They resemble little pieces of the Moon. They taste like the heavens itself. It’s perfection wrapped in muchheko maida (dough of white flour). Offer it and no one can refuse it; the de facto national food of Nepal, मम: (ideally ‘mamah’ but is written more as ‘momo’) has been warming the hearts, souls and obviously the tummies of millions of Nepalis worldwide.
What is momo? I can hear thousands of people *gasp* as I say that. No Nepali blog can be complete without momo! However, those who have not been acquainted much with the Nepali culture cannot be blamed. Momo is a type of dumpling, much like the Japanese Gyoza or perhaps the Chinese Jiaozi.
Round type Momo
The Nepali diaspora has such an affair with momo that I believe there are quite the variety of words. Now, I shall dive into the details of the momo. Physically speaking, it has two primary forms: crescent-shape and round-shape. Aesthetically speaking, I prefer the crescent-shaped momo. It is white in colour due to the white flour dough used to make the cover (खोल /khol/).
PREPARING THE INGREDIENTS
Just like how we cannot describe a person from the outside, we cannot simply know what momo is without knowing the inside. Inside the pouch there is a filling. The filling is usually of meat like Chicken, Buff (buffalo meat), Pork etc. but it is not uncommon to hear vegetarian varieties (like cabbage and paneer?). However you can fill any material you like as long as you cook it thoroughly (I guess goat meat is an exception).
Despite what you think, making momo isn’t easy!!!
The filling is not simply meat or some vegetable. It contains the following base ingredients, roughly:
- Minced Meat/Vegetable of choice
- Diced Onion
- Monosodium Glutamate (popularly called ‘Ajinomoto’ here)
- Oil (if the meat/vegetable is dry…e.g. chicken)
Some people (especially in the Kathmandu valley) add ‘Momo masala’ to the above filling. Some people even add tomatoes and god-knows-what ingredients. The masala is in fact even an ice-breaker; some people swear by it, some people swear at it. Personally, I prefer the much simpler-and-superior tasting non-momo masala version. However, it is upto one’s personal preference!
Dicing the onion by itself is a mammoth task. Just imagine; one onion is enough to wreck havoc with your eyes. Now imagine having to cut a minimum of 5-6 onions into tiny dices! Yes, the onion has to be small dices; it provides the texture and flavour to the momo. Unfortunately within my family, I am that unfortunate dicer. You do not know how creative people can be with this thing. Whether it be freezing the onions, cutting it underwater, using swimming goggles, fans etc. people have their own ways to tackle such a literally eye-watering task.
Another back-breaking task is mincing the meat. While not as malicious as the onions, you need to mince the meat with a cleaving knife fine enough for a good texture (but not so fine that it tastes like eating powdered filling). It is an art by itself. Fortunately, you can buy already minced meat at supermarkets or the local butcher can do it for you. Vegetarians need not glee at this point because you need to chop the vegetables down as well.
Now you roll the dough! Not really, we still have the white flour sitting in some tokri (container). So you get some water and knead the flour until you get the dough. If it ‘needs’ more water, you ‘knead’ the dough by adding more water. Anyway, after you are done with the dough (hold the yeast!), you now begin your tedious journey to momo salvation.
MAKING THE MOMO
The first step in making the momo is ensuring you are a Ph.D in the art of Origami folding. The next step is making sure you have at least a degree in getting the shape right, with a minor in filling the adequate amount of filing.
Well you actually don’t need the above to make momo at least. However, making momo is a terrific skill. I still can’t make those annoying muja (folds) right. Before that, you need to set the dough into a round shape. You chop the dough into lumps that are about the size of half of an average walnut. Next, you roll them with a belan (rolling pin) into neat circular shapes.
If you are lazy, then you simply flatten the dough into a long rectangular sheets and then use a cup (or something circular) to cut neat circular shapes. If you are even lazier, then you can buy pre-made ones. If you are lazy beyond this point then just buy frozen momos or order them from somewhere.
Filling the momo
Now that you have the wrapper, you fill it with the filling by placing it in the centre of the wrapper. Now you begin wrapping it to form a neat shape. You finally close it and then you have one momo! Repeat till you get a sizable amount. Arrange the momo on the मक्टु (maktu) and take it to the steamer. मक्टु (maktu) is the sub-component of the steamer [creatively called ‘momo ko bhada’ (untensil of momo)].
COOKING THE MOMO (AND ACHAR)
You must first ensure that steam is actually coming out of the steamer. Now that you have kept the momo in the steamer, you now patiently wait for 15-25 minutes for the momo to cook. Harder meats like buff take longer time to cook, while softer meats like chicken cook in ~18 minutes. Care must be taken to avoid over-cooking it. If you overcook momo, it becomes ‘fyaatta’ (deformed due to overcooking).
Momo in a maktu; notice the crescent-shaped momo and the arrangement
To ensure even cooking throughout the maktus, you have to periodically shift them up and down to ensure even cooking. There is a little trick that tells you if the momo is cooked or not; if it is shiny, then it is cooked. If it is still matte, then you need to cook it more. If it looks like a mini atom bomb went off inside each momo, then you probably overcooked it.
Now that your momo is cooking, you make the achar (pickle) for dipping. One faux pas in eating momo is using ketchup as your momo ko achar (pickle for momo) . Please never use ketchup, I swear that’s an unwritten taboo.
You momo ko achar is usually made of tomato, coriander leaves, salt and chilli. However, you can also find the yellow one (made of peanuts), fierce red (made of chilli and salt only) or dips made of many other ingredients (like Szechuan pepper for instance).
Now that everything is done, you can enjoy you momo in peace!
THE VARIETIES OF MOMO
What I have described above is the basis of all the other varieties of momos. People have experimented with lots and lots of varieties (naturally). Some of the common ones are:
- कोथे (kothe) = Pan-fried steamed momo, such that only portions of it is brown. Kothe momo is usually made from the leftover momo that has stood in the fridge for some time.
- Fried = Like kothe, but fried such that the outer skin is golden in colour.
- C = Short for ‘Chilly momo’, it is steamed (or fried) momo that is dunked in hot, savory sauce
- Momocha = Used to describe the atypical masala-flavoured buff-meat filled round momo
- Sui mai = Open type of momo
- Jhol momo = Momo dunked in soup
I have even seen the terrifically-coloured ‘Green momo’. I am not interested to eat it, though. Oh the creativity of people engages me sometimes.
Whether it be the old grandmother or the bubbly 10 year old boy, everyone loves momos (hold the few special snowflakes who don’t eat anything but imported foie gras or steak tartare perhaps). Whether it be that fancy restaurant or that momo-thela (stall) on the streets, momo is everywhere. Italian restaurant? Oh look, momo! Bakery cafe? Momo! The funny thing is that ‘bakery’ cafe actually holds an annual momo festival in Nepal. In fact, a restaurant’s success and merit is often based on the quality of their momo. The first thing you order in a restaurant? Momo!
Momo is ubiquitous in our daily lives. Whether you like it or hate it, you can’t deny that momo has its own special place in being ‘Nepali’ along with perhaps the song ‘Yo man ta mero Nepali ho’ and the slogan ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’.
East or west, momo is definitely one of the best things in Nepal.