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Frugal Gourmet

A monk turned restauranteur offers up a genuine taste of Lhasa--minus the yak cheese.

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In Timeless Voices, a documentary about the 1988 New York City concert appearance of a group of Tibetan monks, the camera lingers on a young monk named Sonam Dhargye. Dressed in ceremonial saffron and gold robes, he rocks forward on his knees at odd intervals, his eyes half closed as he leads the group in prayer. Despite the incongruous headset mike he's wearing and the ponderous voice-over of narrator Martin Sheen, he's a compelling presence.

Sonam's a Tibetan with little memory of Tibet. His family fled the country in 1959, when he was only a year and a half old, after the national uprising against the occupying Chinese army was brutally crushed, leading to the deaths of over 87,000 Tibetans and the eventual displacement of another 120,000. The family bounced around India during his childhood, spending six years or so in Dharmsala, where His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had established the Tibetan government in exile, then several more years--he's not sure how many--in Assam before winding up in the northernmost reaches of India, near the Nepalese border, at Gyuto Tantric University, built in 1959 by Tibetan monks after their 800-year-old monastery was destroyed in Tibet.

Taking the monastic name Thupten Lobsang, Sonam spent 20 years studying the meditative tantric arts: the creation of sand mandalas and butter sculptures, the use of ritual instruments, and chanting, each of which carries its own religious significance. Butter sculpture, for example, is the practice of creating elaborate, colorful representations of Buddhist theology out of pieces of dyed, chilled yak butter. The rich but fragile medium embodies both the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of the material world and the holiness of the most everyday substances.

Tibetan multiphonic chanting is an eerie phenomenon in which the chanter manipulates his vocal cords to produce a chord of two or three notes. A rumbly, gravelly sound that's simultaneously guttural and ethereal, it's also anatomically close to impossible. It's considered an expression of "samadhi"--a pure, balanced state of consciousness--that only people of perfect wisdom are believed capable of achieving. Sonam excelled at it, becoming the monastery's chant master in the early 80s--an accomplishment for any monk, and an extraordinary honor given his youth.

In 1991 Sonam and 16 other monks came to the U.S. on a concert tour. The Chinese army had suppressed several peaceful demonstrations in Lhasa in the late 80s, launching a new exodus of Tibetans into Nepal and India, and the tour was intended to raise money for a new monastery to house the growing population of displaced monks as well as inform Westerners about the political situation in Tibet.

Sonam had been to the U.S. twice before, first in 1985 on a small tour that caught the attention of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who set up a last-minute concert in San Francisco for the monks. When a larger group returned in 1988 Hart put the entire Dead tour-support system at their disposal. The monks toured the country in a couple of vans, complete with roadie and manager, with stops all over California (including George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch). They capped the tour with a concert at New York City's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine that featured guest appearances by Hart, Philip Glass, and Kitaro. (In addition to the documentary, the concert was also recorded for a CD, Freedom Chants From the Roof of the World.)

After both trips Sonam had returned to India determined to learn English because, he says, "I thought, maybe I can learn better English and do some work translating." But he lived in an isolated part of India. The monastery was in a restricted area--it's close to Tibet, and India's own political relations with China have been strained since the countries went to war in 1962. Residents must have transit permits to leave the area, and Westerners aren't allowed in. Each time Sonam returned, he says, he got caught up in the day-to-day routine of monastic life and "I forget to learn."

Upon their arrival in Chicago for the 1991 tour, the 17 monks crashed for a week at the downtown apartment of Nina Schroeder, cofounder (with Gigi Pucker) of the Chicago branch of the Tibetan Resettlement Project (now the Tibetan Alliance of Chicago). The project was a multicity volunteer effort formed in response to a bill passed by Congress in 1990 allowing 1,000 Tibetans--chosen by lottery from refugee camps in India and Nepal--to immigrate to the States. But because of the U.S. government's political ties to China, it doesn't consider Tibetan exiles to be refugees. As a result, immigrants are not entitled to social services, so lining up sponsors, jobs, and housing was critical.

