Tibetan civilisation is over two thousand years old, one of the oldest in human history. Today the Tibetan community is at a cultural crossroads; as of 2009, over 1,28,000 Tibetans live in exile at the hands of the Chinese government (mostly in India, Nepal and Bhutan) and countless more have adopted citizenships. Although predominantly known as peace-loving people, the Tibetan diaspora’s every act in exile is a political one, and rightfully so. Tibetan resistance is an important moment in global history because at its centre is quite simply the celebration and preservation of Tibetan identity.
Like clothing, language and even spirituality, food is central to Tibetan identity. Certain dishes like tsampa, which is made from roasted barley, have become the fabric that ties the diaspora together in the fight for a free Tibet. We live in an era of global cuisines, each influenced by a confluence of other cultures, cooking techniques and flavours. And while this sometimes comes at the price of being fetishised or otherwise commercially distorted, most food journeys are situated within economic realities – which seems to be the case with many Tibetan restaurants, at least in Mumbai.
On a busy street in Oshiwara is Sernyaa – meaning “gold fish,” a symbol of good luck in Tibetan culture – a modest, brightly coloured little restaurant decorated with photos of the Dalai Lama and the birthplace of Buddha. I am greeted warmly by Mr. Kamal Karma Lama, a simple elderly man with a beaming smile who instantly reminds me of my grandfather. In a mix of English and Hindi, he begins telling me the fascinating story of his life.
Born in Kolkata, Mr. Lama had a difficult childhood but had big dreams of being a filmmaker. He moved to Mumbai in his adolescence and tried tirelessly to get a job in the industry. “I looked different, kind of Mongolian or Chinese, I had very little education. No one wanted to give me a job. Then one day, my friends jokingly told me that Vinod Khanna’s assistant was someone ‘who looked like me,’ and that maybe he’d be the one who finally helped me,” Mr. Lama says. In a fortunate series of events, this man did give Mr. Lama some money to learn accounting so he could work as an accountant for some film production happening then. Eventually, he ended up doing most of the roles on the set, from the recording, mixing, editing, designing and even menial paperwork. He worked in production for 25 years and even made a film of his own, which failed before it released. And somewhere along the way, in nothing but a spur-of-the-moment back-up plan, Sernyaa was born.
“I have always loved food and since my production career wasn’t too stable, I thought ‘why not open a restaurant?’ It’d be good money on the side to fuel my failing film dreams,” he chuckles. He later decided to focus on just one thing – his culinary ambitions – and devoted his time to researching food and developing a balanced, unique menu that catered to his customers.
“The two main Tibetan dishes that I grew up with are the momo and thukpa, which I introduced to Bombay when I came here,” he tells me as they bring out a plate of delicious, steamed chicken momos for me with three different sauces. He explains that the “wrapper” should be very thin but strong enough to hold under the heat of the steam. Most people instinctively reach for the fork to cut the momo into pieces, but the juices of the meat are integral to the dish – and the experience is significantly better when you eat it whole. The stuffing of the momos at Sernyaa are especially unique; they’re made from a secret recipe that Mr. Lama hasn’t even shared within his family.
“It took a lot of explaining and convincing to get people to eat momos in general, especially in this part of the country, and I had to modify the recipes so they were more palatable to Indian communities. When Chinese people first moved to India, people thought Chinese cuisine was meant for sick people since it was so bland and strange. They had to adapt it to local tastes, and so did I.”
Momos are now a fairly common preparation that most people associate with Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet – and with more and more fast-food momo chains popping up, I asked Mr. Lama what he thought about the dish’s rapid commercialisation and whether its authenticity is compromised when fused with so many other mismatched flavours.
“Momos are a simple dish because they were created by simple people who had few facilities available to them. Whether a momo is 40 rupees or 400 rupees, they should make the person eating them happy. Everyone makes them differently, although they are originally Tibetan. It’s not my place to say which momo is good and which isn’t – food is food and no one has a monopoly on it. We had to make some choices to maximise taste as well, like pan-frying them instead of plainly steaming them. But, yes, at some point, the authenticity can get totally ruined. When I saw that some chains were selling ‘chocolate momos’ I was really upset,” he said.
Mr. Lama explained that Sernyaa’s carefully crafted menu is not available anywhere else in the world – since these are fusions and adaptations that he specifically made from his personal experiences traveling around the world, which is also why they are his best kept secret.
His recommendations – and his personal favourites – are the bamboo rice, chango jhasa, guema, and any pork dish, since no other restaurant in the area serves pork. I tasted the bamboo rice, which is a delicately made dish with vegetables and spices cooked in an actual dark bamboo shoot that he has kept with him for 17 years.
I asked Mr. Lama why he chose not to serve dishes like tsampa and chang (which is a kind of rice wine) – foods typically associated with Tibetan culture and assertion. He explained that these dishes were made to give as much warmth and stamina as possible in the high altitudes that most Tibetans live in. “In a city like Bombay, there is no use for that because the weather doesn’t permit it. Plus if I were to serve a dish of plainly roasted barley, I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t like it. Tsampa is not good for business,” he says with a sort of resigned shrug, adding that getting an alcohol permit is very difficult.
I asked Mr. Lama whether the food he eats at home is different from the food he serves in his restaurant, and he immediately piped up. “Absolutely! Tibetans may have to make tough choices in order to sustain their businesses and livelihoods, but their traditions and cultures at home are uncompromised. Give me a bowl of good soup, some simple barley and tea with butter, salt and chai patti, and I’m thrilled.”
Mr. Lama says he is optimistic and confident that Tibetan culture won’t get diluted or washed away even though the diaspora has spread across the world. Although a man who refrains from being political, he does someday hope to visit a free Tibet.
Sernyaa is located at 185, Oshiwara Link Road, Andheri Lokhandwala, Andheri West, Mumbai with an additional branch at 8, Ashok Enclave, Chincholi Bunder, Link Road, Malad West, Mumbai. Be sure to visit if you haven’t already!
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