It's a rainy Saturday afternoon when I pull up a chair to join Lobsang Sherab and Karma Lama at Shangri-la Tibet Kitchen in Jackson Heights. I'm wet and cold, and the warm mugs of milky-looking tea sitting in front of them look particularly inviting. After a few minutes of niceties Sherab, the restaurant's owner, offers me a cup, and I'm thrilled, thinking of the Indian masala chai that their drinks so closely resemble.
But before I can say yes, Lama, who is not officially associated with the restaurant but who spends most of his time here since being laid off from his construction job, stops me.
"You want Tibetan tea or sweet tea?" he asks, his voice thick with a kind of playful foreboding.
"Tibetan tea," I say without question.
"It's very salty," he says.
Intrigued, I insist and Sherab calls in Tibetan to a woman who is folding napkins.
As we wait, Lama explains that the tea, transliterated as bocha or po cha, is made creamy with butter, which provides extra calories needed at the high elevations in Tibet and neighboring countries where many Tibetan exiles live. In Tibet, the butter is made from the milk of dris, female yaks, but here in Queens, where Sherab has run Shangri-La Tibet Kitchen for the last year, cow's milk butter stands in. The tealeaves, however, are authentic. Sherab has Chinese and Indian businessmen bring them back for him when they travel to Asia. He says you can't get them in the local Indian markets where he does much of his shopping.
When my drink arrives, the two men look at me expectantly. I take a surreptitious sniff, and then a small sip. A savory warm broth, more soup than tea, fills my mouth. You can easily imagine that in mountainous Tibet, it would be incredibly soothing and nourishing. Here at ground level, it's delicious in the way that a buttery sauce might be, rich but a little overwhelming. The two men are drinking their cups slowly, taking a sip only every few minutes. I follow their lead.
While the tea is good and very similar to what he drank before coming to this country, Lama tells me later, there is a lingering feeling that "you didn't get the right butter, and so it's not right."
Yet it's the closest he can get in Queens, he says, and the restaurant is run by his old friend Sherab. Since losing his job last March, Lama comes here every day for his meals, in between the activist work he does for the Tibetan Community of New York and New Jersey. Although the sizeable restaurant is empty at noon on a Saturday ("Business is slow," Sherab admits), a steady stream of people comes in to talk with the two friends, and the staff is busy preparing the restaurant for a private function later that evening. Tables are being set and a stage in the corner of the room stands ready for live traditional Himalayan music.
Although a handful of restaurants in the neighborhood offer Himalayan cuisine, Sherab's stands out because its specialty is Tibetan, with a focus on the noodles and momos (meat or vegetable stuffed dumplings) that are staples of the diet. While the restaurant attracts Nepalese, Indian, and Western residents from the neighborhood, some of whom order from the smattering of Nepalese, Indian Chinese, and Indian options on the menu, the majority of Tibetan customers seek traditional Tibetan offerings.
Here in Queens, however, the community comes out. Signs advertising Tibetan protests, vigils, and holidays hang around the restaurant, and while many of the customers and staff speak multiple languages (Lama himself speaks Tibetan, Hindi, Nepali, and English—only a little, he says modestly), Tibetan is the language of choice. It's important to have a place like this, according to Lama. "I am Tibetan. I eat Tibetan food. It's human nature."
Immigrant communities gather in ethnic restaurants all over the city to eat their native cuisines and speak their native tongues; however, at Shangri-La Tibet Kitchen, there is an added element. Most of the customers didn't come from Tibet, they've been displaced for most or all of their lives; Tibet is filtered through Nepal or through India, or often both.
Sherab and Lama were both born in Tibet, but like many native Tibetans in their early 50s, they've spent most of their lives in exile. Lama's parents, who were nomad herders, moved two-year old Lama and his siblings from Eastern Tibet just before the 1959 Chinese invasion of Lhasa. Tensions had been building in the region for several years, and once they'd heard that the Dalai Lama was in India they headed in that direction, stopping for a year at a refugee community in Nepal on the way. Lama fondly remembers the long awaited arrival in India. After having lived without enough food in Nepal, the Punjabi people were very nice, he says, offering his family shelter and plenty of food. When asked if he liked Punjabi food, he thinks for a moment, then nods, all smiles. "Yes. In Eastern Tibet it was hard to get sweets."