Schroeder remembers the monks' visit as an exciting time. "People at 680 Lake Shore still remember the Gyuto monks!" she says. Trying to get as much exposure for the project as possible, "we took them everywhere," she says. "They chanted at the Field Museum, the science museum, on the radio." The Harold Washington Library had just opened, and Schroeder arranged for the monks to perform a ceremony in the Winter Garden.

Chris Panos, a trader at the Chicago Board of Trade and a Zen Buddhist, had contacted Schroeder to ask how he could help. She put him in charge of finding jobs for the immigrants. A few with some language skills even got entry-level jobs as runners at the Board of Trade. It was a bit of a culture shock, but Panos says, "They hit the ground running. Some hadn't been through revolving doors or on escalators before, but they were unfazed." The resettlement efforts eventually brought some 400 Tibetans to Chicago.

Sonam, who had returned to India after the tour, came back to the U.S. by himself on a visitor's visa in 1992 to study English. He landed in Minneapolis, but two months later he called Schroeder to say he was coming to Chicago. As Schroeder remembers, "He called one day and said he needed to do some paperwork here, and I said 'Great! I'll pick you up.'" He wound up living with Schroeder and her husband for several months.

Initially Sonam thought he'd only stay a little while, maybe shuttle back and forth between India and Chicago. Panos and Schroeder helped him get an extension on his visa and, with the time they'd bought, applied for an R-1 visa, the category reserved for religious workers. Sonam had initially hoped to continue his monastic practice in Chicago, but after a while, he says, "everything changed. Between being a monk and laypeople is big difference. Especially in America. When I live in the monastery, it's not very expensive. But when you're here it's a little bit difficult because you have to pay and everything is expensive. So that's why you have to do something for a living."

After a year or so, Panos and Schroeder helped him get a green card under the labor certification chapter of the immigration code--his chanting skills qualified him as an "alien of extraordinary ability." But jobs for world-renowned multiphonic chanters are in short supply. He worked for two years as a busboy and, as his English improved, snagged a job as a room service waiter at the Hilton and Towers.

Sonam and Panos had become close friends and by 1995 were talking about opening a restaurant together. Sonam's only cooking experience was the monthly tours of duty he'd done in the monastery kitchen, but they teamed up with Kelsang Dhundup, another Gyuto monk Sonam had known in India. He had spent several years cooking at Tibet Kitchen, the restaurant affiliated with New York City's Tibet House.

Tibet Cafe opened in June of 1996 in a small storefront down the street from the Sheridan el stop that ironically had been previously occupied by a Chinese restaurant. Sonam's butter sculptures--which can last up to six months if handled carefully--hang on the walls, and one's perched in the corner on top of the stereo. A portrait of the Dalai Lama draped with a kata--the traditional auspicious white scarf of greeting--hangs near the kitchen door. The cafe is one of only a handful of Tibetan restaurants in the country. Besides Tibet Kitchen, Sonam can think of maybe three others in the New York area, two in San Francisco, and two in Bloomington, Indiana, where the Dalai Lama's brother lives.

Panos handles the financial side and, when necessary, runs interference with the local authorities, noting wryly, "Surprisingly enough, people try to take advantage of immigrants." Sonam handles the day-to-day operations--shopping for food and serving as host, waiter, and frequently cook. (Dhundup left shortly after the restaurant opened.)

While Tibetan Buddhists believe in the sanctity of life, the challenges of agriculture in the high Himalayas make vegetarianism impractical. Traditional Tibetan cooking depends heavily on fat and protein--most of it derived from yaks--as protection from the cold. The preferences for larger mammals--sheep, goats, the ubiquitous yak--means that fewer lives are taken. Even monks, who beg for many of their meals, eat meat, since it would be disrespectful not to eat whatever they are given. Sonam also points out that Tibetans "believe monks and lamas are very very powerful. So if they can eat meat they are very happy. Because they can pray for the animal be rebirth some good place--it's good for the animal to be eaten by the lama."

In the monastery, Sonam ate one meal a day--usually some combination of tsampa (roasted barley flour), rice soup, and tea. Outside the monastery, Tibetans' diet isn't much more varied but, depending on the season, these staples can be augmented by dried yak meat, cheese made from rich yellow yak milk, and yogurt. The national drink is butter tea--black tea that's churned with yak butter and heavily salted. It's "good and fatty," says Sonam.

