Edinburgh Eats: Himalaya Cafe

We sit down with the owner of Himalaya Cafe to discuss the Dalai Lama, community and the story behind her restaurant

Feature by Emily Corpuz | 16 Apr 2019

The Dalai Lama is an influential figure, but one of his little-known accomplishments is that he played a part in bringing Edinburgh's best cup of chai to the city.

Reka Gawa, owner of Himalaya Cafe on Clerk Street, moved from India at a young age. She’d always wanted to own a cafe and has spent her career working in restaurants, cafes and catering. In fact, Gawa was a caterer at the Scottish Parliament when the Dalai Lama visited and addressed MSPs in 2004. While he was there, he spoke to Gawa personally for about two minutes, an interaction that Gawa recalls with reverence and wonder. “He encouraged me, and encourages younger generations, to keep up our culture and spread our culture,” Gawa says, noting the anxiety many cultures have of “becoming too Westernised”.

Gawa glows as she retells this story, which makes it clear how much she treasures that experience. After speaking with the Dalai Lama, Gawa says, “I wanted to set up something so I could follow his advice.” And in fact, she came across the place that would become Himalaya through a bit of serendipity.

Gawa was walking down Clerk Street with a friend when she spotted a space that was available to let. She remembers that she thought there was something special about the place. So, she met with the owner. As she was touring the space, she saw her plans begin to take shape.

“His Holiness was the inspiration for this place,” Gawa reflects.

So, in 2006, she left her catering position at the Scottish Parliament, and she established Himalaya Cafe in 2007. Her friends helped her transform the space – painting walls, making the place restaurant-ready – with Gawa at the helm directing the operation. When designing the restaurant, she aimed to recreate the atmosphere of her childhood home in which her parents nurtured and celebrated their Tibetan culture.

The restaurant certainly radiates a feeling of warmth and comfort. When we walk through the doors, we’re welcomed by the fragrant aroma of chai. The intimate front-of-house also contains a shop featuring wide-ranging goods about or from Tibet, Nepal and India, with many products made by people from these regions. “I’m glad I can be supporting people back home,” remarks Gawa. When there’s a lull in the warm chatter and hubbub, we hear meditative, spiritual music and it soothes the already homely environment. Downstairs is a meditation room for use by donation, as Gawa wants to ensure there’s a space for those who’d like time for reflection.

When designing the menu, Gawa wanted to include her favourite foods from growing up. Her favourite dish on the menu are the momos, which are traditional dumplings typically reserved for special occasions. On the drinks side of things, Gawa loves making chai: “We make it fresh and grind the spices in front of the customers,” she elaborates. And the customers love the chai so much, they say it’s the best in the city. Thanks to the wonderful offerings at Himalaya Cafe, the restaurant enjoys a devoted group of regulars. Gawa thanks the community for the success of Himalaya, saying, “That’s why we’re still here.”

One thing that becomes clear when we speak with Gawa is that she pours her heart and soul into the cafe. Her passion is palpable, and it shines in the way she interacts with her regulars and makes Himalaya a second home for them and Tibetan culture. “It’s important to have a place like this,” she reflects. “It connects everyone.” As for the future, Gawa hopes to grow the restaurant in this space, and “spread love, peace and good vibes". Needless to say, she’s already made Himalaya a success in more ways than one, and we’re fortunate that she’s continuing her amazing work.

Himalaya Cafe, 20 S Clerk St, Edinburgh, rekagawa@hotmail.com, 07903 016265