Tibetan Tastemakers

Kashmir being a melting pot of different cultures witnessed  footprints of exiled Tibetan tribe in late fifties that ended up redefining the local taste buds half a century later, Heena Muzzafar reports 


There resides a mini Tibet in Kashmir. Be it in the form of Tibetan colonies, shops or restaurants, Srinagar apparently acts as window to the ‘rooftop of the world’, Tibet. For past 57 years, a Tibetan tribe living in exile in Srinagar has managed to create different niche and name for itself. But the banished tribe from the ‘land of lama’ is mainly known for serving the taste buds. They are Kashmir’s ‘High Asia’ tastemakers.

The hoardings on the Ghat No.9 of busy Boulevard Road in Srinagar read, ‘Lhasa Restaurant with Garden’. Just opposite to it is the congested lane 3 that was once known as ‘the Lhasa lane’. It has been Lhasa’s abode since its inception.

Lhasa is the perfect blend of Kashmiri and Tibetan culture. Its walls are perfectly decorated with antique wall-hangings of old Kashmir and Tibetan calligraphy. One cannot take eyes off from the perfectly Tibetan carved designs making one feel of being in Tibet, literally. This is Srinagar’s famous food court and an address to Tibetan cuisine.

Lhasa’s history goes back to 1976, when its founder late Abdul Rehman Zareif was struck with an idea of opening up a restaurant to first introduce Chinese and Tibetan cuisines in valley.

“Lhasa would predominantly witness rush of foreign tourists, already introduced to Tibetan cuisine,” says Ahmad Kamal Zareif, one of Rehman’s sons, who now jointly run the restaurant with his two other siblings, Sajid Kamal Zareif and Shahid Kamal Zareif. “But unfortunately, the flow of foreign tourists declined after 1980’s uprising in Kashmir, making Lhasa to change its routine of opening at 6:30 in the morning till 12 in the noon.”

Ahmad Kamal Zareif
Ahmad Kamal Zareif

Late Abdul Rehman Zareif’s family was one among the exiled Tibetan community, who took refuge in Kashmir in 1959 after Tibet’s invasion by China. Rehman resigned as an employee of Tibetan Government in exile in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, and started his journey as a businessman in Kashmir. He would buy Tibetan antiques from rest of the families and then sell them to elites mainly belonging to Kashmir, Delhi and Mumbai.

Lhasa in its infancy would only serve Tibetan and Chinese cuisines, mostly liked by outsiders and a few Kashmiris who had been out to other places. “Since not many Kashmiris were introduced to Chinese cuisine,” says Sajid Kamal, beaming with smile, “the flow of locals would remain low. But gradually, it influenced the local tastes.”

Today, Lhasa not only deals in Chinese, Tibetan, Kashmiri and Indian cuisines, but attracts lot of people by also offering sea food.

But Lhasa isn’t sole player now serving Chinese and Tibetan cuisines in the summer capital. Mohammad Kareem, a Tibetan residing in Eidgah Srinagar has been running Momo hut, Kareem’s Momo Hut, for last 30 years. Adjacent to his shop is Mohammad Ramzan’s Momo hut. Another Tibetan, Hafiez, who recently started his eatery from a shanty hut on a roadside of famous Eidgah is already a busy cook.

Ibrahim Malik of ‘Tibetian Momos’ house
Ibrahim Malik of ‘Tibetian Momos’ house

“Our business runs smoothly despite both the shops serving the same cuisine at each other’s end,” says Ramzan, while busy serving a plate of Momos to his customer. “Thankfully, we both (shops) have good flow of customers each day.”

Chinese cuisine today hasn’t only become taste of every other Kashmiri, who otherwise would prefer wazwan over any other delicacies, but has also become trend among gym-going youth because of its protein-enriched recipe.

Increasing demand of Chinese food has invoked the growth of Chinese food outlet in Srinagar. There are good numbers of restaurants in valley that have their speciality in Chinese cuisine. A few of them have become the face of Chinese food in the busy Lal Chowk of Srinagar.

Tibetan Momos House owned by two brothers Mohammad Ibrahim Malik and Mohammad Yousuf Malik of Tibetan Colony Hawal has been running smoothly in the crowded SBI lane, Lal Chowk for some time now. Inspired by the smooth running of Tibetan food outlets in Hawal area of downtown, Srinagar, Malik brothers shifted their interest from Traditional Embroidery work, locally called Bottie Tilla to Tibetan restaurant, four years back.

Decorated with exotic Tibetan wall-hangings, the Momos House has become a point of attraction for youth because of its special Tibetan and Chinese menu. “I love this place,” says Sanna, a college-goer. “It offers somewhat different to eat than traditional eateries around here.”

Chinese and Tibetan cuisines haven’t only proved successful in setting a new food trend, but have brought the Kashmiri and Tibetan community together. Realising the increasing trend of Chinese and Tibetan food, Kashmiris could not hold back and got into the same domain.

In 2014, Shafat Bashir Bakal, a Kashmiri engineer, entered into a partnership with Shahid Radu belonging to Tibetan community. The duo started Knife and Fork in commercial Regal Chowk of Srinagar.

College going students find Knife and Fork a perfect place for recreation, because of its delicacies and huge space.

Inner view of ‘Knife and Fork’ at Regal Chowk in Srinagar.
Inner view of ‘Knife and Fork’ at Regal Chowk in Srinagar.

“Beta, try Chinese today,” a young lady tells her 7-year-daughter at Knife and Fork.

“Usually parents are worried when their children eat outside,” the lady says, “but when it comes to Chinese I am not worried because it’s mostly prepared in an organic way.”

In exile, goes the popular belief, remarkable things often happen to people. At Lhasa or other Tibetan eateries, the ‘remarkable thing’ for the exiled Tibetans seems their ability to trigger an unabated local rush.

Welcome to Kashmir’s mini-Tibet!

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