His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s hood in the Himalayan foothills is technically McLeod Ganj, but we know it as Dharamasala. The name can be understood from the Sanskrit compounddharma + shala to mean a resting place for spiritual wanderers. And the wanderers do come in flocks. Among many other things, it’s a place for lama-spotting and deciphering menus in Hebrew, shopping for rainbow-colored mittens and haggling over dharma implements. There are some decent health food stores perched on its damp hillsides, where you can buy the staples of a wanderer—tahini and gluten-free muffins—and so the living can be good. It’s not what I would call a restful place, however; some profoundly restless souls can be found wandering the swirling mists of its steep streets. I have found my dharamsalas elsewhere. Since becoming homeless, I’ve been doing pretty well for myself, enjoying the hospitality of friends and also strangers.
I have found dharamsalas in Hamburg and Malibu, in Kathmandu and Sacramento, and in towns called Freedom and Whistler. Sofa beds and air mattresses, even master bedrooms have been made available with great generosity of space. Whether in a tent, in a backyard, or in a kid’s room, little piles of guest towels appear with rectangular regularity. I’m privy to spare keys and Post-it notes with wi-fi passwords and, sometimes, family secrets.
In return for all this hospitality, I must think of adequate displays of gratitude. I want to be remembered fondly and invited back. Every host is different. My friend Elise said a good houseguest is “someone who is aware of the space they are in and moves gently in that.” But my Boudhanath, Nepal host, James, said a good guest is someone who feels free to go in the refrigerator and make food out of what they find. He added that the best guests come and do their practice. He loves finding people in their pajamas prostrating in the living room.
Offering a bottle of something (I prefer olive oil to wine) or a book is an obvious choice, but preparing a meal is my favorite way to show heartfelt thanks. James concurs. “I’m a single guy and a lot of people come and cook for me—that’s how I survive. Otherwise I’d be having peanut butter and popcorn every day.” He said he likes it when people make what they know, what they find most pleasing. James runs a program in the begging camps on the edge of Boudha and says when they invite him for a party, they offer him American-style potato chips and Coke. “Because they think that’s what I want. But I’d rather have their home-cooked thali.”
Which brings me to my dharma shala soup. It’s my movable feast. It’s not always easy to shop in unfamiliar markets and prepare in someone else’s home, but this is one recipe that seems to work almost anywhere. I most recently served it to a vegan teenage surfer in Malibu, who devoured a bowl and announced to the room that it was the best soup he’d ever had in his whole life. I chose to ignore the facts that (a) he was young, so his whole life was not that long; (b) surfers often speak in hyperbole; and (c) he may have had the munchies. I accept his compliment! I also think it’s the best soup in the world. Not only because of the way it tastes, which to me is “awesome,” but how awesome I feel afterward.
This awesomeness comes from my favorite recipe website (and I can say that without equivocation), Heidi Swanson’s 101cookbooks.com. It is a variation of a recipe she found in Anna Thomas’s book Love Soup. They call it Green Soup with Ginger, but since it’s not really green—and because to me it is so much more than that—I feel the need to rename it: Dharma Shala Soup.
1 large yellow onion; red onion is fine too
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more to taste
1 large sweet potato (12 ounces); yam or sturdy orange squash also works
1 large leek, white and light green parts (5 ounces); optional
1 bunch spinach (8 ounces) or kale
1 large bunch green chard (12 ounces) or just more kale
3 tablespoons (30 g) chopped fresh ginger, plus more to taste
2 cups good-tasting vegetable broth; optional (water works too)
2–4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Caramelize the onion by slowly cooking in a little olive oil over low flame until it’s sweet and brown, about half an hour.
Dice your orange food and put it in a large soup pot with a little oil and salt. Add the thoroughly washed and chopped leek, spinach, and/or chard. When these have softened and have a nice coating of oil, add ginger for about 5 minutes, and then 3 cups of water if you will be using broth later. Or just add 5 cups of water. It’s still delicious.
Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the soup, covered, for 30 minutes.
Add 2 cups of vegetable broth if you have it. Thomas’s recipe recommends putting everything in the blender, but I agree with Swanson that it is so beautiful as is. Just leave it. Less to clean up.
Before serving, stir in lemon juice and black pepper, and spoon the caramelized onions over the top.
Serves 5–6. It keeps well for about 3 days. I even have it for breakfast sometimes.