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Interview #11: Kyikyi's Himalayan Dumplings
"The day I decided to use momo as a medium to represent my culture, it felt like a whole new level of responsibility."
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I’m one of those people who really likes a good ASMR food video, particularly when I need some help falling asleep. Tall cakes getting thickly spackled with buttercream, puff pastry rising in hyperspeed, garlic sizzling in ample amounts of oil—it all works like a charm.
There's another video I keep on repeat: The one below, which shows the seam of a shabhalep, a Tibetan style of hand pie, getting methodically twisted into place. I’ve watched it an embarrassing number of times, and it never disappoints. It's the handiwork of Kyikyi
It's believed that during the 17th century (with some accounts saying even earlier), Newar traders brought momos from Tibet into the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. From there, they exploded in popularity throughout Nepal, and eventually and more recently, in India. According to writer Sharanya Deepak, in The Absurdity of Tandoori Momo (a great piece from Vittles I linked to a few newsletters back):
Momos made their way to India when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet along with millions of Tibetans in 1959 to escape the Chinese annexation of their homeland….It wasn’t until the 1990s that the momo truly folded themselves into Delhi’s street food culture, even replacing samosas and others as the city’s most eaten street-food. This was in part due to the incoming workers from Nepal, who arrived in India as economic migrants in the late 1990s, and then in waves between 1997 and 2006, during the Nepalese civil war.
Today, there are regional variations of momos unique to Nepal and India. To drastically oversimplify, it's sorta like how there are many American styles of pizza endemic to regions of the U.S. (Chicago deep dish! Detroit pan pizza! South Shore bar pies! New York slices!), even though pizza originated in Italy. But there's a key difference, of course: Italy isn't lacking in culinary representation or acknowledgement on a global scale.
Which is why Kyikyi, the daughter of Tibetan refugees, decided to launch her food business six years ago, folding momos and shabhalep alongside her husband, siblings, and in-laws on top of a full-time job as a business development manager. “And at the end of the day, my why, my aspiration for doing what I'm doing, is about cultural representation,” she says.
What started as popular pop-ups at venues like the Beaverton Night Market is now evolving into a full-fledged frozen food business. “I don't think people realize how small we are in terms of our size of population. We are about 150,000 people around the world,” she says of the Tibetan diaspora. “I really wanted to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Hey, this is our culture’s food, and let me tell you our narrative through our words no matter how small we are.’”
Ahead, in her own words, learn about Kyikyi’s story, the difference between casually and professionally making momo, and what makes shabhalep a deliciously underrated foodstuff.
Momos Made by Momola
I grew up with my late grandparents who were from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Most Tibetans in my generation and younger have never set foot in Tibet because our parents were displaced when China invaded Tibet.
My grandparents and my parents fled Tibet across the Himalayas on foot like a lot of Tibetans, who settled in neighboring Nepal and India, which is where I grew up—in a little town called Darjeeling in West Bengal, India. We lived in this very small room that was divided by a tin wall with the kitchen on one part and our living, dining, and bedroom areas on the other part.
Whenever I think of momo in my earliest memories, I think about my momola’s (grandmother’s) shogo momo. Shogo momo basically translates to “potato dumplings” in Tibetan language. It's really delicious—the wrapper is a little bit thicker. It's sort of like bao, and the potatoes are lightly seasoned.
When my momola would prepare shogo momo and I was trying to do my homework on the other side of the wall, I could smell the potatoes being boiled. I used to sneak bits of potatoes that she had chopped up when she was away.
Traditional Tibetan cuisine includes a wide variety of momo that hasn’t necessarily taken off or been adopted in the way sha momo, or meat momo, and vegetarian momo have been adopted in Nepal and India.
We have yak momo, which is very unique. And chura momo, which is a soaked cheese—it’s very similar to the texture of cottage cheese, but spongier, and the wrapper is slightly thicker and fermented so it has a bit of tartness. It’s another momo that my late momola used to make, and a type that even many younger Tibetans are not familiar with.
We use certain Himalayan spices, like yerma, which is a Sichuan peppercorn that’s also native to Tibet, and coriander—and an experience of momo is not complete without a fresh batch of cilantro-based or tomato-based chili dipping sauces.
Bringing Tibetan Cuisine to Beaverton, Oregon
I immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult many, many years ago. The family that sponsored me lived in Oregon, and that's how I ended up in Oregon. I’ve only learned to prepare momo in the last 10 years or so. It actually started upon motherhood, and raising children in the U.S. as an immigrant mom. My kids, I felt, were twice as removed from the culture and the refugee community that I grew up in, and my kids are half-Tibetan. So I felt this sense of urgency to connect my kids to their Tibetan heritage as much as possible.
The catalyst for me to see the bigger picture was about six years ago, when I visited a night market in Beaverton. There were several food booths from cultures that you normally don't see in the mainstream restaurant industry, and I could see how people interacted with these different communities that were normally not represented. I don't have any professional culinary background, but there was nobody representing my culture, and I wanted my culture to be represented, too. That evening when I went home, I decided to apply to the market. I was accepted, and that's really how the journey began.
