Mountain food for mountain people

Karma Bhotia, right, Wanzhhe Sherp, left, and Nanda Pun, center, demonstrate how to make dumplings, or momo, at the Himalayan Kitchen. Karma Bhotia, right, Wanzhhe Sherp, left, and Nanda Pun, center, demonstrate how to make dumplings, or momo, at the Himalayan Kitchen. (C) Copyright by Durango Herald

It’s no secret that food provides more than sustenance. Some say that where voices have been traditionally silenced, food becomes an essential currency of exchange.

For Karma Bhotia, a Nepalese of Tibetan ancestry, food was the one material asset he had that could bond him to those he served and provide the ticket to a new life in a world he could only imagine.

Bhotia cooks “mountain food for mountain people” at the Himalayan Kitchen in downtown Durango. The former mountain guide and professional photographer is mostly self-taught.

His recipe for joyfulness hangs fragrant in his kitchen. It’s a bittersweet blend of wisdom, hope and love forged within a youth of poverty and unimaginable hardship. His journey from Nepal through Austria and finally to the United States, was marked with equal shares of selfishness and corruption, countered by enormous acts of kindness and generosity.

Bhotia, the middle son of a Buddhist lama, was born in the remote Mount Makalu region of Nepal. He separated early from his family to study with a 70-year-old guru who taught the 9-year-old monk how to read and write. Sleeping upright in the cave with a thin blanket tucked beneath his chin was the reward at the end of a day of prayer and service.

Bhotia’s day started at sunrise when he foraged for firewood to heat water for the butter tea he served to the guru. The young monks might eat a Champaa of barely roasted flour or boiled potatoes, rice or a vegetable stew called Thukpa. The guru believed that hunger enhanced learning, so meals were small, often not enough for a growing boy.

There was no free time for play. Monks did not venture beyond stone monuments erected in the four corners surrounding their cave. They posted themselves as guards, “so the evil spirits could not cross.”

Months passed between family visits, which were announced by the ringing of the thodang – a bell that signaled the arrival of outsiders who provided their food.

Bhotia recalls the great satisfaction of closing his eyes and perfectly visualizing his path. “Om mani padme Hum.” “Hail the joy in the lotus.” “Hail the joy in the lotus,” he repeated the mantra.

For the next two decades, the separation from his family defined Bhotia’s path. The only public school that served the nine villages of his region was a five-day walk from home, the same trek his family took whenever they needed soap, kerosene or other supplies.

Initially, the pre-teen Bhotia lived alone in a bamboo-slatted hut, where he listened fearfully to the night cries of jackals. He attended a government-sponsored school. Months passed before the young Tibetan understood a single word of the Nepalese lessons. To afford the tuition, Bhotia worked in the fields of a local farm and in the kitchen of a friend’s hotel. In Khandbari, he savored the aromas of the salted pork and skewered meats that he grilled but could not sample. The restaurant’s owners counted each piece of meat. None was for him.

Eventually, Bhotia landed a job serving European and American trekkers who came to Nepal to climb its world-famous peaks. It was Bhotia’s proficiency at math and reading that helped free him from a lowly porter job in which he carried hundred-pound packs up the mountain for less than 25 cents a day.

He impressed an American mountain guide by quietly organizing a claim-check system and accurately paying all 180 of the porters he managed. The American tipped him 800 rupees, about $20. Bhotia was finally provided with equipment and clothing worn by the sherpas, sirdar (trip organizer) and members of the support team. He sampled a special chocolate cake with raisins and cashews, but the recipe would not be shared with Bhotia, the Nepalese kitchen crew decided.

It was Bhotia’s first taste of what could await him if he went to Kathmandu to become a sirdar and lead his own climb, but the bus fare was more than he could afford.

Eventually Bhotia made his way to Kathmandu and networked with a tour group director who was impressed with the young Tibetan’s credentials. A Brahman clerk who was part of the ruling ethnic class refused to admit him to the director’s office, but Bhotia would prevail, eventually leading to a fateful meeting with a mountain guide from Austria who would befriend him and provide his ticket to a new life in a new world.

“I melted snow and added what cocoa powder I had, telling him sip, sip! But he handed it back, wanting us to share,” Bhotia said.

This was how Bhotia described a frightened, freezing Austrian climber who feared that this night on a peak near Aphalapu Pass would be his last.

What was to have been a simple, 80-meter climb by a couple of experienced mountain guides, went south when an inexperienced, nervous porter delayed the trek. A dangerous storm moved in, stranding the party and forcing them to huddle through the night. Suffering from altitude sickness, the oxygen-deprived, swollen-faced crew survived and made its way back to base camp the next morning.

Days later, the grateful Austrian climber boarded his plane for Vienna, making a solemn promise – he would send for Bhotia, his best friend who had saved his life with an ice axe, quick thinking and kind words.

Four months later, Bhotia arrived in Austria, courtesy of the mountain guide’s parents. They had put up an $80,000 bond to sponsor their son’s stalwart friend.

For the next eight years, Bhotia’s life was transformed. He learned advanced mountain training and survival and rescue skills. He dangled from helicopters by day, and stirred pots of Knoblauch (garlic soup) by night. He made enough money to commute back and forth from Nepal to Austria, wherever the work would take him.

In the nonclimbing season, he recruited European trekkers to see his homeland, while winning the compliments of hut cooks who noticed Bhotia’s skill at learning a new cuisine.

“Your hand is very good. You are a chef,” the head cook complimented.

He acquired a taste for meat, recalling his introduction to Schwenkbraten (marinated pork and crouton dumplings). He remembers fixing his traditional Dal Bhaat, simple lentils and rice, for 500 Austrians eager to feast on Nepalese food.

A pilot was among the network of Austrian friends who urged him to go to Australia, Canada or the United States.

“America is the true land of opportunity,” he said. Hard work would be rewarded.

Bhotia’s journey meandered from Madison, Wis., to Pasadena, Calif., taking on jobs that included observing health department violations in a midwestern Indian restaurant, and convincing a California restaurant owner that good leadership, paired with good food, would result in success.

Eventually, Bhotia entered into a partnership at a struggling Nepalese restaurant. He insisted on full managerial control. He hired and fired, trained, shopped, created an entirely new menu, launched a grand opening and showed a profit within one month.

The grand opening was an immediate success.

“I sent out 260 invitations to friends and customers to enjoy a grand buffet, free all day ... We charged nothing, but put out a basket and asked our guests to pay whatever they wanted,” Bhotia said. The jubilant crowd richly rewarded Bhotia’s generosity by exceeding his expectations.

Through the tightly bonded Nepalese-American network, Bhotia learned of a second opportunity in Durango. He and his wife jumped in the car and drove 16 hours to what would become their new home.

“I looked at the mountains and thought it was so beautiful ... much like a European city, he said, smiling broadly and pressing his palms together below his chin.

Even before the deal was negotiated, Bhotia was imagining the improvements he’d make.

He said he knew he’d offer a bold fusion of all that he’d learned in Austria with the best of Nepalese, while maintaining the character of this mountain food, which characteristically uses fewer spices but bolder flavors than his native, milder Tibetan cuisine.

Bhotia continues to season his offerings with memories of his journey from a remote mountain village to a tourism- and recreation-based community. He doesn’t speak of hardship, injustice or disappointment. Instead he embraces them with the same passion with which he’d savor a feast.

“Life has no guarantees. Enjoy every moment of yours, sharing with love and compassion.”

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