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Food for thought, soul of art...

ANJANA RAJAN speaks to Sunrita Lama who has opened a Tibetan specialty restaurant, Zakhanag, where food and philosophy make up a wholesome combination... .

Sunrita and Dmigs Med Rdorge Lama... whiff of Tibet in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramaniam.

THERE ARE those of us who eat to live and those who live to eat. And the mentality of spiritually inclined cultures like traditional India and its neighbours can be said to veer towards the first option. Yet for all that detachment, traditional cultures place a great emphasis on food. Take Tibet - a repository of Buddhism, whose pacifist, environment friendly worldview is epitomised by its 50-odd years of non-violent struggle for independence from China led by the Dalai Lama. The important place food has in the etiquette of Tibetan people can be gauged by the fact that an invitation into a Tibetan kitchen is considered a high honour extended only to special guests - the rest stay in the drawing room.

This little nugget of information is provided by Sunrita Lama, an artist by training, who has recently launched Zakhang, a restaurant that specialises in Tibetan food at Hauz Khas Village in South Delhi. Sunrita's connection with Tibet and its people began over two decades ago when she met her husband, Dmigs Med Rdorje Lama, who runs his own business but at present is standing by her in running Zakhang, which incidentally is the Tibetan term for `eating place'. The connection however is deeper even than food or family, as Sunrita is also trained in Thangkha painting, the beautiful religious art form of Tibet that she learnt from the Thangkha artist Ngawang Choephel in Dharmashala, with constant guidance from her father-in-law, a renowned spiritual teacher, the late Dr. Chhimed Rigdzin Lama. In a room adjacent to the restaurant, she has opened a small gallery where her Thangkhas are exhibited for sale along with Tibetan incense and greeting cards designed by her. She plans to extend the variety to other objects of decorative or symbolic value associated with Tibetan culture.

Sunrita's decision to open Zakhang stems from her desire to offer good, authentic Tibetan food to those who enjoy different cuisines, as well as those already familiar with Tibetan food but wish to go beyond the momo stereotype. In Delhi where everyone is in a hurry and shortcuts are considered the epitome of the progressive lifestyle, it's easy to see why momos have become a kind of fast food snack at little eating joints and roadside eateries. Sunrita dismisses these with all the dignity of a good host and homemaker. Momos, in fact, she informs us, are not a snack at all, but a full meal - steamed dumplings full of lamb, chicken or pork, or minced vegetables for the vegetarians. In general, Tibetan specialties are wholesome, nourishing and definitely solid. Even the soup, Thenthuk, containing noodles along with chunks of chicken, lamb or vegetables can comprise a balanced meal in itself.

The serving portions, remarks Sunrita are large and she finds most customers asking for the leftovers to be packed up for home. So those who find the prices steep on the menu, generally decide the food and service are worthy of the cost. Apart from Tibetan specialties like Shabta - browned lamb strips - and the crunchy shaphaley - minced lamb pies and assorted appetisers, Zakhang also serves Chinese food. Sunrita has added a few of her family favourites and her own innovations like Tibetan sizzlers, which, she remarks, may not be a Tibetan tradition but provide a nice hot meal and add some ambience to the eating out experience.

As far as others frills go, Zakhang goes easy on the décor, which is simple and uncluttered. "A nice, clean comfortable place where people can relax and enjoy themselves while eating," is what Sunrita offers.

Of course a few of her Thangkas adorn the walls. After all, these paintings are believed to have the power to bring peace, good health and prosperity to their surroundings. And with the blessings of Chhimed Rigdzin Lama, who told his daughter-in-law that food can be the solution to all problems, Zakhang seems to be a worthwhile place to journey to from the grime and angst of this city's soulless motorways.

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