After receiving the Dalai Lama's blessing in Dharamsala, his father, like many Tibetans, got a job in construction, going back and forth over the Himalayas. The usually gregarious Lama goes soft as he recounts how in 1962, when he was about seven, a heavy snow fell very quickly while families of the construction workers moved from site to site, and many of the Tibetan workers, wives, and children were killed in an avalanche.
Lama went on to study Tibetan philosophy at university before joining up with guerilla fighters in the hopes of obtaining freedom for the homeland he left at age two. While he acknowledges the peaceful teachings of his people's leader, Lama is comfortable with his decision to engage in military training. "That is young blood," he says of his choice. "We like to fight China—they were occupying my country." In the mountains of Northern India, he trained with other Tibetans, coming together each night to cook the closest approximations to their native food as possible—lots of momos, stuffed with lamb or beef, because you couldn't get yak like you could in Tibet or Nepal. (His longing for yak continues today, and not just as a condiment for tea. The last time he had it was a couple of years ago, when a recently expatriated Tibetan brought him some yak jerky. "It was delicious," he reminisces.)
Throughout our conversation, Sherab allows Lama, ever the raconteur, to elaborate, even when it comes to his own life story. He answers in a few words and then waits for Lama to fill in the blanks, nodding occasionally in the affirmative as his friend describes his background.
Sherab was born on the Tibet and Nepal border, and after the 1959 uprising his family also settled in Nepal. Although the instability in their country left them refugees, Sherab's family moved forward with their plan for him, and at age nine, he entered a monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal, a heavily Tibetan town outside of Kathmandu, where he stayed for the next 15 years, seeing his family only when they came for regular visits. He studied philosophy before eventually moving to a larger monastery in Southern India to continue his studies.
I ask Lama if he ever considered becoming a monk. He turns red and laughs. He meditates on his own he tells me, before taking a sip of salty tea, which reminds me that I need to have one too.
"If you don't like it, you don't need to drink it," he says kindly.
"No, no. It's very good," I say and take another swallow.
The two men met in Nepal, Lama tells me, but they didn't become friends until Morocco.
"Morocco?" I ask.
Lama's eyes light up, and he nods knowingly. Sherab gets up to speak with the chef ("Very famous chef in Tibet," Lama tells me.) "We went to Morocco to be in a movie," he says. "You heard of Kundun? Martin Scorsese?" Because he couldn't film his Dalai Lama biopic in Tibet, Scorsese sent a casting agent to Nepal to seek out Tibetan refugees, who were flown to Morocco for a four-month shoot. It was the first time out of Asia for both men, and in these foreign surroundings, the two became friends. Surprised by the copious amounts of North African-style salad served by craft services ("We don't eat too much salad in Tibet," says Lama), the two men began making themselves Tibetan food. It wasn't hard to do, even in Africa. "You get meat. You get wheat. No problem to make noodles and momos."
From Morocco back to Nepal and then on to Queens, the two have lived in a series of Tibetan enclaves, always refugees, seeking comfort in the language and customs of a place they barely remember. Each of the men's favorite menu items, however, speaks to a memory of their lives before New York. Sherab often opts for Sha Gya-Thuk, a clear broth teeming with short, flat noodles, daikon, spinach, mushrooms, and beef. He used to make this soup at the monastery he tells me. "It's good for winter," Lama adds. Lama, for his part fancies the momos, and his preference is for those stuffed with beef. I sample some, and without question, they are among the best I've had. The ground beef is flavorful, redolent with onions and garlic, and the dumpling dough has a great toothiness to it. Lama nods in approval as he bites into one and says that they are incredibly similar to the ones he's had so many times in the past as a Tibetan seeking Tibetan food around the world. "In Nepal and India," Karma says, "Everyone made noodles and momo at home. Here, people don't have much time. They come here and it reminds them of those days."
"It's our culture," Sherab agrees. And in the stories of these two men and in the food they choose to sell and to order, they actively preserve that culture wherever they go.
"I feel better when I eat a momo," says Lama. "It's my own choice. People have a lot of choices about what they eat. Mine is for here."
Shangri-La Tibet Kitchen
74-15 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights