East Bay Tibetan community’s rich history revolves around food

Many Tibetans arrived in the East Bay in the ’90s, finding work in the food industry, including the owners of Cafe Tibet and Nomad in Berkeley.

The exterior of the Nomad Tibetian Restaurant on Solano Avenue, April 23, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
The exterior of the Nomad Tibetian Restaurant on Solano Avenue, April 23, 2021. Credit: Pete Rosos

Years ago, the chef and co-owner of Berkeley’s Nomad Tibetan Restaurant, Jamyang Gyalkha, fled Tibet via foot through the Himalayas to Nepal before eventually finding his way to New York City. Coming to New York around 2001 was an eye-opening experience. Without English skills and needing to survive, he dove into restaurant work. While visiting a friend in the Bay Area about a year after entering the U.S., Gyalkha quickly realized he liked it here and moved to California. Bouncing around different restaurants, he picked up cooking skills in Chinese restaurants as well as California-Mediterranean restaurants in Berkeley. 

The rise of the Bay Area’s Tibetan community

Gyalkha wasn’t the only Tibetan to make the long journey to the States. Tibetan immigration to the U.S. grew in the ’90s, after the passage of the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act, which provided 1,000 special visas for Tibetans then living in exile in Nepal and India. Under the legislation, “qualified displaced Tibetans” were selected to represent a diverse cross-section of the Tibetan population, from highly educated elite to artists, entrepreneurs and elders. In the early ‘90s, 25 resettlement sites were established, the largest in New York City, Minneapolis and in the East Bay. 

Tibetan immigration to the U.S. grew in the ’90s, after the passage of the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act, which provided 1,000 special visas for Tibetans then living in exile in Nepal and India.

Communities that welcomed Tibetan refugees in those early days of the immigration flow continue to be the areas with the most sizable Tibetan populations in the country. The largest population of Tibetans in the United States is in Queens, estimated at 10,000, followed by St. Paul, with more than 3,500, and the greater East Bay (Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, Berkeley) with more than 3,000 people. 

Cynthia Josayma, a Berkeley-born woman who lived in Dharamsala between 1978 and 1987 and was very involved in Tibetan cultural affairs, remembers that “the first people who came to the U.S. were the Tibetan opera people. It was at the time a very intimate community, and people all knew each other. Many of those opera artists fell in love with the area.” 

Tsering Wangmo, founder of the first Tibetan restaurant in the Bay Area, San Francisco’s long-closed Lhasa Moon, was one of these Tibetan opera artists. Wangmo, who first came to the U.S. in 1989 to perform in an opera, said she “chose the Bay Area because of diversity of people and love of culture.” 

Wangmo remembers a time when there were only 15 or 20 Tibetans in the Bay Area. She recalls trying to help her community, teaching them “how to take BART, how to do job interviews. In our culture, if you know a lot, you say ‘I know very little.’ You undersell yourself. I failed many job interviews because of that. I had to go to interview coaching. I shared what I learned with many newcomers — the cultural differences.” 

Many of the newly arrived Tibetan immigrants took jobs wherever they could find them, working in caregiving and hospitality roles, hotel jobs in housekeeping, babysitters and nannies, and restaurants and foodservice. Wangmo remembers that chef Samten Choedon, owner of Cafe Tibet in Berkeley, was in the first group of 50 Tibetans resettled in the region. 

Cafe Tibet introduces Tibetan cuisine to Berkeley

Samten Choedon opened Cafe Tibet, the East Bay's first Tibetan restaurant, in 1999 on University Avenue in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos
Samten Choedon opened Cafe Tibet, the East Bay’s first Tibetan restaurant, in 1999 on University Avenue in Berkeley. Credit: Pete Rosos

Arriving in Berkeley in 1992, Choedon was provided initial housing from a sponsor (a university professor who hosted several newcomers). Choedon arrived with cooking skills she learned from her mother, from working at a yak restaurant that belonged to the Tibetan Youth Congress, and from running her own restaurant in Dharamsala, India. Because of her cooking experience, she was placed at a job at famed California cuisine landmark restaurant, Stars in San Francisco. Choedon worked at Stars for seven years. 

“I worked in prep, then as a line cook, and then I said I’d like to learn more about pastry,” Choedon said. Eventually, she saved up enough to open her own restaurant in Berkeley. 

Then-thuk, hand-pulled flat pasta in broth from Cafe Tibet. Photo: Pete Rosos
Then-thuk, hand-pulled flat pasta in broth from Cafe Tibet. Credit: Pete Rosos
Open since 1999, the Cafe Tibet has been making fresh organic Tibetan food on University Avenue in Central Berkeley, April 23, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Samten Choedon arrived in Berkeley in 1992. She was in the first group of 50 Tibetans resettled in the region after the passage of the 1990 U.S. Immigration Act. Credit: Pete Rosos

In 1999, Choedon opened Cafe Tibet, the first Tibetan restaurant in the East Bay. Her restaurant in Dharamsala, a place of importance for the Tibetan community in exile, was very popular. 

