Inside the Himalayan Curry Café, a new addition to University City mall, resides a curry recipe impossible to find anywhere in the United States, and a man whose work ethic is almost as hard to come by.
Karma Tsering, the owner and chef of the Café, came to America in 1983 so that he could provide the best possible education for his six children, who live back home in India with his wife. Tsering has spent $3,000 and the past nine months preparing for the opening of the restaurant.
“I said, okay, this is once in a lifetime, I’m going to give it a shot. If I lose everything, I will go back to India,” Tsering said. “It’s like gambling.”
While he lived in India, he worked as a schoolteacher. The languages he taught there, however, are not taught here, so since his arrival in America he has worked as a bellhop, a babysitter, a construction worker, a housekeeper and for Ticket master in Chicago.
For the past six years, Tsering has worked at Marco and Luca dumpling shop, first in Charlottesville and then in Blacksburg, climbing his way dollar by dollar from minimum wage to $11 an hour.
Before Tsering was born, his father had been a wealthy man in Tibet. In 1949, the People’s Republic of China occupied Tibet, killing 1.2 million people, destroying 6,000 monasteries and ending a way of life. His father had to leave for India, leaving his wealth and property behind in Tibet.
Tsering’s village in India is poor, with little opportunity to move up.
“When I stay in India, I cannot give good educations for my kids, so that’s why I came to the United States. This is the land of opportunity…you can move up, better than in India. So that’s why I sacrificed, for my family. I’ve been here almost 23 years in the United States without my family, so that is very painful,” said Tsering.
To say that Tsering has kept himself busy during their absence would be an understatement. In the nine months he used to open the restaurant, he was working six days a week at Marco and Luca.
On the one day he had off from work at the dumpling store, he would fire up the small electric stove in his studio apartment, not only teaching himself to cook, but also inventing the recipes he now serves at his restaurant.
“You cannot find this recipe anywhere in the United States,” Tsering said. “For example, the sweet and spicy pork curry, you cannot find in any Indian restaurant, any Indian restaurant, because I make that my own.”
While cooking, Tsering draws flavors from all different regions of India which, like the regions of America, are diverse in taste. Another distinguishing trait of his curry is that, unlike most Indian food, he uses oils and spicy ingredients sparingly in order to make it a healthy option.
This also makes the curry more palatable for all ages. For example, one of their customers commented that before she discovered the Café, she could not find any food that her 95-year-old mother could eat.
“She came in every two to three days buying the lentil soup for her mom,” said Lhundup Sotpo, Tsering’s nephew and one of the workers in the Café. “The kids can eat it under [age] two. Everybody loves curry.”
If you were to travel back into the kitchen, you would notice how neatly everything was stored, how clean and uncluttered the workspace.
“If you want to know how clean a restaurant’s kitchen is, look at their bathroom,” said Tsering as he used a rag to wipe a nearly invisible spot of the stove. “Some restaurants, I could not tell you.”
Tsering painted the walls and built the large wooden trash container in the front by himself, skills he picked up while working in construction. On the walls hang only a few framed paintings of the Himalayas, matching the simplicity of the food itself, as well as a bulletin board waiting to be filled with fliers regarding community events.
Red lanterns hang from the ceiling, lighting tables cleared of everything expect a napkin dispenser and two bottles of sweet and spicy sauce varieties. Tsering makes it a point to include the tax in the prices listed on his menu, which range from three to six dollars, because honesty is extremely important to him.
Tsering looks at the future with optimism. A religious man, every day when he wakes up he thanks God that he is alive. While the United States immigration laws make the process difficult, he hopes that within the next two years his family will join him in America.
He does not plan to gauge the success of his restaurant right away, partly because most of the students have gone home for the summer, and partly because he believes success does not come immediately.
“I did not expect, when I started this restaurant, that after two, three, four months I am going to be profitable and rich. It’s step by step. I come from bottom to top. Yeah, I have experience so right now I am very satisfied,” said Tsering.