Crawling Through Parkdale for a Taste of Little Tibet
Fill your belly with steamy and savoury Tibetan and Nepali dumplings at the third annual momo crawl on July 30, hosted by Students for a Free Tibet Canada.
A few years ago the Village Voice, that arbiter of New York cool, ran a piece titled, “Is the Momo Ready to Go Mainstream?” where the writer declared, “The era of the momo is very much upon us.” While that may be the case in the Big Apple, thanks to a proliferation of Tibetan and Nepalese restaurants in Jackson Heights (Queens), have momos become mainstream here in Raccoon City? A true Parkdalian knows what momos are. But does the rest of Toronto?
Momos are dumplings with meat or vegetable fillings and served steamed or fried.
“I think it’s becoming more popular,” says Loga, the eponymous proprietor of Loga’s Corner in Parkdale. As Instagram account parkdalelife has put it: “Prince, Madonna, Cher, Loga. Legends don’t need last names.” Loga is unaware of his social media fan following, thanks to Instagram and the combined star power of Matty Matheson and Eddie Huang. I show him an Instagram video clip of a Huang’s World episode in which Loga’s Corner is profiled. Laughing heartily, he says he isn’t on Instagram but that he remembers Eddie Huang coming to film the episode. We talk about momos, the neighbourhood’s diversity, the growing Tibetan community, and cowboy movies. Like many older Tibetan men, Loga loves Westerns. I always figured it must be the horses and cowboy boots. His favourite movie is Ringo and His Golden Pistol, a 1966 spaghetti western also known as Johnny Oro. Loga immigrated to Canada in 2012 from India, and with his entire family chipping in, built a beloved Parkdale institution in two years. The conversation circles back to momos.
“I put kale in the veggie momos. Injis (white people) really love kale,” he says. I detect a hint of incredulity.
In the last two decades, more than 8,000 Tibetans moved to Toronto, making it the largest Tibetan community in Canada. Of those, a majority settled in Parkdale, which didn’t have a substantial Tibetan population prior to the 90s. When Tibetans began arriving in large numbers to Parkdale, they brought momos with them. In Tibet momos are filled with yak meat. In the diaspora, we substitute beef, chicken, or vegetables.
This Sunday, curious Torontonians and seasoned momo aficionados alike can judge for themselves which momo rules Parkdale as the third annual momo crawl returns to Little Tibet. A $20 passport buys you 10 momos from 11 Tibetan and Nepalese restaurants lining Queen Street West from Sorauren to Dunn avenues.
Momos have come to represent Tibetan cuisine, at least in the diaspora. Tibetan activist and writer Jamyang Norbu writes about the origins of momos in an informative blog post, which materialized as a response to an email from a Tibetan restauranteur in Jackson Heights, a self-proclaimed warrior in a “food battle” against another claiming that momos originated in Nepal. While it isn’t clear how momos became the unofficial cultural ambassadors for Tibet and Tibetan food in exile, Norbu writes that despite “the adversity of diaspora life,” Tibetans managed to “spread this culinary boon all over a (presumably) grateful Nepal and India.” In urban hubs of India and Nepal momo joints are as ubiquitous as Tim Hortons. Ask any Tibetan or Nepali person and they will confirm the status of momos as the ultimate Himalayan comfort food.
Momo crawl organizer, Students for a Free Tibet Canada, is a non-profit organization. Based out of Parkdale, home to the largest Tibetan diaspora in Canada, they campaign for Tibet through education, grassroots organizing, and non-violent direct action. SFT Canada’s modest office in Parkdale has become a hub of activity for young Tibetans in the neighbourhood. On any given day, the office is buzzing with activity. Fuelled by a passion for Tibet and by momos, high school and university students plan events, fundraisers, protests, and discuss strategies to address and challenge China’s occupation of Tibet.
“We provide training to empower the next generation of leaders, both within the Tibetan freedom movement and in the worldwide movement for social justice,” says Sonam Chokey, national director of SFT Canada. For many young Tibetans, it is a stepping stone, a place where they find their footing and their voice. For the young activists of SFT Canada, momo crawl is important for many reasons, SFT intern Dechen explains. “It’s a chance to raise funds for campaigns, to promote Tibetan restaurants, to celebrate Tibetan food, and to have fun.”
“Food is such a big part of our cultural identity,” Dechen says. “When I think of momos, I have fond memories of my childhood, making and eating momos with family.”
“There are emotional connections when you’re sitting together with family and friends and making momos or sharing a plate together,” Sonam adds. “There’s a sense of belonging that’s hard to describe.”
At Kasthamandap Nepalese Cuisine, which opened last month, owner Tsering Dolma tells me one of her earliest memories is that of helping her aunt sell momos at a street-side stall in Boudha, a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Kathmandu teeming with devotees and tourists. Tsering immigrated to Canada in 2010. I ask her about Parkdale. “It’s great here,” she says, “It’s like being in Boudha.”
At Lhasa Kitchen, husband and wife team Dorjee and Khado Jampa run the show. They both came to Canada in 2011 to reunite with family members who were accepted as refugees here. Their daughter, Tenzin Namsel, was born at St. Joseph’s hospital in Toronto, just a stone’s throw from their restaurant. A photograph on the wall speaks of their exile and new home: a photoshopped picture showing the Potala Palace, historic home of the Dalai Lama until he fled to India in 1959 for asylum, and an upside down image of the Toronto skyline juxtaposed on top. “It’s hard to describe,” he says hesitatingly when asked about the photo. “The Potala is so sacred for Tibetans, and so is our new home here in Toronto.”
This Sunday, Torontonians will get a chance to taste the subtle differences between momos from 11 Parkdale restaurants, each unique in its own right. Colorful photos and paintings of people and places of Nepal adorn the walls of Daiko and Kasthamandap.
All Tibetan restaurants vary in menu and decor but all have two constants: a portrait of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan National Flag.