The Story of the Losar Khapsay
|Bhungue amcho (donkey ears)
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
that 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. In the old days, the Tibetan government would
have tens of thousands of mukdungs fried and then stacked
in gigantic derga displays fifteen to twenty feet tall
in the Tsomchen hall at 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, which were also distributed to the monks. There is a
funny story about a Mongol monk from Drepung (Hamdong Khamtsen
college) trying to describe (in bad 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 for
The 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
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 Tibetan cultural world from Tawang,
Bhutan, Solokhumbu, Mustang to Ladakh.
Other varieties of khapsays are required for the proper derga
and will be described one by one. It is important to note that
the first khapsay fried is not used in the derga. This
is a single cookie shaped like a scorpion that is first fried
before anything else. It is not for eating and must be hung up
somewhere in the kitchen till the fifteenth 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) 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 fried batter, and looks like a larger version of the
Indian jelabi (before it has 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 Chinese.
In Amdo they fry a very different kind of khapsay that 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 sourdough, 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 sang” (the old Tibetan currency). This is, strictly
speaking, not a Tibetan 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, would bake them for
distribution to TIPA members and for presentation to the ministers
of the Kashag and the Parliament as a New Year gift from TIPA.
(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 most 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 a bit 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
Khapsay making is a difficult and specialized skill 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 Y-shaped stick with a long
base, a long handled ladle, and a WWII surplus aviator-goggles
to protect his eyes from the 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 his small military pension
by making khapsays for Losar.
The Chinese also make a kind of khapsay (called fried dough-sticks),
which they eat 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 cakes, the Japanese their special rice cake, the
mochi, which is pounded out in a large wooden mortar,
the English have their Christmas-cake and plum-pudding, the Nepalese
have their syal-roti for the Dasai festival, the Indians
their jelabi for Dushera, 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 also need
to be given to the Dre-kar, the special New Year beggar and other
indigents who will drop by your home on New Year’s 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.