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.
Macchendra was back inside of a minute.
"Buffet?" he asked
"Yeah, but I think we're going to get some appetizers as well."
"Appetizers on the buffet."
He waved me over, walked me across the floor to the buffet line and pointed out the pakodas, the samosa. He then personally walked me down the entire stretch of steam trays, describing each dish, making comments on their relative spice, describing who ate them, which were vegetarian and which weren't. He insisted that there was plenty of food available, and I agreed that, yes, there was a lot of food.
"Still, I think I'd like a plate of momo," I explained.
"Momo," he said.
"Yes. Chicken momo?"
He shrugged and made for the kitchen. At that moment, I couldn't tell if he was sad, annoyed or just confused. Me, I was only hungry.
Laura and I proceeded to do as much damage to the buffet as we could, lining our plates with basmati rice from the steamer, speckled with fennel seeds, and topping the rice with vegetable korma thick with potatoes and cauliflower and soft carrots, chicken curry in a thin sauce that had to be stirred up from the bottom, and saag paneer so rich with cream and butter that it looked like green marble in the pan. I also loaded up on Nepali chili chicken — a stir-fry of big pieces of chicken thigh meat tossed with green peppers, tomato, onions, black powder, kerosene, razor blades and napalm. It was hot, with a slick of oil on top like a warning to the intemperate and a vengeful streak running through it that built with each successive bite. Still, it was delightful. It made even the snow choking the alleys and parking lots outside of Nepal Cuisine's windows look delicious. I could completely imagine a robust party of Nepalese Yeti-hunters crouched in the snow around a guttering campfire, talking over the day's small victories and spooning up huge bowls of it to ward off intestinal freezing.
We made a second run at the buffet, for delicious tandoori chicken legs that tasted of smoke and char, of cayenne, coriander and cumin; and for chana masala, the chickpeas spiked with ginger and onion, over piles of warm rice. The vegetable pakoda — shredded potatoes and mixed, chopped vegetables, tossed in a chickpea flour batter and fried like latkes just back from a trip to mysterious latitudes — were excellent, particularly after we trailed them through puddles of cooling raita and tamarind chutney. But the momo had still not made their appearance, and I was growing nervous.
The plate finally arrived just as we were beginning to slow down and fill up: a dozen of the little suckers, bleeding butter onto the plate. Macchendra apologized for the delay, saying that they'd had to wait for the water to boil. This bothered me a bit. Even though Nepal Cuisine closes between 3 and 5 p.m. — after the lunch rush and before the first hit of dinner — ostensibly, the cooks (led by Ratna, bless her little firebug's heart) would have the kitchen fully up and running to prep for the night's buffet. And yet, at 6 p.m., they didn't have any water boiling?
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But I didn't get a chance to ask Macchendra about this, seeing as I was busily stuffing my face with dumplings and trying to breathe through my nose. Nepal Cuisine does great momo: handmade and crimped like their Chinese counterpart, filled with a loose mix of ground chicken and spices and then boiled until stiff. The ridges of the dumplings are still al dente, while the bodies and meat inside are soft and savory and perfect; they were accompanied by a bowl of tomato achaa that tasted like a simple San Marzano sauce turned complex by a genius prep cook given the keys to the chef's spice locker.
Determined to solve the boiling-water mystery — and eat more momo — we returned to Nepal Cuisine. On another frozen night, this one a weeknight, the crowds descended as though possessed, families and singles and couples and big groups storming the front and back doors of the small restaurant, passing under the hanging Buddhist prayer flags and assaulting the buffet as though starving. This time we went for the lamb saag (different than the saag paneer, more savory and less sweet) and chicken pakoda (crusted with chickpea flour, dotted with whole coriander seeds and wonderful when doused in sweet tamarind chutney). And while we waited for more momo and thukpa, we sipped the chai tea that Macchendra brought to warm us up and watched the runners go in and out through the swinging doors to refresh the buffet trays with clockwork regularity.
It was the buffet that unlocked the secret to the missing momo. Nepal Cuisine does so much buffet business that the menu is almost an afterthought — something for those doing takeout, for those too picky to share in the community appetite for saag and curry and samosa. So for us to sit in the dining room and order a dish from the menu threw a wrench into the otherwise smooth works of the kitchen, forcing the cooks to concentrate on something other than the steam-table trays and big pots of chili chicken simmering in the back.
Still, they were more than willing to accommodate my every weird whim. Our meals just took a little longer, with each successive menu order coming liberally seasoned with apologies for the delay. But I was more than happy to wait, to sit in one of the bright little rooms, sipping chai, smelling the hundred competing spices being worked with in the back. And every time the white plate finally arrived with my dozen little dumplings, I felt like a rich man, too.