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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetan seniors cook for the Dalai Lama

October 18, 2010

Jennifer Bain
The Toronto Star
October 15, 2010

In a Parkdale apartment, where small Tibetan and
Canadian flags flutter on the balcony with a
glorious view of Lake Ontario, Sherap Khangsar
has hidden a treasure in his freezer.

He carefully unwraps it and trims off a sliver with a paring knife.

It is thue, a Tibetan dessert made from pungent
dried Yak cheese and sweetened with brown sugar and butter.

Khangsar tears up as he stumbles to find the
English words to describe his plans to serve this
traditional sweet to the Dalai Lama in Toronto next weekend.

“Rich people eat this every day. This is not for
my family. His Holiness the Dalai Lama comes. I make this. Very special.”

He graciously offers a second morsel, then brings
out a precious cloth bag filled with the shredded
cheese. It was a gift from a friend with connections in Lhasa.

Khangsar, 74, switches from halting English back
into fluent Tibetan as his daughter Tsering
translates the story of what it’s like to cook for the Dalai Lama.

“He’s very emotional about it,” sighs Tsering.

“When a country is lost, it’s not easy,” replies her 74-year-old father.

Canada is home to an estimated 5,000 Tibetans.
About 4,000 live in Toronto, with a cluster in Parkdale.

Only the oldest Toronto Tibetans, like Khangsar,
were born in Tibet before it was taken over by
China. Spiritual leader Dalai Lama and his
disciples fled to exile in Dharamsala, India
after a failed 1959 uprising. Since then, most
Tibetans start life in refugee camps in India or Nepal. Some are born here.

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is a frequent
visitor to Canada. He and his entourage are
always paired with local cooks, to save money
while honouring Tibetan cooking traditions and communities.

Khangsar cooked in Lhasa as a teenager and later
in India. In Canada, he did general labour before
retiring. He has made meals for the Dalai Lama in
Montreal, Ottawa and California over the years.

“These cooks feel immense honour to serve (the
Dalai Lama) as do the rest of us in each of our
own departments,” says Namgyal Nangsetsang, media
coordinator for the four-day visit.

On Oct. 22, the Dalai Lama gives a public talk at
the Rogers Centre. The next day he will
inaugurate the Tibetan Canadian Cultural Centre
in Etobicoke, which is still raising money for renovations.

The Dalai Lama is said to rise around 3 a.m. to
pray, meditate and exercise before a breakfast at
dawn that might include cheese, toast, cereal,
porridge, eggs, tea or juice. He eats lunch around noon and skips dinner.

In recent years, doctors reportedly advised the
75-year-old Dalai Lama to add some meat to his
diet. Most Tibetans, although Buddhist, routinely eat meat.

The Dalai Lama likes simple Tibetan meals — fried
rice, hand-pulled noodles in soup, steamed bread,
stir-fried vegetables. He also likes chow mein,
and Khangsar shows how to make a vegetable version.

At the other end of Toronto, near Danforth and
Greenwood, Nawang Galing opens his spartan
apartment to demonstrate a dish he has cooked
during the Dalai Lama’s previous Canadian visits.

It is vegetable thenthuk — hand-pulled egg
noodles in a water-based broth with Chinese spinach and daikon radish.

Galing, better known as “Injung la” or small
monk, left Tibet when he was 20. He’s now 71,
never married and is retired. He has cooked
professionally in India, and in Toronto at the
now-defunct Little Tibet and Rangzen restaurants.

He puts on a crisp white apron and ties a white bandana around his face.

“When you cook for His Holiness, you always have
to wrap up your mouth so your breath doesn’t go
into his food,” explains translator Salden Kunga.

Galing carefully chops everything on a small,
plastic cutting board with an inexpensive knife.
He washes all the food, even peeled garlic cloves
and chopped onions, as he would for the Dalai Lama.

Galing “splurged” on one jumbo onion for this
soup, instead of using smaller ones sold in mesh
bags. He fries the onion in vegetable oil, but
would use much tastier butter for the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama doesn’t demand or want expensive
ingredients, Kunga hastens to explain. This is merely a gesture of devotion.

Galing has cooked for the Dalai Lama four times,
in Montreal, Toronto and Florida.

In the midst of cooking, we discover that he has
locked his bathroom door and call in the building
manager to jimmy the lock. Galing presses a small
container of hot soup into his hands.

“He’s a good cook,” says the building manager gratefully.

The second portion of soup is taken to an altar
in the living room, where a framed photo of the
Dalai Lama, draped with a Tibetan white silk
scarf, hangs above Buddhist statues, brocade
watercolours, flowers, fruit and silver bowls of water.

We sit on the couch around a coffee table to eat.
But first Galing says a Buddhist prayer for world
peace and an end to sickness, hunger and devastation.
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