On the foothills of Mount Kailash, the sacred abode of Lord Shiva in Tibet was born Rinchin Tashi. Thirty years later, life carried Tashi far away from the pleasant weathered hill town of Lhasa, all the way to the unforgiving heat and dusty streets of Choolaimedu in Chennai. But lucky for Chennaites, he built a 100-square feet Tibet in the city and named it 'Kailash Kitchen' or 'Momo Sa-khang', the food joint which is now famed for its momo and chilly sauce.
Inside the joint, the dingy, wooden cubicle where guests are seated is surprisingly clean. Next to a candlelit photo of the Dalai Lama, a boy wipes down the granite slab where the gravies are made and dishes are placed. Two office-going men seated next to the slab gorge on steamed momos. A white board placed on the table reads 'Beef Momo available here'.
"I set up this joint in 2008, after graduating from Loyola College. There I met a lot of Tibetans and north-east people. They all missed the food back home. So, my friend Lopsang, who studied in Ethiraj, and I decided to partner up and open a shop for Tibetan food," Rinchin recalls.
The duo rented a 250-square feet plot in Sowrashtra Naga, Choolaimedu, out of which the kitchen occupied 150-square feet. Here they dished out spicy momos, soupy thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup), dhangthuk (beef/chicken noodles) and mokthuk (Momo noodle soup bowl). Apart from popular additions like the chilly beef and bao, the four items have pretty much remained the Kailash Kitchen's staple over the years.
Nearly 11 years old now, the joint was almost an instant hit in the city, Rinchin says. With an initial investment of Rs 4.8 lakh, Rinchin and Lopsang were able to break even in the first nine months. Within four months of setting up Kailash Kitchen, a sizeable crowd of college kids and office goers had started thronging the tiny joint.
"Today, on an average, 180 people, including lots of Malayalis, visit us. We shut the shop and go home early when we sell out," Rinchin says with a chuckle. The joint's fame has also been entirely by word of mouth and this organic success helped Rinchin and Lopsang set up another branch in Besant Nagar, which was opened in November 2018.
So what's their recipe for success? Rinchin says that he tries to be consistent with taste and quality. Every day at 8 am, he prepares the pastes to be added to the dishes by hand. The chilly, garlic and cumin pastes are ground and added to the dishes by Rinchin himself.
"We have also been sourcing our meat - be it chicken or beef - from the same meat shop for the last decade. Our masalas are from Bylakuppe in Karnataka, which has a large Tibetan settlement," Rinchin adds.
Rinchin knows that he has managed to find success by sticking to familiar recipes. But every now and then, the urge to innovate takes over and he picks up his phone and calls his mom in Tibet for fresh recipe ideas.
"One thing I have tried as part of the special menu is the traditional glass noodles, chicken, potato combination which is a Tibetan favourite," he says. The dish is eaten by mixing the flat glass noodles with the thick chicken and potato gravy.
Rinchin also wants to add the option of Tibetan barbeque to his menu, but has been unable to do so due to practical limitations. Unlike the popular Korean barbeque, the Tibetan variant requires the meat to be grilled first with salt and pepper, and the marinade to be poured over it as it cooks.
"We need a bigger place and little more breathing space for the barbeque as there would be a lot of smoke," he says.
The joint, which is registered as 'Momo Sa-Khang by Kailash Kitchen', is on both Zomato and Dunzo, and receives several orders via the apps today. The slew of street momo shops and Tibetan joints, Rinchin says, has not affected them too much.
"I've seen some regular faces over the last decade or so. They tell people about our shop and they bring their parents to eat here. This way, we have been able to make money and sustain ourselves. I believe we have managed to enter the hearts of Chennaites and turn them into momo lovers," Rinchin says with a smile.