Page 3 of 3
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