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Eating thukpa in exile: How the Tibetan community built bridges with food

Six decades into exile, Tibetan cuisine continues to hold its own even as it opens itself up to local flavours and makes space for Indian dishes at the dining table

Lhasa Dolma holding  a bowl of ‘daesil’ at her home in Bengaluru. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)
Lhasa Dolma holding a bowl of ‘daesil’ at her home in Bengaluru. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, if you walked up Bengaluru’s Brigade Road, then the city’s downtown, past Rex Theatre and the Nilgiris supermarket, you would reach the Shangrila Bar and Restaurant serving Chinese and Thai cuisine. Tucked in the menu were some Tibetan dishes—never with their own name or identity. Like the chicken noodle soup. For a Tibetan, it’s simply thukpa.

The idea of uniquely Tibetan cuisine just did not exist, despite the very large Tibetan community that lived in and around the city. While walking on Brigade Road back then, it was always easy to pick out Shangrila’s owner, Lhasa Dolma, because she stood out in her Tibetan chuba (dress) with mala beads on her wrists. I don’t think anyone ever stopped to ask what a Tibetan was doing so far from home.

And yet, Bengaluru is home to a significant Tibetan community. In 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual and political head, escaped to India. Within weeks, tens of thousands of his people followed him into exile, on foot. Many headed south when Karnataka became the first state, in 1960, to offer asylum.

It has been home to the largest Tibetan community in exile. Five settlements came up in the state, two in Bylakuppe, en route from Bengaluru to Coorg, one each in Kollegal and Hunsur, in south Karnataka, and one in Mundgod, in north Karnataka. Some 40 more settlements came up across India, mostly in the north and North-East. McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh became the centre of the Tibetan exile community, as the place of residence of the Dalai Lama. In 2009, the estimated population of Tibetans living in India was 94,203 (Demographic Survey of Tibetans in Exile, 2009), with 44,523 in Karnataka. A UNHCR survey of 2022 puts the number of Tibetans in India at 72,312.

Many of those who lived in Karnataka worked as farmers, going to the cities in winter to sell sweaters. Initially, the self-sufficient settlements remained fairly insulated. Monasteries were built, including the three main monasteries of Sera in Bylakuppe, Gaden and Drepung, both in Mundgod. Tibetan schools were set up. People could continue to follow their own culture and tradition, whether it was wearing traditional clothes, learning music, or celebrating festivals.

Change, nevertheless, is inevitable. Language in exile has transformed, becoming a homogenised dialect. Literature, which existed either as religious texts or oral narratives, is seeing modern writers who struggle with forms and script. Tibetan cuisine, rooted in the simplest of techniques, with dishes that were already versatile and accommodating, has opened itself up to local flavours.

There is no dissonance or friction in the kitchen or at the Tibetan table. Nor has there been a loss of identity or dilution of culture. In its borrowing of Indian influences, the cuisine has gained a layer, a spiced layer perhaps, an addition of sweets, more vegetables and different meats. And it’s not uncommon to see Indian dishes share space at the dining table.

In a chapter on Tibetan food in The People Of Tibet (1928), Sir Charles Bell, Tibetologist and diplomat, wrote,“Variety was neither expected nor perhaps desired.” Perhaps this aspect has worked in its favour as it embraces other influences. (Norzom, a content marketer in Bengaluru, tells me that a love of all things Korean is now trending!)

A Tibetan in Bengaluru

I catch up with Lhasa Dolma two decades later. We are practically neighbours in Bengaluru. She still dresses in a chuba and the mala beads are still very much there. Her home is unmistakably Tibetan, with long rows of prayer flags fluttering on the terrace and at the entrance and a large altar in the living room. Lhasa Dolma—named for the city of her birth—arrived in Bengaluru from Sikkim in 1976, to study. Marriage followed. Widowed young and with two boys to raise, she started managing Shangrila.

