In the mountains of Tibet, food is about survival. In the streets of Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood, home to one of North America’s largest Tibetan populations, survival is about being able to pay the rent.
“The way I was brought up was a completely different lifestyle,” says Garab Lama, owner of Parkdale staple Tibet Kitchen. “My generation and my son’s generation is completely different; we had a very hard life.”
Today, Lama’s life is decidedly easier than growing up in Nepal after his family fled Tibet, but he still has the forces of gentrification to contend with. Parkdale is where Toronto’s business class once built big Victorian houses, though its-turn-of-the-century prestige slowly faded, making it affordable to both artists and recently arrived immigrants alike. Over the last decade, however, Parkdale has become the embodiment of Toronto gentrification, replete with wine bars and million-dollar homes that used to be crack houses.
“Parkdale, the neighborhood, it wasn’t that great a neighborhood in the early years,” Lama says. “We locals have built this neighborhood, now Parkdale is vibrant. So, I think, we locals deserve to run a business without the big corporations coming in.”
Lama is referring to a major pizza chain that he says made an aggressive offer on the space occupied by Tibet Kitchen. “My rent—I used to pay $4,500—but now the landlord wants $8,500, that’s way too expensive. I was telling my landlord, ‘My food is basically eight or nine dollars, I can only survive if I start selling the drugs or the cocaine!’” he laughs. “Otherwise, I can’t even afford to pay for that.”
Just to be clear, Lama is absolutely not selling the drugs or the cocaine, but he will have to hustle in the legitimate sense if he wants to keep Tibet Kitchen alive. Said pizza chain offered to pay the landlord $10,000 per month in rent and to renovate the kitchen, making the deal almost irresistible. Tibet Kitchen’s rent nearly doubled overnight, but Lama agreed to pay it, landing him in what he describes as “a difficult situation right now.”
When I arrive at Tibet Kitchen, the vibe is anything but difficult. I am greeted with a Tibetan ceremonial khata scarf, usually reserved for special occasions and dignitaries, which is a very effective way to make someone feel welcome. Lama is all smiles and seems surprisingly unfazed for a man whose livelihood may be on the line. In the kitchen, the mood is equally relaxed. Lama is showing me how to make gyuma, Tibetan blood sausage, while discussing the harsh reality of being priced out of a neighborhood that his restaurant helped make prosperous.
“Gyuma means ‘intestines,’” he says. “In Tibet, we have mountains and we have to eat a lot of proteins and non-vegetables, because we have no vegetables grown in Tibet, especially where I come from, the Western part of Tibet, very close to Nepal. […] We have to eat gyuma.”
Gyuma’s origins are, not surprisingly, deeply intertwined with Tibet’s climate and altitude, where yaks are often bled during summer to help them survive, Lama says, and, naturally, nothing edible goes to waste.
“We’re in Canada, we’re using the beef blood, but back at home in Tibet, we always use the yak blood, because that’s the only animal we have in Tibet. […] When the yak is getting fat in the summer, we take the blood out from the yak, so at least the yak can survive. Otherwise, when there’s too much blood in the yak, they’ll die. So, we take their blood out and then, we don’t want to waste it and that’s how the gyuma was started.”
Lama also has a childhood connection to the dish, which he says he learned how to make from chefs at his school in Nepal. At Tibet Kitchen, that beef blood is mixed with ground beef, steamed rice, and a pinch of salt. “The blood’s warm! When was this animal killed?” I ask Lama, after feeling warm blood between my fingers as we mix the sausage stuffing. Patiently, Lama responds, “A long time back, I think the rice is warm,” reminding me that it’s the heat of steamed rice and not fresh blood that I’m feeling. After my interruption, the mixture is stuffed into a beef intestine casing by Lama’s wife Kunsang and then sautéed in the wok by chef Guru Dorjee with tomato sauce, chillies, chilli oil, and fresh cilantro.
The resulting dish is nowhere near as heavy as French boudin, with the spicy tomato sauce acting as an effective counterweight to the rich rice, blood, and beef. Much like the hearty Northern Portuguese meat tower known as the Francesinha sandwich, gyuma is a dish that transposes very naturally to Toronto. “We live in Canada, right?” Lama says. “Canada is very cold and gyuma is very popular, too… It’s very good for the winter.”
And while gyuma is currently Lama’s best-seller, Tibet Kitchen’s menu runs the gamut from momos to chilli chicken jasha to chow mein, showcasing the Indian, Bhutanese, Nepalese, and Chinese culinary influences on Tibet. “Tibet Kitchen was one of my favorite restaurants before I bought it, I used to come here with my family,” he recounts. “So, when I first came to Canada, it was first immigrant in a new country, my first business was a restaurant, and my father’s first business when he immigrated from Tibet to Nepal was a restaurant, too.”
“Parkdale is what people call ‘Little Tibet,’” he explains. “We have almost nine to ten Tibetan restaurants in this neighborhood.” Despite a disproportionately high amount of Tibetan restaurants in the vicinity, Tibet Kitchen remains a standout in the community in Parkdale.
“The local people—the good thing about Parkdale—they always support each other,” Lama says, telling the story of a petition started by a Tibet Kitchen regular asking for a city councilor to allow Lama to continue to operate in a new, unoccupied space after his rent hike, which is currently prohibited due to municipal regulations on restaurant licensing. “At that time I realized that I was so blessed, like the people really support me and support my team.”
Tibet Kitchen’s future, at least in its current location, is uncertain. At this rate, Lama says he’ll be able to stay open until mid-January, if he’s lucky. He is also actively looking for other properties to rent, but doesn’t want to stray too far from Parkdale, despite the fact that rental prices and bylaws aren’t making it easy to remain in the neighborhood.
“This is my neighborhood. When I first came to Canada, I lived in this neighborhood, so this is my neighborhood,” he says. “At lot of my customers are telling me, ‘Wherever you go, we follow you.’ I love Parkdale and I want to be in this neighborhood. When you’re in love, you can’t control it, it just from your heart, right? And, so that’s why I love this neighborhood.”
Lama doesn’t consider himself a gambler, nor does he want to be rich, “We don’t make much money, we’re a very simple restaurant. We make little money and we’re happy with that.” But he does buy himself a lottery ticket once a week, which says a lot more about Parkdale than it does about Lama’s vices.
If he did win the lottery, he says, the first order of business, after giving to charity, would be to “buy the business and to buy the property… at least we can stay in this neighborhood.”
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