It was 4 in the evening when I landed at Sangye Tashi’s kitchen on Jogibara Road in McLeodganj. The door was locked with a printout pasted on the door specifying the timings of the cooking class and a menu of momos, hand-made noodles, breads and other Tibetan specialities. With no one in sight I scribbled my name and number on the notepad hanging at the door; that’s how tourists inform Sangye that they’re interested in taking up a class. But if you’re not comfortable with the idea, you’ll find him playing carom just across the street. Within a couple of minutes, I saw the cheery chef walking jauntily towards me. I booked a Tibetan bread baking class with him for the next day and set out to explore McLeodganj further.
Next day, I was at Sangye’s door not realizing that I was about to learn not just Tibetan breads but also the simplest life lessons from a 47 year old Tibetan chef. The kitchen is simple with just a gas stove, few pots and pans, a shelf full of ingredients and cooking counter. His Holiness The Dalai Lama smiles down at us from the framed picture on the wall; a place of pride at all the Tibetan households, cafes, restaurants and shops. There’re no flashy pots and pans or high end baking equipment at this kitchen, but Sangye’s bright smile and enthusiasm makes up for it. In a two hour class, we’re learning three breads – whole wheat, steamed tingmo, bhalek – and deep-fried Tibetan cookies called kaptse.
Sangye begins mixing the dough for bread – activating yeast, measuring flour, mixing all of it together using a quick motion of just his index finger – all the while keeping me engrossed in conversation. He came to India in 1997 – like his fellow Tibetans – walking through the Himalayas leaving his entire family behind. “I came here for education and to meet The Dalai Lama,” he says without any pretence. And, he has met His Holiness a couple of times since then. Sangye hasn’t seen his family since he left home in 97 and was only able to speak to them over phone after 2004. But he tells me this without a trace of melodrama in his voice.
We move to making cookies as our bread dough sits to rise. Kaptse are deep-fried, mildly sweet, tear-drop like cookies made with maida and egg during birthdays and other celebrations. Traditionally they are eaten with hot lemon and ginger tea. We roll out the cookie dough, cut, twist and twirl the cookies while chatting about food of Lucknow, his two daughters who live and study at Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamshala and his visits to Bodhgaya in Bihar. There’s an incredible zest for life in him which infects me too as I punch the dough for the bread. We go with the whole wheat bread first. While I look around for an oven, Sangye pulls out a non-stick pan and lights up the stove; yes, we’re baking our bread in a pan. Am I sceptical? Not really. Sangye’s confidence tells me that he knows what he is doing. He greases the pan with little oil, throws in the fat disc of dough and covers it with a steel plate. In a few minutes, the room is filled with the familiar, comforting aroma of bread. Next is tingmo – stuffed steamed bread traditionally eaten with phingsha – beef, dried mushrooms and potato broth. His face lightens up when I tell him that I’ve eaten it at a small Tibetan restaurant in Goa. Somehow, my awareness of the cuisine of his land helps us connect.
Sangye tells me the story behind bhalek as we move on to our last bread. His mother would make the stuffed baked bread, with a different filling every day, as school lunch for Sangye and his siblings. “I would look forward to my lunch time thinking about the filling I would get,” he tells me with a glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes. We munch on the cookies and sip on warm lemon tea as our breads bake. The conversation leads to politics, China, communism and UN’s silence on the Tibet issue. People back there are not allowed to have The Dalai Lama’s picture in the house, they cannot follow their traditions or even speak the language. While telling me all this, Sangye doesn’t forget to thank Indian government for letting Tibetans stay and move around freely in the country; something that fills me up with little pride. But I have to ask him and I do, “are you happy here?” His answer both astonishes me and calms me down at the same time, “if you have peace within, you’ll be able to find happiness everywhere,” he says filling me up with an emotion I am not familiar with. Isn’t that the essence of Buddhism?
As he bids me goodbye with a bagful of freshly baked breads and cookies, I promise to see him on my next visit to McLeodganj. But, do I want to? It’s a mixed emotion, but I really wish that Sangye, and the rest of the people uprooted from their birth land, get to go home soon.
Sangye’s Kitchen – Tibetan Cooking Class in McLeodganj, Himachal Pradesh
Location – Near Post Office, Jogibara Road
Contact – +91 9816164540
Class timings – Every day from 11-1pm and 4-6pm
Cost – Rs 250 per person