“My son, Tseten, was around eight years old when my nephew came from Sikkim for a visit. That’s when I realised how different their food preferences were. My nephew liked bland Tibetan food. My son loved biryani,” she says. Her home was in Benson Town, in Bengaluru’s cantonment, and her neighbours a generous and helpful Muslim family who often looked after her sons while she was at work. Tseten calls biryani his comfort food.

Lhasa Dolma would speak to her sons about their culture and religion but with food, she says, it was impossible not to adapt. Today, her kitchen is not unlike any contemporary Bengaluru kitchen—anchored in tradition but culinarily an assorted mix. On any given week, family meals range from dosa for breakfast to thukpa, parathas, dal chawal, momos and biryani for lunch and dinner. On trips to Sikkim, she stocks up on the ingredients she needs for Tibetan dishes. From her pantry, she brings out packets of phing (mung bean noodles) and dehydrated black mushrooms from Kalimpong, tsampa (roasted barley powder) from Bylakuppe, and even a tea brick for po cha, or butter tea.

As long back as 1000 AD, tea used to be traded for horses from Tibet. To ensure it lasted the journey, it would be compressed into bricks—and that became the preferred style. To make po cha, a chunk is broken off the brick and steeped in hot water. This decoction is churned with yak butter, salt and yak milk. While she prefers leaf tea from Sikkim’s famous Temi tea estate, she indulges her daughter-in-law’s love for po cha. I ask her about using yak butter or a traditional churner to make it. “Mixie,” she replies emphatically. And “Amul butter is best”.

Thinking Tibet

I met Jangchup Lingpa in 2004, a year after he moved from Bylakuppe to Bengaluru. He and his family had lived in Ladakh for many years. Ladakh, says Jangchup, was familiar terrain—geographically, culturally and food-wise. “Thukpa was a staple,” he says, recalling childhood meals. “We had it with meat or with tsampa.” Thukpa is a Tibetan broth to which meat, vegetables and even dried cheese, or churpi, are added. When Jangchup was 13, his family moved to Bylakuppe, where his father was in charge of the school. “In this hot weather, we couldn’t eat the way we did in Ladakh. Although my mother continued to make thukpa once or twice a week, the dishes began to change. We were introduced to rice, dal, vegetables, chicken and fish here. My mother learnt how to make them…although I think our curry is more like soup.”

Chicken Thupka at the Potala Kitchen in Bylakuppe.  (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)
Chicken Thupka at the Potala Kitchen in Bylakuppe. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)

While his family did not view these changes as particularly significant, Jangchup says, “With chicken, we take one life to feed one family while the meat of one yak can feed many.” It’s a philosophical thought, to minimise harm to others. For while most Tibetans may be practising Buddhists, they are not vegetarian, something of an impossibility in Tibet’s high altitude. For most Tibetans, meat was the source of fat and protein. Grains, beans, a few “cold-weather vegetables” like onions, potatoes, radishes and turnips made up their diet. Yak was a singular source of nourishment, for meat and dairy. In exile, buffalo meat has come closest to replacing yak meat.

Jangchup’s classmate, Tsering Dekey, now in her late 30s, too made the journey to Ladakh and then to Bylakuppe. “Coming to Bylakuppe opened me to another world of food. I had never eaten such dishes. I love idli, dosa and south Indian biryani… And bonda.” The bonda, deep-fried batter made of rice and urad dal, tops the list of favourites among the Bylakuppe Tibetans.

When many Tibetan youth moved to Bengaluru to study in colleges there in the 2000s, more Tibetan restaurants began to open in the city. One of the more popular of these was Amdo Corner, a small restaurant in Austin Town that opened in 2006.

Amdo Tsering had left Tibet for India in his 20s, carrying whatever recipes he had. The Amdo province is famous as the birthplace of the Dalai Lama and Amdowas are reputed to be excellent cooks. Tsering’s restaurant became Jangchup’s go-to place for a bowl of thukpa in Bengaluru. Today, Koramangala, where the office of the chief representative of the Southern Tibetan Settlements and the Youth Hostel are located, has lots of small restaurants serving inexpensive Tibetan food—drawing students from the two big colleges in the area.