When I started doing my pop-ups, I was very deliberate in how I set up my tent. For example, I had Tibetan prayer flags all hanging all around, little icebreakers that were cultural elements.
The day I decided to use momo as a medium to represent my culture, it felt like a whole new level of responsibility. I knew how to prepare momo for my family, but I was not quite prepared for scaling to the quantity that was needed, so that totally threw me off. And at a pop-up, there’s cooking out of a 10 by 10 tent in 90 plus degree weather with lines and hot steam and the pressure of trying to serve quickly. Logistics-wise, it was very challenging to figure those things out.
Per month during pop-up season, we’re making close to 10,000, probably. It is a marathon because all of us work full-time jobs. At one pop-up we probably sell easily over 3,000-4,000 momo.
Presentation-wise, I wanted it to be as visually appealing as possible because we live in an Insta-world where everybody eats with their eyes first. I actually have a picture of the first batch of momo I made, and I cringe when I look at it. But at the time that was the best I could do, and our best is always evolving. My best now is quite different. A little observation here and there adds up—there's a million little tactile nuances that I would have never observed if I was just casually making momo.
From Pop-Ups to Grocery Store Shelves
I'm transitioning to scaling from just local pop-ups to actually launching a CPG brand. Going into about year three or four, I started thinking about it because I had a lot of returning customers at every pop-up. My booth would always have the longest line. A lot of people would say, "Hey, where is your restaurant? How can we buy your food?"
That planted the seed. For a multitude of reasons, I felt that I was not capable of it, that I didn’t have the expertise or the bandwidth. When the pandemic started, I really started giving serious thought toward scaling my representation. I realized that I could just go on every year, doing my pop-ups and selling out, but my scope of impact would always be limited physically to the geographic location that I'm in. So when I asked myself how I could bring about maximum cultural awareness and tell our story in the biggest way possible, it was something that could fit on shelves across the country.
What really also hit me was that the majority of the CPG brands selling momo right now are owned by non-Tibetan men, even in India and Nepal where most of the Tibetan refugee settlements are. And that was when I realized that I want to own our food; I want to own our narrative. I want a seat at that table. Why not? Maybe I won't be the last if I'm the first. That's really what made me just push through it and just do it.
I am about 80% through the journey of being prepared to launch. So I'm working on my packaging design as we speak. It will be pretty much the same small menu that I have at my pop-up; my signature dishes, tried and tested. The momo product line is going to be a variety of meat and vegan-friendly fillings—beef, chicken and cilantro, and veggie and shiitake.
Phase one is to focus just on local so that way I figure what works and what doesn't work. Go narrow and go deep is basically what my outlook is right now. So it will be launched locally, available to the local community and depending on how that goes, the next phase will be to expand beyond that demographic.
Don’t Sleep on the Shabhalep
I knew I wanted to offer momo at my pop-ups, but I also wanted to offer lesser known foods such as shabhalep, which is a Tibetan hand pie, kind of like the empanada of Tibetan cuisine. It’s very underrated.
Shabhalep basically translates to “meat flatbread,” but of course there are vegan options too. When you take a bite, it’s a really amazing mouth feel. You have that chew from the wrapper, and the juiciness of the filling. And just like the momo, you always dip it in a hot sauce.
To me, they’re about my childhood and a Tibetan way of living—we like to go for summer picnics, or Lingka, as we call it in Tibetan. Tibet is typically very cold. So when the sun breaks out, everybody wants to be outdoors. We pack all our food, and shabhalep is actually one of the most popular food items to pack because it tastes amazing whether it's right off the fryer or at room temperature.
It really is my favorite thing to make because of the twisted rope design. I find it very therapeutic. In my product line, I'll be selling chicken and cilantro which seems to be a very popular filling. Then the vegan-friendly version will be curry potato.
Momos as Cultural Preservation
The Tibetan diaspora is very, very small. To give you perspective relative to our host countries—and when I say host countries I mean in terms of Nepal and India because that's where most of the Tibetan diaspora have grown up or were born in—it is about the same population as Nepali immigrants in the state of Texas alone. That's how many we are across the world.
I point this out because of cultural attribution. When you are a refugee, a displaced person of a very small indigenous community and you're living, in my case in Nepal and India, and your dish gets so widely adopted that younger generations think that it's their dish, that narrative gets told over and over again.
And along that evolution, that adoption of that Tibetan dish from the people that brought that dish to the host countries that we are so grateful for, our ownership is nonetheless lost along the way. It snowballs into the erosion of a culture in the process. Because our voices are outnumbered, that's why I'm very deliberate whenever I talk about momo or post a picture about momo. It's about reminding people where it's from.
We are, as a diaspora, really struggling—three generations of struggling to preserve our at-risk heritage. And that's why I'm very vocal, and that's why it is very important for me to start this brand, and as a result become the first woman-owned Tibetan frozen food brand in the Himalayan diaspora and in the United States.
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
Kyikyi prefers to not use her last name professionally to protect her privacy, and I’m respecting her wishes!