On a busy road along the Sabarmati river in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, children play and goats scavenge through trash by a row of ramshackle buildings. In one of the buildings, two brothers cook up some of the only Tibetan food in the city.
Tsering Wongdo and his older brother Tsering Dhondup have been whipping up dishes like shaptuk and “thugpa” or noodle soup since they came here looking for work in 2000. The fact that their restaurant has dirt floors and only three walls doesn’t seem to bother the lunchtime crowd.
“Half veg momo,” Wongdo yells out. “Egg chow mein”
One customer, who attends a nearby college, said, between bites of egg chow mein, the gritty atmosphere was intimidating at first. “The space was a little dingy,” she said. “It was weird coming to a place this shady, but the food turned out to be good.”
One of the restaurant’s main draws is the dumplings, or “momo’s,” that the brothers make each morning. Wongdo rolls a ball of smooth, white dough into a small disc and Dhondup spoons ground meat and vegetables in the middle. He pinches the edges together, just like his parents taught him as a kid. Their parents also owned a momo shop. That’s where Wongdo and Dhondup learned much of what they know about Tibet.
They brothers have never actually been there. They were born in northern India, after their parents fled with the Dalai Lama in 1959. The brothers are among the 100,000 ethnic Tibetans now living in India.
The brothers’ parents preserved their culture. They spoke Tibetan, they celebrated ethnic festivals and drank traditional butter tea. As a result, the brothers grew up thinking of Tibet as home. They haven’t become Indian citizens, and are classified as refugees, even though, Wongdo said, it means that they have to renew their passports each year and give up certain rights.
“I only want to be a Tibetan,” he said. “If one Tibetan becomes an Indian and then another follows, then Tibet will eventually become extinct.”
In the meantime, Dhondup said, they’re considered outsiders in the only country where they’ve ever lived. “It can be difficult,” he said. “Sometimes people call me Chinese or they call me Nepali. They look at us like we’re the odd ones out.”
Wongdo and Dhondup say they hope that they can move to Tibet in their lifetime. But they have another, less hypothetical move, in their near future. The Ahmedabad city government is planning to develop the riverfront property where their restaurant sits. They’ll probably have to close within six months.
But the brothers say they’re not worried. They say they’ll find some way to start a new shop, so they can continue to roll out momo dough every morning. Download MP3