In 2005, Jangchup started Think Tibet, an informal platform for local Tibetans and Bengalureans to interact. In 2009, they organised a three-day event to mark 50 years in exile and introduce visitors to facets of Tibetan culture and politics. Amdo Tsering greeted everyone with a cup of po cha and a small selection of Tibetan dishes like tingmo (steamed bun) and bhaktsa martsu (made with flour, churra, or dried cheese, sugar and yak butter) and daesil (the sweet rice made on special occasions). “To share food is to share our culture,” says Jangchup. “In my travels, I meet Indians who know nothing about Tibet. Food breaks those barriers.”

Tsampa for Tibet

A packet of tsampa at a store in Bylakuppe, Coorg. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)
A packet of tsampa at a store in Bylakuppe, Coorg. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)

In 2017, Tsering married Wangdue Dorjee and moved to Bir, in Himachal Pradesh. Over conversations with her husband, the idea of promoting traditional food came up. The couple launched Tibet Foods online in 2018-19, with packaged tsampa, neythuk (hand-pulled flat noodles) and churpi. A new addition is neyja, or nomadic barley tea. In the pipeline are tsampa cookies and muesli.

“We are tsampa eaters. Tsampa is Tibet. It’s a unifying dish,” says Tsering. Tsampa is also the first solid food given to Tibetan babies.

Tsampa is made from roasting barley, the one grain that grows well in Tibet. Washed barley is roasted gently and milled into a fine powder—a seemingly simple but tedious task. There is nothing striking about its appearance or taste but it’s portable, keeps well, and can be had with a little bit of milk, water or butter tea, as a beverage, a porridge, rolled into thick balls, dropped in soup, salted, sweetened…it always lends a feeling of satiety.

Both tsampa and thukpa are extremely versatile and can be customised to one’s preferences. Apart from noodles, meat, vegetables and cheese, you can add tsampa and even momos to thukpa. It can be bland or spiced, a meal by itself or served with tingmo, or had with rice. What is often sold in restaurants is a single style of thukpa, often thentuk, with flat noodles. If the noodles are shell-shaped, it becomes bakthuk, while Chinese-style long noodles make it gyathuk. With momos, it becomes mothuk; tsamthuk is tsampa balls dunked in thukpa.

In Bengaluru, Tsering’s cousin, Tasang, gives me a bag of tsampa, advising me to “make it like Horlicks”, with part boiling water, part milk. It’s a very filling beverage that I sweeten with some brown sugar. It’s all the breakfast I need.

I am surprised that the momo rarely comes up in these conversations about food. I ask Norzom’s mother, Tasang, if its origins are Tibetan and she insists that they are.

The momo stalls that line the streets of Koramangala every evening, however, boast of momos from Tibet, Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal, each claiming it as their own. For the Himalayan communities share a culinary history that goes back to a time when borders were drawn differently and there was greater interaction. For Tibetans, Sikkim is Denzong, or the valley of rice—a reference to the rice imported from there. And Darjeeling derives its name from the Tibetan dorje ling, or land of the thunderbolt.

Where it originated notwithstanding, the momo is definitely a part of Tibetan cuisine. It has also been the gateway to Tibetan culture for Bengalureans. “I have one grouse with it,” says Norzom, referring to the momo’s proliferation as fast food. In Tibetan families, the momo is not a snack or a quick-fix dish. It is a meal, often made on special occasions, and it’s communal.

The Tibetan Kitchen

“What Tibetan dishes would you like Norzom to learn?” I ask Tasang. She lists daesil, bhaktsa marku and, as an afterthought, chutaghi (bow-tie shaped noodles in a vegetable or meat soup). Norzom, who has been our translator, has never heard of it. When Tasang describes it, we wonder if it’s a deconstructed momo.

