(This article is part of ‘Ways of eating‘: a mini-series on food in Southasia)
It is a sunny October afternoon and outside the monastery in the Majnu-ka-tilla (MKT) colony in Delhi, Tenzing begins to prepare the dish that has made her popular. Her shop is a simple set-up; a table which serves as her workstation between two garden benches, where we sat observing the elaborate ritual of preparing laphing, a Tibetan dish of cold flat noodles served with or without cold soup, featuring a bright palette of red, yellow and orange and tangy, sour, and spicy flavours. For eight years, Tenzing has been selling her famous laphing at the same corner of the temple courtyard lined with similar food stalls, a thriving centre of activity. It is where people visiting the area eat, smoke, talk or just sit as if in a living room, in the middle of one of the only Tibetan settlements in Delhi.
After the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, many citizens migrated to neighbouring countries when the Dalai Lama had to flee the country, establishing the Tibetan government in exile in India. This would be followed by more migration from the Tibetan plateau between 1986 and 1996, from different provinces such as Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang. According to estimates from the Dharamshala-based Central Tibet Administration, around 109,015 members of the Tibetan diaspora reside in Southasia – particularly in India, Nepal and Bhutan. In India, the community has settlements across several states apart from Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, including West Bengal, Orissa, and Karnataka, among others.
The story of Tibetan immigrants and their socio-economic integration has been touted as successful in India, as opposed to other countries in the subcontinent. However, Tibetans have continued to live as liminal citizens in India for over 60 years, in a region that has been historically characterised by migration. As a fundamental element of heritage, food is a useful entry point for understanding immigration and shifting cultures.
Cuisine in Southasia is a result of historical mixing and the constant flow of people of different identities and sometimes even nationalities. Street foods like laphing can not only be used to explore immigrant food culture for an exiled community like the Tibetans, but also to understand our own positionality as consumers of laphing. By asking how Southasia eats laphing, we discover that unlike lines drawn on maps, laphing is a contested yet fluid site for multiple identities, cultures and belongingness, resulting in flavours that are both local and global.
Making laphing, remaking memory
Gyalpo-la and his laphing need no introduction in Darjeeling (he considers his version better than the one sold in MKT). One can sit on plastic chairs and observe the ritual of conjuring thin laphing sheets which have no smell nor specific taste. It is almost magical to us, yet mundane to these chefs or food magicians, who bring these yellow sheets of steamed starch alive with a concoction of garlic and vinegar, after also adding homemade chilli oil to it. The centre is filled with steamed gluten which the shopkeepers refer to as ‘nutrela’ or ‘soybean’ due to its resemblance to the fleshy chunks of the vegetable-based protein. This is what is distinctive of laphing, where a bland dish is given exquisite flavour with the help of sauces and pastes, all showcased and lined up in transparent plastic bottles on workstations.
For many Tibetans from the subcontinent, the sight of laphing was uncommon until recently. Tenzing Wangdak, a Tibet Studies scholar at the University of California and a Tibetan himself, told us, “I never ate laphing as a kid, unlike momo it was never part of our staple diet. It is only in the past decade that I have tasted laphing and observed its popularity as a Tibetan street food among Indian youth.” According to Wangdak, laphing’s popularity in recent years can be studied together with the third wave of migration from Tibet in the early 2000s, mostly from the Amdo-Kham regions that lie close to mainland Chinese borders. Interestingly, this rang true for laphing vendors like Sangmo, Doma and Gyalpo-la who revealed their familial connections to the border provinces in interviews (their full names have been withheld on request). According to Gyalpo-la, who came to India from Tibet in 2002, laphing is a Chinese dish ‘liangfen’ that was made popular by the Chinese Muslims residing in his hometown of Chonay in Amdo province.
Unlike lines drawn on maps, laphing is a contested yet fluid site for multiple identities, cultures and belongingness, resulting in flavours that are both local and global.
