Resilience, delicacy and a surprise revelation: The story of thukpa

This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.

While India has come to love the thukpa, the story of its journey to our country is a story of Tibet and its people — and not just that of food.

Thukpa came to India with the Tibetan refugees. Image: Shutterstock/Artit Wongpradu

“For a Tibetan, any noodle dish is called a thukpa”, says Chef Doma Wang. Rather popular in Kolkata as the undisputed ‘momo queen’ of the city, Wang and her own restaurant in the City of Joy, Blue Poppy Thakali, are perhaps among the most well-reputed in the country for its Tibetan fare. It is, therefore, telling that if you were to find an item in their menu that finds instant appeal among all, it is the thukpa.

Interestingly, what gives the humble thukpa its repute is its humility — after all, it is just noodles. “Even a dry noodle dish would be called thukpa kambu, which literally means dry noodles,” says Wang.

“For a Tibetan, any noodle dish is called a thukpa

Chef Doma Wang.

The journey of thukpa

Tsampa or butter tea is a Tibetan beverage that gave the Tibetan refugees much needed comfort and warmth as they travelled to different parts of the world. Image: Shutterstock/HelloRF Zcool

It is believed that the thukpa came to India, when the Dalai Lama had to leave Tibet and seek refuge in India. The people who accompanied him included his teachers, members of the Kashag (governing council of Tibet during the rule of the Qing dynasty and post-Qing period until the 1950s) and his family members were asked to not carry anything with them. During the course of the journey they all survived on tsampa (butter tea) and thukpa. It is when they reached India and settled in the various parts of the country, did they introduce this dish to the locals and soon it was adapted by many in India. Today, a trip to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, which is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile, is incomplete without a Tibetan meal that must feature thukpa. “It originated in Tibet and travelled all over the world to places where the Tibetans went after the Chinese occupied Tibet. The refugees took with them the food and culture, most of which are preserved even today”, Wang says.

Types of thukpa

I ask Wang about the different types of thukpas and she says, “We have thukpas of various kinds. Like I said earlier, any noodle dish is a thukpa. So we have hot noodle soup( thenthuk, phakthuk, gyathuk, men tseche etc) in winters and in summer we have stir fried noodles or cold noodles. So it’s a different kind of thukpa for different seasons.” This surely busts the myth that thukpa is a hot soup which is consumed mostly in winters.

Where to eat thukpa in Delhi: 

  • Yo Tibet: A hole in the wall restaurant in Delhi’s Humayunpur area, Yo Tibet serves traditional Tibetan cuisine and most times you’d notice people beelining outside this small eatery waiting for their share of comforting thukpa.
  • Pema’s: A homely food joint in Malviya Nagar, Pema’s is run by owners Mickey and Pema, where they serve traditional Himalayan cuisine and have won many accolades for their food.
  • Cafe Lungta: Located in Gurugram, this Tibetan restaurant, their vegetable and pork thukpa are widely popular amongst diners. They take the attention off momos and put the spotlight on lesser known dishes from Bhutan, Nepal and Darjeeling.
  • Nimtho: Serving traditional sikkimese food, Nimtho is a breath of fresh air. Located in Greater Kailash, they serve comfort meals made using organic ingredients.

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