Toronto·Our Toronto

Shedding light on the struggle for Tibetan independence ... one momo at a time

Tibetan community of Parkdale hopes to spark a conversation about the lives of Tibetans through a momo crawl along Queen Street West.

Momo crawl along Queen Street West on July 29 includes different dumplings from 10 restaurants

Namgyal Jampa and his wife Tsering Dolkar own and run Shangrila Tibetan & Asian Cuisine, one of the restaurants taking part in Momo Crawl TO. (Ramna Shahzad/ CBC News)

Deep in the heart of Parkdale, Namgyal Jampa and his wife Tsering Dolkar are bustling around their restaurant kitchen, slicing and kneading dough, scooping up fillings and shaping the dough around it to make momos — traditional Tibetan dumplings.

"Fold, stick. Fold, stick," Jampa chants as he manoeuvres his fingers effortlessly around the edge of the dumpling.

Every day, the owners of Shangrila Tibetan & Asian Cuisine make hundreds of the traditional Tibetan dumplings. And every day, they run out.

"I'm very proud and happy to show a small part of our culture," says Jampa, as he fills up bamboo baskets with steaming momos that rush out of the kitchen and onto the tables of the restaurant's loyal customers.

Momos are traditional Tibetan dumplings that are steamed and filled with meat or vegetables. (Ramna Shahzad/ CBC News)

It's a similar scene throughout Parkdale. Tibetan restaurants are sprinkled throughout the neighbourhood, many of them family businesses like Shangrila and all of them serving up the traditional momos.

"It's in our culture. Since we were very small, my dad used to make this at home every day. You learn by making it at home," says Jampa.

Around 10,000 Tibetans live in the GTA, and the majority of the growing community has made Parkdale their home.

'Little Tibet' 

The culture has become so prevalent in the neighbourhood that it is unofficially known as Little Tibet, home to both Tibetans who have known life in Tibet as well as many people like Sonam Chokey, 26, who have never set foot in the country but remain connected to their roots in other ways — like food.

"In the Tibetan language, a couple or family is called 'satang.' It literally means a nest where you eat together," she says. "So there's so many different ways that food has been incorporated into people connecting."

Sonam Chokey is the national director for students for a Free Tibet, a group that hopes to help the country fight for independence from China. (Paul Smith/ CBC News)

"For us, we always thought that bringing in Tibetan food would be a good way to introduce non-Tibetans to so many aspects of our identity, whether it's culture, whether it's our religion," Chokey says.

Momo Crawl TO 

Chokey is the national director for Students For a Free Tibet, a group that hopes to help people inside Tibet fight for independence from China, which has ruled the country since 1959.

For the fourth year in a row, the group has organized a Momo Crawl along Queen Street West. On Sunday, Torontonians who participate in the crawl by buying a Little Tibet "passport" can try 10 Momos from 10 Tibetan and Nepalese restaurants in Parkdale.

For residents of Little Tibet, the passport is more than just a ticket to an event.

"It's also very symbolic to us. A lot of Tibetans identify as being stateless and we don't have a Tibetan passport. For us to have this, it helps us to sort of symbolically claim a little bit of Toronto," says Chokey, who was born in neighbouring Nepal after her family escaped from Tibet.

On Sunday, July 29, Torontonians can participate in a momo crawl along Queen Street West. (Momo Crawl TO )

She hopes to spark a conversation through the Momo Crawl TO about the struggles faced by Tibetans who still live harsh lives within Tibet.

"A lot of local people that live in Parkdale that aren't Tibetan know about our food. That's amazing in itself for us to be visible but a lot of them mostly just don't know our backgrounds, the struggle that our elders have gone through," Chokey says, adding it's great to be able to tell them the story of Tibet over a feast of momos.

"They'll be like, 'So, what are you fighting for freedom? Why is Tibet not free?' It's a very person-to-person grassroots level where we're able to engage one person at a time."

Tibetan restaurants are sprinkled throughout the neighbourhood of Parkdale, many of them serving up traditional momos. (Paul Smith/ CBC News)


Ramna Shahzad

Producer, CBC Toronto

Ramna Shahzad is a multi-media producer and reporter in the CBC Toronto newsroom. She began working at CBC News in 2015 as a Joan Donaldson Scholar. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, she now calls Toronto home and writes about everything from transit and city hall to baby animal births at the zoo

With files from Marivel Taruc