A Tibetan refugee and an anthropologist sat down to talk about curry, and the conversation transported them from Oakland to Bhutan, India, Connecticut, Georgia, and, finally, back to Oakland. A steaming mug of sweet chai in hand, I followed Tsultrim Dorjee, co-owner of High Peaks Kitchen at 391 Grand Avenue on his journey from an impoverished refugee school in the Indian Himalayas to the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile, a filmmaking career, training as a sushi chef, and, ultimately, to a settled life in the East Bay making our neighbors happy by serving delicious Indian comfort food.
Tsultrim took over the bright yellow restaurant that was formerly House of Curries one year ago, after its owner, Sajit Malik, passed away. After two successful years in a colorful little space at 5299 College Ave. in Rockridge, he and his two business partners felt confident about adding the new location, which has an impressive seating capacity of 150 (good to keep in mind, if you’re planning a large event). The food is “typical Indian,” but is prepared the way Tibetan refugees have learned to enjoy and cook it while living in exile — with less oil and less intense masala (though they can make it as hot as you like). The cooks are Tibetan – former monks, actually – one of whom painted the restaurant’s beautiful interior panels.
Born to Tibetan refugee parents living in Bhutan, Tsultrim’s childhood was a simple one — the only modern conveniences were a truck that passed by their house once a week (he scooped up the imprint of the tires in the mud to marvel over at his leisure) and, a short-wave radio (which he thought had a little talking man inside). Television finally arrived in Bhutan in 1999, but long before that, in 1981, Tsultrim and his family had resettled in India following a government ultimatum requiring refugees to become Bhutanese citizens or go back to China-occupied Tibet.
Tsultrim, like many Tibetan refugee children in India, was sent to one of the well-intended but under-funded boarding schools the Government of India set up in 1961 to assist Tibetan families that followed the Dalai Lama into exile after the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army took over Lhasa. The food at the school was miserable, Tsultrim remembers: weak tea and doughy bread, with a meat dumpling once a year at the school’s fall picnic (he still can’t bear to see diners waste any of the food they are served). To earn pocket money, he bought a simple camera and sold photos to the other students, a decision that planted the seed of his dream to become a filmmaker.
After finishing high school, Tsultrim was recruited to work in the auditing department of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala, India — the home of the Dalai Lama. Many employees had recently vacated their positions, having won the lottery to participate in the Tibetan Resettlement Project in the U.S. (a one-time green card opportunity for 1,000 Tibetan refugees). While working in a remote field office in South India, Tsultrim took a “gap year” to study filmmaking in Bangalore. Within a few years, he and his cousin Tashi Wangchuk — just back from a Fulbright program in filmmaking at SUNY Buffalo – made several films that enjoyed great success in the international Tibetan refugee diaspora. These included two feature films — “Phun Anu Thanu” and “Richard Gere Is My Hero” — and “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile,” a documentary film that The Hollywood Reporter described as an “incisive portrait of a younger generation of Tibetan exiles who long to embrace their ethnic identity and raise their voices in political activism, even if it means traversing a catwalk or two along the way.”
Tsultrim first came to the U.S. on tourist visas in order to screen his films in the cities where Tibetan refugees had clustered in this country. When he finally left his government job at the Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi in 2006, he applied for (and was granted) political asylum in this country. After a stint in Connecticut as a housekeeper in a nursing home and an improbable 2-year position as a sushi chef in Atlanta, he decided to settle in the East Bay. The hills of Berkeley and Oakland reminded him of the Indian communities of Dehra Dun and Dharamsala with their small hills and low clouds – “Maybe the Himalayas are just hiding behind them?” he mused.
Tsultrim’s wife and daughter joined him after he received his green card. His daughter just graduated from UC Berkeley last semester (“Go Bears!”) and is soon heading off to serve the Tibetan community by working for the government-in-exile in Dharamsala (where the snowy Himalayas are clearly visible and not just a wishful dream). Tsultrim is, understandably, very proud of her.
After a 9-year break, while operating his restaurant, Tsultrim returned to filmmaking with his cousin and recently produced “My Son Tenzin,” the story of an elderly Tibetan monk who arrives in Oakland to find his son after 20 years of separation (to see the trailer, click here). Unable to fulfill his mission alone, the monk befriends a Tibetan taxi driver who agrees to help locate Tenzin. Along the way, they “discover things about themselves and each other that put in sharp relief the inescapable realities of their common fate as a people of imperiled identity and vanishing culture” (The Tibetan Journal).
Now Tsultrim’s energy is 100% focused on developing the clientele at High Peaks Kitchen on Grand. A samovar of chai is always ready, and the curries are bubbling on the stove. All of your Indian favorites, with a Tibetan Buddhist twist. I’m getting hungry writing this… see you there sometime soon!
High Peaks Kitchen
391 Grand Avenue at Staten
Phone: 510 444-0240
EDITOR’S UPDATE: In October 2018, High Peaks closed for remodeling for two weeks and re-opened as GURU CURRY HOUSE. The staff, menu and hours and most importantly, the quality of the food and service have all remained the same. The photo below is of the new owner, Tashi Gyatso.