Taipei's Tibet Kitchen: A Taste of Home, a Hope for the Future

Taipei's Tibet Kitchen: A Taste of Home, a Hope for the Future
Credit: Tibet Kitchen Facebook
What you need to know

More than a Taipei food institution, Tibet Kitchen is a gathering place for Taiwan's Tibetan community.

By Liu Hao-chi (劉皓齊)

“Please give me the authentic taste,” I overhear. “Where do you come from?” A dialogue strikes up. In the background, Tibetan folk ballads are mixed into a mélange of mostly Indian songs.

For elder Tibetans who have left their hometowns, it is a blessing to have a bite of tsampa in Taiwan, thousands of kilometers from the Himalayas. Young Tibetans, however, are likely missing Tandoori roast chicken with its slightly burnt skin covered with a rich layer of spices and dipped in yogurt. It is an Indian dish, but for Tibetans, it brings back memories.

On Heping East Road, heavy with traffic, there is a small storefront seemingly playing hide-and-seek with other high-rise buildings. It is not particularly conspicuous, so not easily noticed. Only when one goes near can they see the sign bearing the Potala Palace and, in large lettering, “Tibet Kitchen.”

Though the restaurant is named after Tibet, its menu features several Indian dishes. According to Tashi and Donka, the Tibetan couple who own the restaurant, India is a second home for Tibetans. Most Tibetans in exile are very familiar with Indian dishes, especially second or third generation Tibetans who grew up in India.

Tibetans, Indians, and new Taiwanese

About 20 years ago, Tashi and Donka came to Taiwan, one after the other. When asked whether they came across any difficulties when first arriving in Taiwan, they smile and say: “Probably because we were all ethnic minorities and moving to the same place, plus Tibetans like to help each other out, so we would introduce each other to friends!”

The pair rarely appear n the daytime because both have other jobs. Yet in the evenings, they are always on hand to greet and chat with the Tibetan guests. Sometimes, even when it is not a public holiday, they hang up the ‘closed’ sign early because their Tibetan friends are having a party in the restaurant.

As Donka said, one of the reasons for deciding to open the restaurant in the first place was because Tashi liked to make friends, especially with those who were also Tibetan exiles.

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Credit: AP/达志影像
Tibetan refugees who were forced to flee by the Chinese Communist Party in 1959.

Tashi’s parents fled Tibet and died when he was little. He spent all his childhood in school in India. For him, everything changed once he met Donka in high school. As for his wife, she says that she thinks of herself more as an Indian because her mother was a Tibetan born in India. Only her father came with the exiled group to India when he was little.

Tashi first came to Taiwan to go to university, while Donka stayed in India to finish college. After graduation, Tashi secured a steady job and obtained the first ID card in his life. He decided to marry Donka and bring her over to Taiwan. Donka later also became a Taiwanese citizen.

The Indian government then was not as open about the policy of Tibetan exiles obtaining Indian citizenship as it is now, and so most of the Tibetans there had to live as refugees. After they came to Taiwan, they finally had official status. They jokingly said that they were now ‘New Taiwanese.’

Shortly after they came to Taiwan, one of their Tibetan friends opened a small restaurant specializing in Tibetan cuisine. It was in business for about three years until the owner emigrated to Canada, after which Taipei’s only Tibetan restaurant was forced to shut down.

This gave Tashi and Donka the idea of starting their own Tibetan restaurant. “There was no Tibetan restaurant in Taipei anymore,” Tashi recalls “and many Tibetans said there was no restaurant to go… so everybody could get together and have a place to make friends and help each other out.”

As a result, the couple found an Indian chef and a Tibetan chef and went about operating a restaurant. Both still comes to help around the restaurant after work. To cater to the light flavorings that Taiwanese are used to, the taste has been slightly adjusted. However, if Indians or Tibetans come into the restaurant, informed beforehand, the chefs will present the dishes with the aforementioned "authentic taste."

Though there are all kinds of ingredients in Taiwan, Donka said that spices must be brought over from India. Because of his work, Tashi often travels back and forth to India, so he is always sure to pick up authentic spices for the restaurant.

Descendant of the Dalai Lama’s guard

In the daytime, aside from the servers bustling around the restaurant, another Tibetan man can frequently be seen at a table near the corner. He often lowers his head and inconspicuously stares at his phone; sometimes he watches the customers come and go. He is Tenzin, Donka’s cousin and Tashi’s good friend. Tenzin recently had the opportunity to come to Taiwan, and apart from meeting with old friends, he spends much of his time helping around the restaurant.

