Despite its reputation as Toronto's most rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood (close your eyes, spin around three times and you're likely to fall face first into an artisanal cocktail), the West-End enclave of Parkdale still has signs of its hardscrabble past. Sun-soaked coffee shops are bookended by derelict hardware stores, while hipsters mingle with vagrants with the unease of coeds at a high school dance.
But as the city's western frontier continues its breakneck transformation, the Tibetan community that's called this neghbourhood home for nearly two decades remains headstrong. After all, most Tibetan-Canadians have been displaced once before, and seem hell-bent on not letting it happen again. So while other businesses shutter in the face of soaring rent, the handful of Tibetan restaurants sprinkled along a three-block radius have planted their country's flag. They aren't going anywhere.
"People in this city are becoming more aware of our food," says Garab D. Lama, whose bustling eatery Tibet Kitchen joins Tsampa Cafe, Shangrila, Himalayan Cafe, Lhasa Kitchen, Om, and Norling to form Little Tibet's culinary core.
And with good reason.
So long a second fiddle to far more ubiquitous Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese in the city (Toronto's pho-joint-to-person ratio might actually be 2:1), Tibetan food's profile is rising among diners. Chinese and Indian-influenced dishes like shaptak (sliced beef laced with green chilies and hot sauce) and thenthuk (flat hand-pulled noodles steeped in a warming beef broth) are now far more accessible.
While feeding locals is of the utmost importance to a community of people who treat hospitality like high art, Parkdale's cluster of Tibetan restaurants have a far more important responsibility: preserving their culture.
Thanks to government-initiated refugee resettlement programs dating as far back as 1972, Canada has become home to one of the largest Tibetan diasporas in the world, and Toronto is its nucleus. Its restaurants are where Tibetans go to find one another, drawn by the prospect of lively debate and the familiar aromas of butter tea and momos, the popular crescent moon-shaped, meat or vegetable-filled dumplings that are served steamed or pan-fried.
"When you live in a diasporic community, having a common place for people to share your food is an important way to stay connected to your culture," says Urgyen Badheytsang, national director of Students for a Free Tibet Canada, an organization that advocates for Tibet's liberation. "How do we find other Tibetans?" Badheytsang asks. "These restaurants become common grounds for us. This is where conversations happen. This is where families take their kids out."
Badheytsang is part of a growing group of young Tibetan-Canadians who've taken an active role in preserving their cultural identity, something in which food plays a vital role. I met with him and his colleague Tenzin Lhawang just days before Eat For Tibet, an annual event that encourages people to visit and eat in Little Tibet, with half of the proceeds earned going to SFT Canada.
"Like any immigrant community, a lot of us struggle from culture shock when we arrive here," he says. "We don't know what to expect. We find ourselves living in a one-bedroom apartment, crammed into small places and it doesn't exactly match our previous idea of the West. But then you go to these restaurants and meet other Tibetans who are living under the same conditions, and you find solace in that."
No matter how developed we become, no matter what changes, food is always going to be one thing that keeps us together.
Like many Tibetans, Badheystang and Lhawang are skilled in the ways of Tibetan cuisine, and learned how to make momos right out of their mothers' wombs. "Hundreds of thousands," Badheystang says when asked how many of the doughy flavour bombs he's kneaded over the years.
"The thing about momos that's so great is its communal aspect," he says. "You get five or six people in the household and you say, 'Let's make momos.' Then you dedicate the next two hours to it, and you talk and discuss, and you learn about things that are important to Tibetans, to your family."
"Each person has a specific job: making the dough, making the meat or veggie stuffing, shaping the shells," adds Kelyang Tenzin, another member of SFT Canada. "That group approach is so reflective of our culture: how everyone shares the work and gathers around to talk, joke, and enjoy being with each other in that moment."
Another young Tibetan who believes in food as an important symbol of cultural identity is the Swiss-based rapper Shapaley, who named himself after the popular Tibetan fried meat pie Shapale (Flava Flav's cartoon clock has nothing on Shapaley's meat pie chain).
It also happens to be the title of his most well-known song, a call to action for young Tibetans to never abandon their Buddhist ideals, or else: "I'm serious, I ain't kidding," he raps over a bedroom beat. "Buddy I'm the one who makes shapale/I got hot ones, cold ones, hard ones, soft ones/If your grandma tells you to buy her veggies/If your grandpa tells you to pass him his walking sticks/You'd better do it/If you don't/Wait a minute/I'll make the dough, put meat on it, fry it up and there it goes."
It's only a matter of time before Drake drops "Pass the Peameal".
I ask Badheystang why Tibetans rely so heavily on food to keep the fabric of their culture stitched tight. His answer rings true to many immigrant communities who find themselves a long way from home.
"No matter how developed we become, no matter what changes, food is always going to be one thing that keeps us together," Badheystang tells me. "Maybe we can't connect on music, maybe some of us can't connect on our political views, but we can always connect on food."