapsay tradition may have
come from China. Having a special kind of bread
or cookie to celebrate the New Year or a major
festival is widespread throughout the world. The
Chinese have their moon cake (yuebing), the
Japanese their special rice cake (mochi) which is
pounded out in a large wooden mortar, the English
their Christmas-cake and plum-pudding, the
Nepalese their "jackal bread" syal-roti for the
Dasai festival, the Indians their jelabi for
Dushera, the Jews their unleavened flat bread
(matzoh) for Passover, and so on.

One thing that distinguishes the Tibetan khapsay
tradition is the enormous quantity of the stuff
that has to be made. Not only are complete dergas
required for each room of the house but khapsays
are often sent around to friends, and for
distribution to members of the household
including servants. Large quantities are also
needed to be given to the Dre-kar ("proclaimer of
good wishes") the special New Year beggar, and
other indigents who will drop by your home on New Years day.

Of course one can't even begin to eat all those
khapsays during the Losar festivities. Long after
Losar, maybe even during early summer, khapsays
are often served at tea-time, where they make a
nice snack. Injis can have their pastries and
Indians their methais. For me there's nothing
quite like a piece of khugo that's been dipped in
butter-tea or even sweet tea. Many older Tibetans
hold that only long after Losar does a khapsay
begin to acquire its true flavour.
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