Mustang Thakali Kitchen
The peaks and valleys of the Himalayas have long protected peoples and practices whose origins are murky even in legendary accounts. One such people is the Thakalis of Thak Khola Valley in Mustang. The Thakalis live along what used to be an active trade route between Lhasa and Khatmandu, but have maintained a closed clan system and a peculiar marriage system. Like other peoples in the Tibetan plateau, they practice polyandry, wherein a woman may marry many men. Unlike any other people of the Tibetan plateau that I know of, they only marry outside of their clan (but within one of the four Thakali clans).
The Thakali people also have a distinct cuisine—influenced by the cuisines of Tibet, India, and Nepal, but containing unique elements—as you can discover for yourself at Mustang Thakali Kitchen.
Thakali cuisine is marked by a predominance of buckwheat, probably the cereal best suited to the climate of Mustang. But it is also marked by a more promiscuous mixture of high Himalayan foods—such as blood sausages—and Indian foods, such as dhal. It seems likely that the Thakali, playing hosts to traders from Lhasa and Khatmandu, learned to cater to a variety of tastes and incorporate a variety of foods into their own dishes.
On my first visit to Mustang Thakali Kitchen, I ordered yhoshi. The centerpiece of this dish is a large dollop of mashed buckwheat. It almost has the consistency of raw dough, but the buckwheat is coarser than flour. Arranged around this are several items cooked in masala: masala chicken, masala dhal, masala vegetables. There was a pile of greens I could not identify and a bowl of spices. The waitress instructed me to take balls of buckwheat and dip them into the various other dishes.
Later she was genuinely curious to know whether I liked it. These restaurants routinely have sections on the menu devoted to chow mein and Indian dishes for people who are not from the homeland, and she had expressed a little doubt when I ordered yhoshi.
“It is like Tibetan tsampa,” I said.
“Yes, we [Thakalis] eat that too,” she said. But she wanted me to understand the great difference: “This is pure buckwheat.”
Everything on the plate was excellent. I also ordered “chicken lollipops” as an appetizer. I believe this is a widespread Nepali dish, although I cannot remember the standard name of it. It is a drumstick in which the meat has been pushed to the end of the bone before cooking.
The walls of Mustang Thakali Kitchen display a quite good collection of Himalayan art, including religious masks, prayer wheels, trumpets, and more modern takes on traditional themes. Near the front door is a shrine to Buddha, with a wooden Buddha statue at its apex. In front of the statue are offering bowls and candles. It appeared to be more for use than for show.
The people of Mustang have experienced hardships in the past century, as the old trade routes have become obsolete, and the geopolitical maneuverings of China and Khatmandu have upended its political order. It may not be surprising then that the majority of Thakalis have left Thak Khola Valley. Like Newar Basa, Thakali is a threatened language—and very likely the culture as a whole is threatened. It is lucky that we can still experience a little of the culture.
Mustang Thakali Kitchen
74-14 37th Ave, Jackson Heights 11372