These contestations about the origins of food, its ties to initial memories of individuals and communities are important to wrestle with and understand. It is important to rethink how we look at ethnic food from the Tibetan region versus food that is culturally categorised as ‘Tibetan’. What weaves through Gyalpo-la’s life are memories of laphing from childhood. He first learnt to make laphing from a Tibetan cook who ran a laphing stall on the streets of Lhasa, a business he would venture into two decades later, by himself in an alien country.
Back in Delhi, as we started walking away from the din of the monastery into the meandering alleys of MKT, we arrived at 47-year-old Dolma’s verandah-turned-stall where she has been selling laphing since the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Dolma, whose family moved to India before the 1990s from a village in Amdo, recalls that laphing has always been a homemade recipe, passed down from her grandmother. Zangmo, who runs the largest laphing business in the locality, Laphing Express, which was started at its current location ten years ago, also refers to her time in the Gaya district of Bihar where she first ate laphing at the age of five.
Laphing as a site of multitudes
In these narratives from the Tibetan diaspora, there is no singular memory of home to relate to. There are generational differences in how laphing is viewed as a “Tibetan street food”, and how the Tibetan memory of home is constructed around laphing. The memories are shaped through how previous generations remembered their form of migration; even as memories of the past are fractured and broken. The making and consumption of laphing is proof of how memories are also passed down for generations.
One of the authors, Nangsel Sherpa’s first memories of laphing were not from home but from the small town of Bodh Gaya, where as a young child she visited every winter in December and January. Zangmo shares similar sentiments and memories, as the white laphing made of mung-bean starch, or phing-tsam, was the first one that we both relished. During a recent conversation with a friend, Shehnaz Banu, who is Tibetan Muslim, she expressed her preference for white laphing over yellow. The white laphing with its gelatinous texture is linked to her memories of home-cooked food, while her familiarity with yellow-laphing sheets is much more recent.
Laphing, served in plastic bowls, is often sold to people who have no memory of the dish, and are not compelled to buy it.
Nangsel’s mother, Norzin Dolma, remembers consuming laphing as a child during the summers, in particular the white gelatinous bowl of cold noodles that her father used to serve with soya sauce and chilli oil. He was from the Amdo province, unlike Nangsel’s maternal grandmother from the U-Tsang region, who had never tasted laphing while growing up. Memories of laphing across three generations of Nangsel’s family are shaped by their origin and belongingness, which further leads to the dish’s authentic nationality, whether Chinese or Tibetan.
In Delhi, the biggest crowd that visits the laphing shops of MKT are young college-going students and professionals from the nearby University of Delhi campus. Many others make their monthly pilgrimage across the city seeking the comfort of being a stranger in a place that resembles no other in either feel or food. Jahan Thakur, a heritage conservation professional, says, “Somehow, with laphing, I don’t feel like I’m eating street food. This could have something to do with the fact that in cities such as Delhi, our idea of street food is very different, rushed and chaotic. My experience of being a laphing consumer has been in a much more relaxed environment, consisting mostly of me impatiently watching the pre-prepared traditional delicacy be slowly assembled, waiting to feast on it. I think the fact that it [laphing] hasn’t yet become as popular as panipuri, samosa or momo in a city like Delhi is what adds a sort of novelty to the entire experience of its consumption.”
Laphing carries the memory of home for Tibetan and non-Tibetan consumers alike, albeit with different meanings, where a community in exile with little or no job opportunities, who fled to India as refugees, have co-opted this dish. Laphing, served in plastic bowls, is often sold to people who have no memory of the dish, and are not compelled to buy it. Laphing’s popularity has seen steady growth in other cities of the subcontinent like Kathmandu, with several laphing stalls set up and run by Nepalis in their neighbourhoods, an influence that eventually travelled to Darjeeling where one of Gyalpo-la’s laphing specials is served with Wai Wai, a globally popular brand of noodles from Nepal. Like many other food cultures from Southasia, making, eating, remembering and even writing about laphing is a story of diverse and interconnected lived realities, with no singular history or memory taking precedence.
