From the Himalayas
to Parkdale

As the fenugreek blends with black cumin, some hints of turmeric, garlic, ginger and coriander, senses are overwhelmed by the mouth-watering aroma of Tibetan food when walking through the streets of Parkdale.

Home to largest Tibetan population in North America, Parkdale, also known as Little Tibet, is booming with Tibetan restaurants. Tashi Nangsetsang opened the first Tibetan restaurant, Rangzen Café, in the Parkdale-High Park area. He had one goal in mind. He wanted to bring more awareness to the human rights abuse that the Tibetan people were facing from Chinese officials. Nangsetsang said he decided to shed light on Tibetan issues through food.

Tashi's first restaurant

After a hiatus of 13 years from managing the restaurant, Nangsetsang said he stumbled upon a new opportunity to open Momo Hut in 2018, the first Tibetan restaurant in the Danforth area. He wasn’t planning on opening a new restaurant. He was initially looking for a space in which two of his clients would open a collaborative restaurant. After finding a space and renovating it for a year, the rent hikes caused Nangsetsang to look elsewhere.

Nangsetsang said he luckily found a space in Danforth and opened a restaurant with the help of his former clients and his friends and family in just two months. Although, it wasn’t his initial plan, Nangsetsang has continued to raise awareness and highlight Tibetan culture through his newly opened restaurant.

Artifacts in Momo Hut

Prayer Flags

Map of Tibet

Mani Wheel

Painting

Nangsetsang was one of the first Tibetans to arrive in Canada in 1971. He said his parents escaped Tibet in 1959. They went through the Himalayan mountains to Nepal and then ended up in India. His parents stayed in Dharamsala, a city in Himachal Pradesh, which is where he was born. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is currently living in exile in the same city.

Dharamsala

Upon immigrating to Canada, they first entered Montreal and lived there for the first few years. Due to the unfamiliarity of moving to a new place and the language barrier, Nangsetsang said moving to a new place put his family in a vulnerable position with a lot of challenges.

 However, he said “there were so many great people who helped us.” When they first arrived in Montreal, “there was a family that took them under their wing, showed them around Montreal and spent time with them.” He said, “they made us feel welcome in a strange land.”

Tashi's Journey from immigrating to helping Tibetan refugees

Bhutila Karpoche, MPP of Parkdale-High Park said since the situation in Tibet has gotten worse over the years, more and more Tibetans have found refuge in Toronto, particularly Parkdale.

Karpoche said when China invaded Tibet, lot of Tibetans fled to neighbouring countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan. In some places particularly like Nepal, overtime the situation was getting increasingly unsafe for Tibetans. She said Tibetans were targeted during the time when Maoists had their insurgency. Overtime, the government became increasingly hostile to Tibetan refugees and most people felt the need to leave to have a secure place to live.

Photo from Bhutila Karpoche's social media

 Karpoche said many Tibetans sought refuge in Toronto because of the strong and “vibrant tight-knit community.” She said the community is now settling or re-settling very well in Canada.

 “They’re exploring and growing and maturing and exploring as a community in small business, various professions and you know reaching a place where they are contributing back to the community,” Karpoche said.

 Similar to many Tibetan families, Karpoche’s family moved to Toronto in 2002. Her family lived in a high-rise building in Parkdale and she said she found herself in a place “with a great sense of community.”

 Karpoche said there were many supportive and great local organizations. She became “active first within the Tibetan community and slowly expanded to other kinds of community with issues around tenant issue and sort of just went on from there and got into politics.”

“As a Tibetan, you are sort of born politically active because when you are born you are born as a stateless person. You are not born in a land of your ancestors, your identity is Tibetan but the place where you are born in doesn’t recognize you as a citizen of their country. As a result, you don’t have the same rights.”

  • Bhutila Karpoche, MPP of Parkdale-High Park

Prior to being an MPP, Karpoche worked with Reverend Cheri DiNovo, minister and former MPP of Parkdale-High Park. After representing and working with the Tibetan community in Canada for 11 years, DiNovo said, “representing them, even provincially, was very important to me and their issues were important to me.”

Reverend Cheri DiNovo on her involvement with the Tibetan community

Reverend DiNovo said Ontario Parliamentary Friends of Tibet has embarked on discussion and awareness about what is happening in Tibet among all provincial parties. She said journalists are not allowed in Tibet, hence getting news from Tibet is rare. Despite being a small community, Reverend DiNovo said the impact that they have both on the community that they’ve settled in and on political discourse is profound.

“The greatest lesson that Tibetans could teach the world is how to be politically active, how to resist oppression without using violence.”

  • Reverend Cheri DiNovo

Gelek Badheytsang, Communications Advisor at Law Society of Ontario, moved to Toronto when he was in his late teens. His family was among the first wave of the initial migration or Tibetans that came to Toronto.

Badheytsang said, “Tibetans, the ones in the diaspora outside of Tibet, [are] all refugees. So being a refugee is a fundamental aspect of our identity.” Due to this, he said the core aspect of his identity is political.

In Parkdale, there are many Tibetans like Badheytsang who are maintaining a strong connection to their roots and culture. He said the Tibetan community in Parkdale practices a movement that started in Tibet called “Lhakar” as a way to reclaim their identity and way of life by proudly embracing their traditions. They gather on the courtyard on Parkdale Collegiate Institute and they were traditional clothing and have traditional round dances. He said, “we out here in the diaspora are emulating that and supporting them through traditions like this.”

Badheytsang said his love and appreciation for Tibetan food became more pronounced when he moved to Canada. One of the ways that food has brought Badheytsang closer to his culture was by learning how to make Tsampa from his mother-in-law. He said since Tsampa is unique to Tibet, the act of having Tsampa has become an important symbol and a cultural marker of what it means to be Tibetan. He said, “I felt that I was reconnecting with this sense of practice that has happened for so many years and for generations going back.”

 

Here is a video of Gelek making Tsampa.

1950

40,000 Chinese troops invaded Tibet in October.

1959

Due to prospects of harm, 300,000 Tibetans guarded Dalai Lama’s palace for protection.

1960-1962

Thousands of monasteries and agricultural lands were destroyed resulting in deaths of thousands of Tibetans.

1976

By this time, every single Buddhist monasteries and cultural sites were destroyed.

2006

New railway linking a Chinese city and Tibetan city opened causing fear among Tibetans.

2008

Anti-China riots killed around 80 people in Tibet.

2011

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, announced his plans to retire as a political leader the exile movement.

2018

Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, which provides funding for Tibetan communities in Tibet, Nepal and India, was signed by the United States government.

Timeline created by compiling information from BBC, CBC, CNN, and freetibet.org.

Toronto’s vibrant Tibetan community has found variety of ways to solidify their existence. Individuals like Tashi Nangsetsang and Gelek Badheytsang show how food can be a form of activism and reconnection to their culture. Badheytsang says, “food is a way for us to get together, express our generosity and be a good host.”

Seven Tibetan restaurants in Toronto