“The Lonely Planet said go to my restaurant, Shangri-la, so lots of travelers came to my restaurant in India,” Choedon said. 

Choedon was confident in her ability to make Cafe Tibet work, despite the misgivings of others.

“At first, we had friends who said Americans, they don’t know about Tibetan food. I was not afraid. I was just going to explain what is Tibet and how it’s not part of China and what our food is like. I wanted to introduce our country and our culture. Just like how I always wear Tibetan dress. It’s comfortable, and also if I don’t wear my Tibetan costume, who will wear it? I am proud of my traditions,” Choedon said.   

Sha-tak, made with sliced tofu, tomatoes, scallion and bell peppers from Cafe Tibet in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos
Sha-tak, made with sliced tofu, tomatoes, scallion and bell peppers from Cafe Tibet in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

Choedon remembers Alice Waters coming to Cafe Tibet early on and advising her on the importance of the taste of food for Bay Area eaters. Choedon said she learned quickly that “here, food has to be No. 1. Here, people like dumplings and curries and special noodles. We make our own vegan dishes here and a Tibetan steamed bread called timo.” In addition, Cafe Tibet offers pak, also known as pa, made from tsampa, a traditional roasted barley flour preparation that is the staple food many Tibetans eat daily. 

Everything at Cafe Tibet — the noodles, dumplings, and sauces — is made from scratch. The restaurant also has a dedicated organic menu for those who prefer only organic ingredients and are willing to pay for it. As for sourcing, Choedon still shops (as she always has), patronizing Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market and Berkeley Natural Grocery Store for ingredients. 

Tibetan specialties — and more — at Nomad

The exterior of the Nomad Tibetian Restaurant on Solano Avenue, April 23, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Nomad Tibetan Restaurant on Solano Avenue offers traditional Tibetan dishes, along with specialties inspired by owner Jamyang Gyalkha’s cooking experience in Bay Area Italian, Cal-Med and Chinese restaurants. Credit: Pete Rosos

A little more than 10 years after Jamyang Gyalkha made his long journey to the U.S. — and after years of working in other people’s restaurants — he was ready to open his own. With a former business partner, he opened Nomad Tibetan Restaurant in Berkeley. 

Gyalkha designed a menu largely focused on expertly made traditional Tibetan dishes, but also including specialties inspired by his years cooking other types of food, such as his popular lamb shanks braised in red wine, influenced by Italian and Cal-Mediterranean cuisine, and the Chinese-inspired crisp, sauteed vegetables served in a taro basket. 

Nomad’s traditional Tibetan fare includes many of the most popular dishes from the Himalayan region. Although Tibet shares a border with a number of countries, Tibetan cuisine has the most kinship with Indian and Nepalese fare, and yet is a mild cuisine compared with foods from its Indian and Sichuanese neighbors. According to Gyalkha, the Tibetan highland’s high altitude and cold and arid climate are more favorable to growing grains and some tubers than growing green vegetables. Breads, noodles and dumplings are the staple foods in Tibet, with barley being the local grain of choice rather than rice, which does not grow in this climate. 

That food in Tibetan restaurants often features rice or hand-pulled noodles, said Thupten Donyo — founder of the Gyuto Foundation, a Tibetan Buddhist temple and key cultural center of the Bay Area Tibetan community — is a feature of two of the major influences on Tibetan culture: India and China. 

Momos, the dumplings wrapped around meaty and vegetable fillings, are probably the most popular and well-known Tibetan dish in the Bay, available in both Tibetan and Nepali restaurants. Momo also reflect Chinese cultural influence. At Nomad, they come in beef, chicken, potato or vegetable versions with wrappers chewy and supple, yet sturdy enough to hold the juiciness of the hand-chopped chicken-and-chive filling. 

Some of Nomad's Tibetan specialties (from top left going clockwise): laphing, shabaley and momos. Photo: Shirley Huey
Some of Nomad’s Tibetan specialties (from top left going clockwise): laphing, shabaley and momos. Credit: Shirley Huey

Laphing, a spicy cold mung bean noodle dish, is a popular street food in Tibet and Nepal, sold on the street by enterprising vendors in warm weather. The noodles are slippery like a cheong fun rice noodle one might find in a dim sum restaurant, but lighter because it’s not made with wheat or rice flour. This a refreshing option, typically served in the hot summer months in Tibet and Nepal. 

Other traditional Tibetan foods offered at Nomad include its excellent hand-made noodles; shabaley (also known as shabakleb, “sha” meaning meat and “bakleb” flatbread, the dish is often known by a mispronunciation, shabaley), a fried, round pastry typically stuffed with hand-chopped beef; and gyuma, a housemade blood sausage stuffed with chunks of beef and a hint of roasted barley. 

Vegan macrobiotic fare from Shangri-la and Potala

The exterior of Shangri-la Vegan on Linden Street in Oakland. Photo: Sarah Han
Shangri-la Vegan on Linden Street in North Oakland. Credit: Sarah Han

In the East Bay, many diners associate Tibetan cuisine with macrobiotic fare. For many years, Shangri-la (with two restaurants in Oakland and one in Albany) and now-closed Potala Organic Cafe in Albany have provided delicious, vegan set meals of flavorful and simply dressed and cooked vegetables and grains, preceded by a hot bowl of lentil soup. While run by owners of Tibetan descent, by all accounts, this food does not hail from the Himalayan part of the world. 

