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Our waiter, a Sherpa like all the staff, arrived while we were still poring over the menu, bringing me a thin, yogurt-sour cinnamon lashi laced with rosewater. He nodded every time we added something to our order. We wanted Sherpa rolls -- house-made panir cheese, glass noodles and shredded vegetables rolled up and lightly fried in a chickpea-flour skin like a meatless eggroll with a touch of deep sweetness -- and panir pokara. At some point in its development, every culture must come up with a native dish involving fried cheese, and for India, Nepal and Tibet, panir pokara is it. We added vegetable samosa to the list, and our waiter nodded again. Oh, and momo. Couldn't forget the momo.
Momo are strange things. They're dumplings, almost always steamed, chewy and usually stuffed with a ragout of shredded vegetables or stringy spiced meat. They're always served with a spicy tomato-pepper chutney, generally with a cooling yogurt raita either spooned over the top or on the side, and they exist almost as a spiritual place-holder on the dumpling spectrum. They're a liminal food eaten in a liminal place -- both the dumplings and the people who eat them at a crossroads of many cultures and many cuisines. In appearance, momo borrow heavily from the Chinese dumpling tradition to the east on the spectrum, but taste as much like Chinese dumplings as a marshmallow tastes like a scallop. They also resemble the Russian version, called pelmeni, which always come slathered in sour cream and often with a side of cold, pickled beets. Traveling much further west on the scale is to venture into the land of pierogis and gnocchi, but momo exist somewhere between, with a mongrel taste that's Middle Eastern, Chinese, Russian, Afghan, Indian and more, all at once. Like fried cheese, the dumpling exists in one form or another in all the world's culinary canons. And momo -- tougher than Chinese dumplings, more savory than pelmeni, more substantial than pierogis, and less limp and bland than the dumplings of the American South -- are the high-mountain link in the dumpling line that connects East to Far East and Far East back to West again.
825 Walnut St.
Boulder, CO 80302
Sherpa roll: $3
Momo $6 /: $10
Panir pokara: $3.50
Dall baht: $6.50
Chicken korma: $12
Sherpa stew: $13
Between courses -- after the appetizers, after a shared plate of momo, but before the real entrees began arriving -- Laura and I ate papadum with tamarind sauce and spicy tomato chutney, drank dall soup that was a bit too murky and bland, and tried desperately not to laugh. Tolkein had made yet another appearance at dinner -- this time in the form of a vapid discussion of the homoerotic subtext of The Lord of the Ringsmovies between two people at a table just ahead of ours. It was a one-sided conversation, dominated by a woman who was dull as only a deconstructionist can be, intensely interesting only to the man she sat with, who was listening as only a man who wants to lay a deconstructionist can. Still, it had its moments. Like when the woman praised Hollywood for its bravery in making a movie whose primary love story was between two short men with such hairy feet.
She didn't laugh when she said that.
Neither did her smitten beau.
The next round of plates brought saag, spicier in its Nepalese translation than the Indian version I'm most accustomed to, but still good. The sharp bite of cumin was blunted by the strong, green earthiness of the spinach, offset by garlic's round smoothness, and the dish carried an odd hint of ginger and lemon's citric snap. Tasting it was like having pizza for the first time in Rome, where what they serve in the trattorias is undoubtedly pizza, and pretty good, but unlike any pizza you've ever tasted before in your life.
Most of Sherpa's offerings gave me that same feeling. The naan, the Indian korma (creamy and gentle, with huge chunks of chicken, boiled cashews and just a bare edge of curry), the dall and masala all tasted familiar, but somehow different. Spices were rearranged, and the flavor spikes came in odd places. The korma was made without raisins, its sauce cream-thinned and sweet rather than deep and earthy.
The most foreign-sounding thing on the menu wound up being the most familiar. Sherpa stew was just a lamb stew -- but a wonderful lamb stew, the huge bowl brimming with soft carrots, cauliflower, peppers and potatoes, more dumplings and fat chunks of tender lamb, all swimming in a spicy broth. Still, at my first spoonful, I felt somehow cheated: I'd just discovered I could travel halfway around the planet, climb into the clouds along the spine of the world's highest mountain range, go to a place where they speak twenty languages, not one of them English, order a bowl of stew and get something that my grandma (she of the World's Best Grandma coffee mugs) probably made once a week for most of her life.
But then, as with fried cheese and dumplings, every culture and every cuisine has a common recipe for stew. Because all of the people living in all those countries all over the world had grandmothers who probably made something similar, once a week, for most of their lives. Something slow-simmered and hearty, kicked up with local spices, rich with vegetables and scraps and whatever meat might be lying around, cooked down for hours till all the flavors mingled and all the parts grew soft and infused with spice. Sherpa stew has probably spent generations doing for Everest mountain guides what menudo does for Mexican churchgoers and Dinty Moore does for American families: It brings 'em to the table, sobers 'em up if they're drunk, fills 'em up when they're hungry, and does it all with no fuss.
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