Bhutanese refugees set up shop downtown
Suk Subba is the owner of Druk Spices Grocery Store on State Street.
Sound is the first sensation that assails you at Druk Spices Grocery Store. Sight and taste will come if you linger, but sound dominates this Nepali corner store on State Street. Children’s clumsy footfalls and shrieks compete with housewives’ high-pitched price checks in their native tongue, all blended with the buzz of a cooler holding cardboard boxes unworthy of display. From above, a young Nepali woman sings an old folk song over the loudspeaker. Her trills crackle on the aged recording, and—even if you don’t know she’s singing about her love for the hills of Nepal—you can feel that the music means home.
For the nearly 2,000 Bhutanese refugees who have settled in Rochester since 2008, Suk Subba’s store is one of the few places to experience that feeling of home. An ethnic minority in Bhutan, the more than 100,000 strong population of culturally Nepalese fled to refugee camps in Eastern Nepal in the 1980s and ’90s after disagreements over land and citizenship rights left many with neither. After two decades of waiting for the governments of Nepal and Bhutan to work out a solution, the refugees were granted third country resettlement with the United States accepting the vast majority.
Subba, thirty-one, with a boyish face that reveals his real age only when the heavy set of smile lines form around his eyes, arrived in Rochester on April 2, 2009. He picked berries at an apple orchard in Holley, and then cleaned at a nursing home before he wound up working as a parts inspector while attending Monroe Community College. Despite having been a teacher in the refugee camp in Nepal, Subba struggled to balance studying and working full time, lasting only a month. “I felt like one month is one year,” he says. He decided to go into business for himself, borrowing money from family members and a Bhutanese friend in Colorado to open Druk with his brother-in-law, Roshan Chettri, and nephew, Mohan Subba, in June 2010. “I try to do my own,” he explains. Three years later, the store sees as many as 100 customers a day and $40,000 a month in sales.
“Our parents, they’ve never seen the school,” Subba says, explaining his father had just one year of education back in Bhutan. Subsistence farmers by trade, the Bhutanese never had a need for grocery stores. Subba ran a small grocery shop inside the refugee camp, but because he was not legally allowed to obtain a license in Nepal due to his status, the store was just a stall from which he sold camp convenience items like salt, cooking oil, and ramen-type packaged noodles.
The same noodles are on display at Druk, but alongside the quick prep staples sit shelves of flours and beans varied enough to rival a health food store’s wares. Extra hot chili peppers, black salt, and green and black cardamom cloves share space with huge tubs of ghee. Subba says he stocks little produce because many in the community have their own home gardens now, but he sells hard-to-find Asian produce like bitter gourd (tito karela), pointed gourd (parwal), and a long striped green bean, which goes by the name “drumstick” at the market he buys from in New York City. Subba’s customers buy hot peppers and Indian mustard by the boxful. “They feel like back in their country when they see that,” he explains. “I want to eat this ’til I’m sick,” a man coos in Nepali to a box of okra on a recent visit.
Druk features a mélange of products fitting a customer base toeing the line between two cultures. Behind the counter, packs of gum and Slim Jims share space with Nepali machetes and beaded necklaces. Under the Surati Punjabi snack mix sits Bachman’s Party Mix. Druk’s shelves are heavily lined with the Indian brand Laxmi, complete with a picture of the namesake goddess on the packages. The Bhutanese brand Druk, for which the store is named, is featured prominently, too, adorning bottles of spicy pickled peppers and mangoes.“I still love my country,” Subba says, lightly patting his heart as he explains the decision to name the store after the country that doesn’t seem to love him back.“I remember.”
Druk offers its Bhutanese customers a brief reprieve from the constant mental drain of adjusting to a new culture. Here, they can speak in their native Nepali. Bargaining culture, too, has made the journey from the Himalayas. Subba’s Bhutanese customers ignore price tags, always asking for discounts, he says with a laugh. Subba is slowly converting the back of the store to a small café where he sells Himalayan cuisine like chow mein, Tibetan dumplings, and pork soup. His prepared food operation started with chatpat, an Indian street snack of puffed rice mixed with mustard oil and assorted spices, vegetables, and beans. He originally sold the snack in true street-food style but purchased a cooler counter to hold all the ingredients in their own sanitary plastic bins after the health department came knocking. It’s a lot different than the Indian men who sell the snack at roadsides in Nepal from a tray balanced on their heads, but the taste of the mustard seed (which Subba fries and grinds himself at home), black salt, and MSG is the same. “People still love it,” he says. “People love the taste of Nepal. The taste is still hanging on their tongue.”
Subba’s wife, Amrita Subba, and sister-in-law, Dil Subba, take turns concocting the chatpat, asking customers in Nepali, “Lanne ki khanne?” (“Taking or eating?”) when they wander to the back to order it by the dollar. Dil is at the counter the day I walk in and hands me a ripped, half Styrofoam container with chatpat ready to spill over the edges. “It’s so much!” I say in Nepali, to which she responds “Nepali!” by way of explanation. I forget to ask for light chili powder, but it’s so delicious, I temporarily forget how little spice I can handle. I soon have to take a break from interviewing: my eyes and nose are leaking, and my tongue is numb. Nepalis, on the other hand, are “born of spice,” Subba laughs.
As I’m eating, a couple of younger Bhutanese guys order big portions in full-sized Styrofoam takeout containers. They shovel the food down as I nurse a mango juice box, trying to recover from the spices so I can eat more. When the guys finish, they reach for the communal water jug on the table, making sure to tip the stream into their mouths without polluting the jug by touching it to their lips—a scene I’ve witnessed countless times in Nepal, and now, it’s here in Rochester.
Druk Spices is located at 537 State St. A second Nepali store, Shangrila Grocery, is located at the corner of Gregory and South Clinton.
Danielle Preiss is a writer sometimes living in Rochester and sometimes in Nepal.