Eating laphing spatially
Diverse memories and the consumption and production of laphing are also influenced by the multitude of spaces it occupies, symbolises and represents – the shop, the street, the home and even the nation state.
When talking about producing and consuming laphing, it is important to analyse laphing shops, which do not have a standardised design or size, as we saw in the case of Dolma and the open verandah which she had turned into her small business, and with Tenzing’s laphing shop, which runs as a cog in the large monastery courtyard. At the laphing shops we surveyed, physically and digitally, overt cultural symbols like Buddhist prayer flags, photographs of Potala Palace in Lhasa and portraits of the 14th Dalai Lama adorn the walls. As Tenzing Wangdak rightly points out, “the laphing store becomes a political space” with all these cultural symbols representing a certain emotive resistance to identities being eroded by the Chinese occupation of Tibet, where these cultural symbols are understood as separatist.
Memories of laphing across three generations of Nangsel’s family are shaped by their origin and belongingness, which further leads to the dish’s authentic nationality, whether Chinese or Tibetan.
Due to the nature of its historical and political development, the cultures of immigrant communities in spaces like MKT have been commodified, ghettoised and exoticised in the popular imagination. Nowhere is this precarity more on display than in street spaces, which become sites of livelihood, informality, illegality and sometimes development in India. The presence of laphing on sidewalks, occupying street corners in make-shift joints, carts, and ‘hole-in-the-wall’ shops marks the transposition of Tibetan lives across two homes – the one where they belong and the one where they reside. Through what Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University (NYU) Steinhardt, Krishnendu Ray, in an interview called, “the leaking, leaching and flowing of cultural landscapes in Southasia”, urban cultures are influenced by the immigrant population’s food culture to an extent greater than people realise.
In Fed by the Other. City Food and Somatic Difference, Ray depicts how urban Americans have been fed by immigrants historically; in this case, by Southasians living in the US, and that as a result, taste cannot be territorially located, for tastes travel. Closer to home, this holds up in the case of momos, another Tibetan food that is said to have traversed the Subcontinent, and is now an omnipresent sight on every street corner in Delhi and becomes an irrefutable part of the urban foodscape, so much so that of all places, Delhi has become synonymous with momos. We would like to predict that laphing, too, would take over the city’s streets someday.
“the laphing store becomes a political space” with all these cultural symbols representing a certain emotive resistance to identities being eroded by the Chinese occupation of Tibet, where these cultural symbols are understood as separatist.
Pema Lhamo started her upscale laphing joint, Laphing Wala, three years ago with her husband, Lhakpa Tshering, in the centre of the Delhi University hub, as fresh graduates from university themselves. Their store, which can now be found on online food delivery platforms, is the reason why Pema, whose family is from Kham province and settled in Himachal Pradesh, believes that laphing’s future holds potential, “Laphing is very new, and most of the customers are very curious to know how is it made and where are we from. We have brought in our innovation to exclusively sell laphing in online platforms.” She believes that their laphing store has been successful because of the recent popularity (and relative novelty) of laphing among the non-Tibetan community.
A bowl of home
The production of laphing is not merely about the reproduction of memories from home for some, but a source of livelihood for refugee communities; their pain, penury and daily hardships often obscured by the romanticisation and exoticisation of their food. Laphing allows us to navigate the complex process of producing social memory in everyday spaces through remembering and forgetting, producing and consuming, revealing contested tastes and identities in the Southasian region.
As Professor Ray aptly notes, “The immigrant cook threatens fantasies of home and homeland, intruding into both domains of domesticity.” It rings true to many immigrants who have travelled across multiple boundaries that stretch beyond the reach of national borders and geopolitics. Laphing’s origins reveal how memory travels, sustains and adapts itself through familiar terrain.
Knead. Wait. Stir. Steam. Spread. Chop. Repeat.
Note: The authors thank Professor Krishnendu Ray, Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU, for his guidance, and Thinlay Namgyal for translation.