By Jamie Swinnerton
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By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
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In Nepal, momo — the small, white-flour dumplings that represent the Nepali contribution to the world dumpling culture — are used as currency. Goats and yaks can be bartered for on the streets with buckets of momo. A fine woman is said to be worth her weight in momo. The best momo-makers in any city are numbered among the most wealthy, blessed and handsome in all the land. And there's even a folk tale that relates how a man traded his wife for three magical momo and was, forever after, thought of as the wisest man who ever lived.
Okay, none of that's true. But it should be. When made well — with skill and care and an eye toward beauty — momo are among my favorite foods. And I could totally see these dumplings being used in place of a less degradable currency, being weighed on scales in the local markets as a trade good: ten momo for a pair of sturdy snowshoes, twelve for one of those crazy fur hats, twenty-five for a rifle with which a brave man could go out and hunt Yeti among the frozen crags of Sagarmatha. There have been days when I would've gladly traded my good boots for a dozen momo dressed in smoky, sweet and spicy tomato achaar, times in my working life when I might've considered taking my pay in momo — spooned out on a Friday evening and kept warm as I ran home, barefoot, through the snowy streets, in a yak-skin bag pressed close to my heart.
Dumplings hold a place of honor in virtually every national cuisine. Chinese shu mai and potstickers, Japanese gyoza, Russian pelmeni, Italian ravioli and gnocchi, Polish pierogi, Zimbabwean sadza, Ghanaian fufu, Peruvian papas rellenas, German Konigsberger klopse, Mongolian buuz and Korean mandu – and that's just the start. Momo, though, are special. Simple, stripped down to near perfection, then paired with a deeply flavorful and complicated sauce, they are the world's uber-dumpling — an Apollonian ideal to which all other dumplings aspire.
In Nepal (and this is absolutely true), momo are made with chunks of Snickers and Mars bars, wrapped in dumpling skin and then fried or pan-seared. Since this is done primarily in the tourist areas, you might consider it a telling mark of the natives' complete disdain for Western vacationers. But that's not the case. Because I imagine we all appear so corpulent, pasty and febrile, the Nepali momo-makers must immediately imagine us to be dying. Knowing what we like (high-fructose corn syrup, mostly), they immediately reach for the closest hunk of concentrated sugar they can find, wrap it in momo skin and present it to us like medicine against the lethality of altitude, calm and unspoiled environments. Away from the lowlands and tourist centers, traditional momo are made with vegetables; with goat, buffalo, chicken, pork and yak meat (basically anything slower and less cunning than the average Nepalese momo-maker); with cheese or finely diced potatoes; with a heady spice mix of wild garlic, green onion, coriander, ground cumin, salt and pepper. They are dosed with yak butter and eaten as breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack.
These cold days make me hungry for momo — specifically, the momo at Nepal Cuisine, which opened two years ago in a weird, split-level strip-mall space in Boulder that once held the Italian restaurant Mista Trattoria. It's primarily a buffet operation, featuring a six-day-a-week feeding frenzy for Boulder's Nepalese community, daring college students, gastronauts and fans of the particular spice architecture and funny spellings that separate Nepalese cuisine from that of its closest neighbors (Indian and Chinese and Mongolian). It does an all-vegan lunch buffet on Mondays, which is terribly popular among the cruelty-free twig-and-berry set, and a regular Nepalese/Indian buffet on every other day and night for all the right-thinking Americans who crowd the warren of small dining rooms in order to eat from towering plates of samosa, vegetable pakoda, saag paneer and tandoori chicken legs.
Laura and I showed up early on a Saturday night, slipping on the ice in the parking lot, drawn in like zombies by the smell of tandoor smoke and curry spice drifting on the frozen air. She'd come for vegetable korma, for saag drizzled with raita, steamy basmati rice and then some more korma, which, if given her head, would be what she would eat at least once a day for the rest of her natural life. I'd come for momo. For saag, as well, and maybe some tandoori chicken — whatever was available on the buffet, really — but mostly for momo. We were met at the door by Macchendra Shrestha, who owns the place with his wife, Ratna (they used to cook and manage at Narayan's Restaurant in Boulder), and he immediately showed us to a table, brought us menus, and asked us if we were there for the buffet.
"Actually," I replied, "I'm going to look at the menu for a minute." And I did, finding chicken chhoela, thukpa (a traditional Nepalese noodle soup full of big chunks of vegetables and lamb), chau chau (a Nepal-by-way-of-Singapore presentation of stir-fried flat noodles threaded with cabbage and tasting rather like a bowl of pad thai without the peanuts, doused in butane and set afire) and a fried lentil dish called jhaneko daal listed among the Nepali specialties, followed by a nice spread of saags, curries, kormas and vindaloos all crowding the board. And then there were the two varieties of momo: a traditional chicken, spiked with garlic and green onion, and vegetable momo, filled with carrot, shredded cabbage and onion.