One unnamed Shangri-la staffer said the food was not traditionally Tibetan, but based on Japanese origins. Another staffer responded that the owner of the restaurant learned how to cook this kind of food from the previous owner of the restaurant, Manzanita Cafe. (Despite multiple attempts, I was not able to connect with the owners of Shangri-la.)

A macrobiotic meal from Shangrila Vegan Buddha in Albany. Photo: Shirley Huey
A macrobiotic meal from Shangrila Buddha Vegan in Albany, the third location for the East Bay-based Shangri-la restaurant chain, featuring chef Tenzin U E and staff members from recently closed Potala Organic Cafe. Photo: Shirley Huey

Lhasa Moon founder Tsering Wangmo noted that many of the people who work and/or cook at Shangri-la were former monks back in India and Tibet. She believes that the food Shangri-la and Potala served aligns with the principles of Tibetan Buddhism that many Tibetans try to incorporate into their lives: 

“After I became vegetarian, I went to Potala quite often,” Wangmo said. “They wanted to make a difference in the community by providing no meat meals. It is part of their practice.” 

The chef at Shangrila Buddha Vegan in Albany, opened on Feb 1., is Tenzin U E, who ran Potala until it closed in July 2020. Before Potala, he had worked at Shangri-la on Linden Street in Oakland for 15 years. Returning to his Shangri-la roots, chef Tenzin cooks in the same tasty and wholesome style at the Albany kitchen.  

The pandemic’s toll on the Tibetan community

The Bay Area Tibetan community, like many others, has been greatly disrupted by the pandemic. Community events and gatherings were canceled in 2020 and remain suspended. Regular Sunday temple gatherings where children study language, music and dance traditions sponsored by the Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC) have continued, but moved to Zoom where there is far less engagement and participation. 

TANC, an organization whose mission is “to preserve the Tibetan culture and to promote self-rule in Tibet,” operates a hotline to disseminate important information to community members and has organized events to provide health information about COVID-19 facts and resources. 

Earlier this spring, Dhondup Tsering, TANC’s president, said: “Usually every Sunday, we have Tibetan gatherings. But because of the pandemic, we have had no cultural events since March 2020. We still have Tibetan Sunday school online, about 200 Tibetan kids learning language and music through Zoom. But there are lots of challenges. Kids don’t like to learn dance and music through the phone. For us as an organization, we haven’t been able to do fundraising events because of the pandemic. It has been a very tough year.” 

Although the pandemic has challenged his community, Tsering said the Tibetan community has tried to remain positive, for example, making sure to keep some celebration and practices alive. 

 “Usually every Sunday, we have Tibetan gatherings. But because of the pandemic, we have had no cultural events since March 2020.”
— Dhondip Tsering, president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC)

“We tied up Tibetan prayer flags and did a circle dance with 6 feet distance, and a social distancing Tibetan New Year celebration.” The Tibetan new year, Losar, is based on the lunar calendar, and fell this year on February 12. 

Tsering noted that the economic challenges faced by the hospitality and caregiving industries during the pandemic have hit his community hard.

“A lot of our Tibetan community members — they work for hotels. As you know, a lot of hotels have been closed. We have members who work at nanny jobs that have been affected. We also have Tibetan community members who work in restaurants that have been affected,” Tsering said, noting the closures of Potala and a gift shop owned by a Tibetan owner. 

At Nomad and Cafe Tibet, business has been slow, as the co-owners are the only ones on staff right now doing all the prep, cleaning and service duties. At Nomad, Gyalkha relies on customers who keep coming back to buy meals for their families and friends, spreading the word about the restaurant’s delicious food, and bringing orders to their neighbors. Gyalkha said the city of Berkeley provided a little help earlier in the pandemic and he received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but for smaller businesses with fewer staff — mom-and-pop restaurants like Nomad — PPP can only help so much. 

Despite the difficulties of running Cafe Tibet during the pandemic (it was closed from March through July 2020), Choedon is grateful for her long-standing customers, many of whom have been visiting weekly to get their Tibetan food fix and apologize for not being able to come more often. 

“I just thank God that I don’t get sick, that I’m still doing OK,” Choedon said. She had just gotten vaccinated at the time we spoke and was looking forward to welcoming customers back inside again.

Cafe Tibet (2020 University Ave., Berkeley) is open 5-8:30 p.m., daily; Nomad Tibetan Restaurant (1593 Solano Ave., Berkeley) is open noon-3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday; 5-9 p.m., Monday, Wednesday through Sunday; closed Tuesdays; Shangrila Buddha Vegan (755 San Pablo Ave., Albany) is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily; Shangri-la Vegan, Linden (4001 Linden St., Oakland) is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m., daily; Shangri-la Vegan on Telegraph (4905 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 4:30 to 8 p.m., daily.