Yak is hard to come by in Chicago, so Sonam shops at Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese grocery stores to improvise with substitutes. "Tibetan food is a little bit similar to Indian," he says. "With spices and some curries and rice and things like that. And some is similar to Chinese--vegetables and noodles and some other things. It's a mix. We are between two countries--India and China. Tibet is neither."

To make butter tea, for example, he uses regular cow's milk and butter mixed with Vietnamese tea when he can find it, or Lipton when he can't. The menu also includes many tofu and vegetable dishes and hot, filling noodle soups.

Sonam made concessions to Western eating habits like forks and knives. "Normally Tibetans like dumplings to have juicy insides, so they can bite and suck out the juice, which they think is very nice," he says. "Here we make a little bit suckable, but they don't use their hands, they use a fork and knife. All the juices go out and it makes a mess. So we do less juice." He jokes about a Tibetan delicacy he calls "dough dumplings"--balls of tsampa worked with butter, cheese, and honey, then stuffed into dumpling wrappers. They're not on the menu--they're too rich. "Even Tibetan people can't eat much."

Sonam's no longer a monk. He still chants every morning--"not to sound nice, just as kind of meditation"--and carves butter sculptures for special occasions like the Tibetan New Year or the Dalai Lama's 1999 visit to Chicago. But he's married now, to a Tibetan he knew in Dharmsala, and he and his wife have a two-year-old daughter named Zega--whose name means "beautiful happy." Six months after the restaurant opened he also started working as a runner at the Board of Trade. He spends weekdays there and evenings and weekends at the cafe. He's been back to India twice in the last eight years. He writes to his friends at Gyuto monastery and sends money every year. "If they need something, I do what I can," he says. "If they need sponsor or they need money for the young monks, I ask my friends." The Gyuto monks returned to the U.S. in 1995 for a series of concert appearances, with Sonam as a Chicago liaison.

Panos quit his job in 1997 and took care of the restaurant's finances from afar, first from New York, where he lived for a while to work on a women's inner-city development project in Yonkers, and then from California, where he worked with the Beastie Boys, "trying to build a social mission into the touring business" by finding nonprofit, eco-conscious vendors for T-shirts and other merchandise. Now he's back in Chicago, working with Bernie Glassman, the former abbot of the Zen Community of New York, to build an international, interfaith social action school. "Working with Tibetans is a big part of how I got led into that," he says. "It's really changed me a lot." But, he adds, "my real interest is in making sure the restaurant succeeds. My hope is that my best friend and everybody working here has a good success. That's the main thing."

On a brisk March evening Tibet Cafe is packed. Sonam, in jeans, cross trainers, and a Tibet T-shirt, hustles around the room refilling cups of tea, changing the CDs in the stereo, and distributing bowls of soup and plates of noodles and dumplings. Two diminutive Tibetan women work the kitchen. A delegate from a boisterous group of Teach for America alumni pops up repeatedly to confer with Sonam and order more food. At one point a panhandler wanders in and Sonam puts his arm around her and quietly steers her away from the customers.

When asked if it's been strange making the leap from career monk to small businessman, Sonam is sanguine. "Parts of it are hard. First couple years, you know, is big difference. From Tibetan custom it is very embarrassing to not be monk. Some people, they don't like. Because when you are monk they are totally respect to you. Because you are holy man. So if you break your vows, everybody they think 'Oh no.' But one good thing, when you are a monk and become Westerner--it's a little strange but I don't know how this happen. If I am monk, right, if I lose my monastery it is looking very bad. But when I come to Western country and then I lose my vows, people are thinking that's OK. Because different country, different culture. They care, just not so much.

"I'm trying to stay happy. Suffering is not helpful. It's not good for your friends, for anybody. Whatever is inside your mind you keep to yourself. Keep a balance on the outside--show you're happy. That's one thing. Second thing is if some day you get very good things, you happy. Some day you get bad things and, you know, you are sad. So basically, I'm trying to stay in the middle. Example is, if I get lottery, like million dollars, I'm happy but not going to explode. And if died my parents or children, I'm very sad, but I stay in the middle. That's what I'm trying to do at both times."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.

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