“Tibetan cooking is not very technical,” says Dechen Dolker, who runs the Utse Kitchen with her Kodava husband, Sujith Belliyappa, in Bengaluru. Utse’s menu is Himalayan—but predominantly Tibetan—cuisine. The décor is Tibetan but also quite modern. As is the food they serve.

Dechen describes Utse’s menu as “born from Tibetan recipes but produced as Indian- and Chinese-accented dishes”. She explains that Tibetan cooking uses methods such as steaming food, making stews and ageing meat. While it may seem to be rather bland cuisine, it would be incorrect to say there is no spice at all. “Tibet’s eastern border adjoins the Sichuan province of China and peppercorns, or yerma, flavour the dishes, while those near India and Nepal will use cumin and garam masala,” says Dechen.

At Tibet Foods, Tsering plans to add a Himalayan spice to her list, one that sounds something like gonyoe, which Tsering says is like cumin. And Tibetans who have lived for some years in Bylakuppe are sure to have, on their spice rack, the Mysore Masala.

The Mysore Masala, a mixture of what seems like sambar powder and tamarind paste, is available online on Zomphel, started by Nyima Dakpa, a 26-year-old farmer from Bylakuppe. “I sell shichak products,” he says, explaining that shichak refers to settlement products sourced especially for Tibetans who have left Bylakuppe and miss home. In recent years, many who left the camps for college have chosen to stay in the cities or move abroad.

Nyima Dakpa runs an online store called Zomphel where he sells Tibetan products. He is seen here with a jar of ‘dalle’ chillies. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)
Nyima Dakpa runs an online store called Zomphel where he sells Tibetan products. He is seen here with a jar of ‘dalle’ chillies. (Photo: Samyukta Lakshmi)

The products Nyima offers include the Mysore Masala, chilli potato chips, tsampa powder, ramen noodles, premixed butter tea sachets from Thailand, Tibetan noodles and Red Label tea. There is also a range of pickles, including one that Nyima makes with homegrown dalle chillies. This range of products tells the story of how the Tibetan palate has changed.

“My grandparents came from Tibet. They ate tsampa. In exile, my parents were introduced to Indian food. If my mother doesn’t have rice once a day, she feels something is missing. My father loves ragi mudde (a farmer’s staple in Karnataka, made from finger millet and washed down with bassaru, which is like a watery dal). But they also urge my brother and me to eat Tibetan food. I feel our environment is different. Our bodies have changed. I don’t enjoy tsampa or thukpa very much,” says Nyima.

At the hostel, Tasang serves us laphing (a cold noodle roll) and milk tea. Her husband, Dorje, remembers the time he lived in Tibet. He recalls a wooden cup lined with silver that was always tucked in his chuba, to be brought out for a serving of butter tea wherever he went. Today, the utensils have changed, tea is drunk in mugs, not bowls. Momos are steamed in electric steamers, butter tea is made with a quick whizz in the blender. Norzom points out that the stainless steel pressure cooker is now part of the Tibetan kitchen.

In the early 2010s, Amdo Tsering sold his restaurant to a compatriot and left India, embarking on yet another journey that took him even further from home. Like him, more Tibetans are moving westward, in yet another migration, seeking better economic opportunities.

Sa thang nam,” says Tasang, when I ask her what has changed in exile. Everything from ground to sky. Nyima speaks of going to Tibet. “When we go to Tibet…” he says. Not “if”.

Jangchup is philosophical. “Change is normal,” he says. And food will change. He points out that even within Tibet, more Chinese influences have come into food, another inevitability.

“When you go to Tibet, will you miss rice and dal?” I ask Nyima. He thinks for a while and says: “I wish to go to Tibet, to take my parents there. And when I have children, and if Tibet is free, I would like them to be there, to be 100% Tibetan. But I am 80% Indian. There’s an emotion attached to a place. It’s complicated. Rice and dal is my kind of food. It represents my Indian birth.”

Aravinda Anantharaman is a Lounge columnist.

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