When Majnu Ka Tila is in celebration mode, it goes unusually quiet. Vanished are the sound and bustle of its roaring and delicious momo economy and street markets full of sartorial temptation. Losar, or Tibetan New Year, is time for more private parties.
At first sight over the three-day celebration last week, Somang House and Restaurant seems like an inviting aberration, with its shutters up and lights glowing behind the glass-door entrance. The surprise is short-lived – a notice within declares that restaurant and room-service will indeed remain suspended over Losar. However, a celebration is on in the office-cubicle sized space doubling up as the reception desk and lobby: “Tashi Delek (!)”, Losar’s ubiquitous good-luck greeting is in the air; an altar is adorned with lights and offerings; and a hillock of more offerings, eatable and drinkable, are piled high on a stool. Even the off-limit dining room at Somang’s with eight tightly-placed four-seater tables is filled with plates of snacks, and two large thermoses on one of the tables.
We find Somang’s owners to say hi. Tobden, dressed in a casual t-shirt and jeans, sits at the desk. His wife Palmo stands in the empty space between the furniture, juggling work and entertaining her friends and sisters. “This is the most important thing about Losar: spending time with family and friends. Otherwise we are always running around for work,” Palmo says with a smile.
Both halves of this millennial couple were born in Ladakh. Palmo came to Delhi ten years ago, and studied and worked as a nurse at a prominent private hospital until she married Tobden. Now, they are business partners, too. The fashion responsibilities all seem to fall to Palmo, however; unlike Tobden, she’s dressed in a dreamy-white chuba, a silk Tibetan robe. Two of her other guests also wear chuba, but only Palmo, as a married woman, may also layer in with a pangden or woven wool apron with stripes of many colours.
At their altar, a row of mellow electric lamps and food offerings of Tibetan butter-tea are laid before a picture of the Dalai Lama. There’s also rice cooked with dry fruits: “Dresil,” Palmo explains, “what we have on Losar morning, and every auspicious occasion.” Tobden vanishes into the restaurant and appears with a plate of dresil for us to taste. The rice is mildly sweet, with a hint of butter and heaps of walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, and dried coconut. The choice of dried fruits is said to be endless; many Tibetans also add cherries to the preparation. For breakfast on Losar, guests at Somang hotel get to eat dresil with butter tea - well, that or bread-omelette, if it’s more to their taste.
The third important element of Losar breakfast is missing from this particular table. It is changkol, a soupy dish, where the soup is chang, the beer made of fermented rice or barley. To this is added khapse – a deep-fried sweet or savoury pastry. The beer may be the most familiar part of this whole meal to many non-Tibetans, but making it, we learn, is a skill that many younger Tibetans don’t possess. In Somang’s household, Tobden’s parents usually make the chang, but the elders are in Bodh Gaya for Losar this year, so the table makes do with fruit beer instead.
The heap of edible offerings, collectively called derkha, aren’t snacks you usually find in Majnu Ka Tila market, high on thenthuk and thukpa. Around Losar week, though, these make an appearance in the shops for all those far from home. The salty khapse, most addictive of all, might best be described as Tibet’s equivalent of matri and matthi, north India’s deep-fried maida snacks.
At Somang, the top-tier of this stack is made by the most visually striking of these offerings: “donkey’s ears,” Palmo says, laughing. “It is called amcho,” Tobden explains in all seriousness. These are deep-fried patties as large as a foot, but half that in width, shaped as a deep-dish to hold khapse of varied shapes and sizes – oval spirals, twisted dreadlocks, and more. The amcho is kneaded, shaped and fried “like a bhatura,” Tobden explains, but it’s much larger and sturdier.
“In Tibet, these offerings are kept for fifteen days, but here we have to take them off after three days because the climate is not suitable,” Tobden says. This week, as Majnu ka Tila re-opens, the khapse and amcho have already vanished from the market. Go now to chase the last of the light from those mellow lanterns. Stand still and you might hear the rustle of a silk chuba - and duck into Somang and ask if you’re in time for leftovers.
Getting there: Somang, House number 115-116, Block No. 5, Old Camp, New Aruna Nagar, Majnu Ka Tila, Delhi – 110054, call 8860426976 or 8800139309.
Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi, India. She has reported and shot for Scroll.in, The Caravan, The Wire, and The Hindu.
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