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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."

Eating Tibetan to preserve a culture

October 25, 2010

Jennifer Bain
The Toronto Star
October 21, 2010

The owners of Toronto’s eight Tibetan restaurants
feel honour-bound to do more than just feed people.

They have a culture to preserve.

So they keep traditional recipes alive when they
make sha momos (dumplings filled with juicy beef)
and thenthuk (soups brimming with hand-pulled noodles).

They invite social, political and religious
discussion by erecting colourful altars dominated
by framed photos of the Dalai Lama and simple offerings of food and water.

They serve butter tea (bo cha) to the older
generations who were born in Tibet and grew up on
the salty broth in harsh times and harsher weather.

For the younger generations, born and raised in
exile in India or Nepal, there is the tastier
chai with its cardamom and ginger accents and milky sweetness.

The menus at these restaurants move easily from
strictly Tibetan to Chinese (fried rice, chow
mein) to Indian/Nepalese (butter chicken, mango
lassis) to the Chinese-Indian hybrid Hakka (chilli chicken, prawn Manchurian).

This is modern Tibetan food, steeped in tradition
with pinches of loss and exile, as told to Torontonians by Tibetan Canadians.

The community welcomes the 14th Dalai Lama,
Tenzin Gyatso, for a four-day visit that features
an Oct. 22 public talk at the Rogers Centre and
the Oct. 23 inauguration of the Tibetan Canadian
Cultural Centre in Etobicoke. (Still needed: $3 million for renovations.)

The Dalai Lama has led a Tibetan
government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, since a
failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The
75-year-old spiritual and political leader of
Tibetan Buddhists seeks more autonomy (not
independence) for his people within China.

In Toronto, home to about 4,000 of 5,000 Tibetan
Canadians, the restaurant scene is growing but yearning for a wider audience.

Things got going in the 1990s with Little Tibet
in Yorkville and Everest Café & Bar across from
MuchMusic. Little Tibet later moved to Queen St.
W., but has closed. Everest has survived.

By the mid-2000s, a cluster of Tibetan
restaurants began opening, closing, changing
names and swapping owners along Queen St. W. in Parkdale.

Six spots -- Om, Himalayan Café, Le Tibet,
Tsampa, Tibet Kitchen and Shangrila -- are now in
the three blocks from Jameson to Sorauren. (Tibet
Café is alone in Kensington Market.)

Six Parkdale restaurants keep Tibetans, students
and neighbours fed, but don’t have enough impact to lure many outsiders.

"I personally would love more Tibetan restaurants
and shops," says Sonam Choedhen, the Indian-born
owner of Tibet Kitchen. “Then we’d become a typical Tibetan area."

He’s proud of his weekday lunch specials -- $6.49
gets students (and budget-minded adults) one momo
or spring roll, soup or a soft drink, rice or a
Tibetan steamed bun (ting mo), and a main course
in the curry or stir-fry realm.

It’s a similar story at Om restaurant, where
India-born Sonam Lankar has a $5 buffet-style
lunch to attract Parkdale Collegiate and Parkdale
Junior & Senior Public School students. A recent
lunch featured chicken curry, chickpea curry and basmati.

College students like Trinley Lhamo, 22, Tsewang
Lhamo, 21, and Urgyen Dolma, 18, might order
Tibetan items instead. They recommend Om’s
shaptak, beef stir-fried with green chilies, onions and tomatoes in hot sauce.

Tibetan students can even run a tab, although only three have so far.

This week Lankar will help cook for the Dalai
Lama’s entourage. As a real estate agent who
lives near the new cultural centre, he hopes to
lure more Tibetans to Etobicoke. The centre will have a café.

"We, as Tibetans, have a lot of responsibility as
individuals in terms of food culture and doing
everything we can to preserve it," says Lankar.

Samten Tsering is doing his part at Tsampa, his
café that evolved from a grocery store with takeout food.

He makes a Tibetan staple called tsampa by
soaking, drying, roasting and grinding pot barley
into flour. Tibetans mix this flour with hot
water or butter tea, roll it into balls and eat
it alone, with boiled meat or with dried,
shredded yak’s cheese. Tsering doesn’t serve
cooked tsampa, but he sells the flour and the dried cheese.

Tsampa’s short menu card includes momos and sha
bhaley (fried beef patties) alongside things like
chicken, chickpea and potato curries. "For
Tibetans born in India and Nepal, this has become
the way of our food," concedes the Nepal-born Tsering.

At Shangrila, Dawa Tsering, also born in Nepal,
knows that Hindus shun beef so he only cooks with
chicken stock and offers a chicken momo option.
Still, he serves Tibetan classics like Aloo
Phingsha, mung bean vermicelli stir-fried with
black fungus, potatoes and beef in spicy tomato sauce.

At Le Tibet, Tenzin Valunbisitsang is a purist
who only makes Tibetan food like gyuma (blood
sausage) and dropa khatsa (spicy tripe). He sells
his momos -- Tibet’s best-known offering -- on
Mondays at the Sorauren Farmers’ Market.

One thing that can’t have happened by chance: The
six Parkdale restaurants stagger their days off
from Monday to Wednesday so something is always open.

Only the Himalayan Café (check out its sen kong,
a mound of cooked tsampa served with chili cheese
sauce and chicken curry) is open seven days a week.

"We’ll close only when His Holiness is here,"
says an excited co-owner Jampa Lhachok. "I have
already bought tickets to see him on Saturday and Sunday."

Toronto's Tibetan eateries

* Everest Café & Bar, 232 Queen St. W., 416-977-6969

* Himalayan Café, 1500 Queen St. W., 416-536-4138

* Le Tibet, 1526 Queen St. W., 647-347-9010

* Om Restaurant, 1439 Queen St. W., 416-532-3901

* Shangrila, 1600 Queen St. W., 416-588-1100

* Tibet Café, 51 Kensington Ave., 416-260-5178

* Tibet Kitchen, 1544 Queen St. W., 416-913-8726

* Tsampa, 1528 Queen St. W., 416-535-1440
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