Both of Tenzin’s parents are Tibetans who fled to India. After he graduated from high school, his family emigrated to the United States. Both his father, Aneu Dawa, and his uncle, Lobsang Tenzin, served in the guard escorting the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet to India in 1959.

Tenzin’s eyes glow with excitement and his tone is heavy with pride when he speaks about his father’s role in assisting the Dalai Lama. But his father, like many Tibetan elders, rarely speaks about his experiences. In the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, he recounts the scene of his arrival in India:

The few guards at the Indian border must have seen a miserable scene – 80 Tibetan refugees, after a long-haul trek, exhausted and depressed after such a grueling trial. Yet, I was happy because the official whose acquaintance I had made on a visit to India two years prior was there to meet us. He said that he had been commanded to escort me and help me settle in Bomtila – a big town, about one week from here.

Differing views on independence

Tashi, Donka and Tenzin sometimes spend evenings in the restaurant eating and chatting together with small cups of butter tea. Each of the trio has their own opinions on the future of Tibet. Tenzin hopes that Tibet can become fully independent.

He thinks his education has massively influenced him; when he is in free countries like the United States and Taiwan, he feels strongly that his own country should be independent as well. No matter how long it takes, Tenzin thinks Tibet can, and will, become fully independent.

“Just like India was under British rule for 200 years… then they became independent, [just as] we are going to,” says Tenzin. “[It has been] 60 years, so we have a hope that if one day China may… you know…”

Donka supports independence – a status and a country of her own. Tashi says he would rather take a middle road of sorts, stopping short of advocating for full Tibetan independence. Hearing this, Donka smiles and says they hold different views on the issue. She says she thinks more of herself and her desire for an identity, while Tashi thinks of the Tibetans who are still in Tibet. But she also says that no one is wrong or right about this.

In a foreign land and a free society, the trio can talk about independence, but Tibetans back home would not dare to do the same. The more those living abroad talk, the more ruthlessly the government suppresses those living in Tibet. Still, Tibetans make their own choices based on their expectations for the future of Tibet.

On March 10 each year, Tibetans in every corner of the world – India, the U.S., Taiwan – join demonstrations in memory of China’s suppression of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. Demonstrators on Tibetan Uprising Day, regardless of their political vision for Tibet, share a common hope for the Tibetan people to gain freedom.

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Credit: Reuters / TPG
A Tibetan reacts after being detained by police outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, India during 2018 Tibetan Uprising Day.

Donka says that she and Tashi took part in the Tibetan Uprising Day march in India when they were little. Here in Taiwan, they still participate every year for their country.

Lost language and culture

“I’m going to watch the soccer game with friends later,” Tashi says to me. This year’s World Cup caught the eyes of global audiences, but Tashi was more curious about the situation of the participation of the Tibetan national soccer team, known as ‘The Forbidden Team,’ in the World Cup organized by the independent football association CONIFA in London.

Donka said that because Tibet is not recognized as a country, it is important that there is a game in which Tibet can participate. Tenzin hopes that when Tibet becomes independent, a team of Tibet’s own can take part in the FIFA World Cup.

I wrapped up by asking the trio about the sentencing of Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language activist. In May, he was sentenced to five years in prison by Chinese authorities for inciting separatism after appearing in a New York Times documentary and speaking about Tibetans’ fear that their culture is being erased.

I wanted to know how much Tibetan the trio continued to speak after leaving India – to see if, in this quaint Taipei restaurant, the Tibetan language was being preserved. Although they still speak Tibetan to each other and to other Tibetans, they says their vocabulary is gradually being replaced with Mandarin and English – Tashi and Donka have lived in Taiwan for nearly two decades, while Tenzin lived in the U.S. for over 20 years.

Donka and Tenzin say they can still understand and speak Tibetan, but admit they have difficulty reading and writing properly.

I think this is important, but you have to see which society you live in. Take my friend’s child for example. If we teach him Tibetan… he would not be able to use it. He stays and speaks Mandarin in school all day. How would he have time to learn Tibetan?

I can only write my name. I cannot read – even though I used to in school, but then I forgot everything, because we don’t use it daily. We only speak, we don’t read.

Donka and Tenzin seemed to reveal the frustration of Tibetan exiles. Losing their country as a foundation has made it difficult to preserve and nurture Tibetan language and culture.

While Tibet Kitchen, hidden on the streets of Taipei, is not big, it uses food to introduce Taiwan to Tibet. We may not be used to the taste, but for Tibetan exiles, it reminds them of their earliest memories. When you walk past this little restaurant, do take some time to stop in and listen to their stories. Or you can tell the chef: “Please give me the authentic flavor!” and have a true taste of their home.

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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