A juicy love affairAt 6 pm, the daylight is failing, but Shyam Dangol is busy taking in orders and marshalling the kitchen during an after-work rush at the Great Tasty Boso Rahit Momo in Pulchowk. By the time a steaming plate lands in front of Nishant Shilpakar, a regular patron at the eatery, Dangol has clocked well over 500 plates of momos for the day. “Sometimes we end up making about 6,000 pieces a day. That’s a lot of momos,” he says, though not complaining.
At 6 pm, the daylight is failing, but Shyam Dangol is busy taking in orders and marshalling the kitchen during an after-work rush at the Great Tasty Boso Rahit Momo in Pulchowk. By the time a steaming plate lands in front of Nishant Shilpakar, a regular patron at the eatery, Dangol has clocked well over 500 plates of momos for the day. “Sometimes we end up making about 6,000 pieces a day. That’s a lot of momos,” he says, though not complaining.
It is hard to remember a time when momos were not ubiquitously popular in Kathmandu. They have through the decades remained a usual suspect in the Capital’s menus—be it at high end nibble restaurants or dingy bhattis. The Nepali variation of the Chinese dumpling, momos, some would be quick to conclude, is the city’s de-facto favourite food. Easy to prepare, economical, filling and most importantly, delicious, it is of little surprise that within the few decades that they have been available commercially in the market, momos have evolved into a veritable cultural fixture—one that Nepali migrants and students are now taking far and wide across the globe.
Shyam Sundar Lal Kakshapati, a pioneering restaurateur, reckons banking on the chicken momo to have been one of the best decisions he has made in his journey in the Nepali food industry. “We began experimenting with chicken momos when everyone just assumed that momos were made with buffalo meat. There was only one eatery in Kathmandu, the Jharana restaurant, which served a mutton variety,” he says. Turning a deaf ear to detractors, Kakshapati’s Nanglo and Bakery Cafe outlets began offering the chicken variation to great reviews. Today, 30 years later, Kakshapati, through his family’s various outlets in the Valley, sells north of 2,000 plates of momos every day.
Dumplings are found in innumerable varieties around the world—Khinkali in Georgia, Mandu in Korea, Pelmeni in Russia, Periogi in Poland, Gyoza in Japan; various cultures have invented different ways to use dumplings as a tool to stretch ingredients and limited supplies. Dumplings are thought to have originated some 1,800 years ago in the twilight of the Han Dynasty in China, courtesy of the physician Zhang Zhongjing. Zhongjing, widely regarded as one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine, is said to have fashioned the first dumplings out of dough, meat, chilli and herbs before serving them boiled as a cure against frost bites.
By the time the trade relations between Kathmandu and Tibet blossomed in the 17th century, dumplings were already a staple snack in Lhasa. It would be a dish Newar traders quickly found the taste buds for. “Because Tibetan cuisine was so different from that of the Valley, momos and thukpas became extremely popular among the Newars of Lhasa,” says Soongma Tuladhar, an educator and a former merchant to Tibet. Tuladhar says that the original dumplings were made with yak meat and onions, wrapped in a dough but were morphed into momos we know today after they were introduced in the Valley by returning merchants. “They first became popular at Newar family gatherings—where yak meat was switched with buffalo and ginger, garlic and local spices were added to the filling,” he says, “The Nepali versions were called momo-cha (cha being a term of endearment for anything small in Nepal Bhasa) because they were shaped small like marbles.” Unlike the larger Tibetan variety, momo-chas were easier to eat in one go, which meant they retained the succulent juices which exploded with flavours in the mouth.
By the 1960s, in part because of the influx of Tibetan migrants, momo-chas were already a popular fixture at Kathmandu’s handful of cinema halls. The tiny dumplings sold in cones rolled out of leaves (now served with a basic tomato chutney) were a go-to snack for young movie-goers who flocked the Bishwojyoti Hall in Jamal and particularly Ranjana Hall in New Road. It would be here that Ram Krishna Manandhar, a visionary roadside vendor at the nearby Bhugol Park, established the famed RC Restaurant—widely credited as the Capital’s first successful commercial momo joint and a popular hub for youngsters. Prakash Manandhar, Ram Krishna’s son, remembers his father’s restaurant as being busy and bustling throughout the day. “RC restaurant quickly became a cultural icon—a place where the celebrities of the time hung out at. Before long, RC had five different outlets in the Capital.” Though no longer in operation, Manandhar prides in the fact his father’s restaurant played its bit part in helping Kathmandu fall in love with the delectable momos.
Fifty odd years later, it is a juicy love affair that has yet to lose its ‘honeymoon sheen’. Momos remain as popular as they ever were and if anything continue to proliferate through creative fillings and presentations in the modern day and age. Mahima Bhattachan has been in love with momos for as long as she remembers and now manages the recently launched Momo Queen at the new Hotel Ambassador in Lazimpat. Looking to push the barriers for their predominantly younger crowd, her outlet now offers varieties of fish, khuwa and chocolate momos. “There are a few basic principles you don’t change: the dough needs to be soft and the filling needs to be juicy and filled with flavour,” says Bhattachan, “But beyond that there is no limit to what you can do with momos.” Their experimentations are slowly bearing fruit: the rose-shaped chocolate momos have become a massive hit with the patrons.
Keeping up with the times, Shyam Kakshapati’s Bakery Cafe, which now hosts the popular annual Momo Mania Festival, makes it a point to surprise customers with different momo fillings every year. “We have even tried with seemingly incongruous fillings like gajar ka halwa. It is all trial and error. You never know what is going to take off,” he says. Having recently introduced ostrich momos at their outlets, to a positive reception, the Bakery Cafe is now experimenting with varieties of sweet momos, soon to be offered on their regular menus.
Shyam Dangol, at the Boso Rahit Momo, however, remains a purist. Dangol, who has been perfecting his momo ko achar—a spicy accompanying condiment—believes that just tweaking the accompanying sauce can drastically alter a momo experience. “We have been using the same ingredients—seasame seeds, coriander, soyabean flour and simple spices for three decades with great success,” he says, “You can replicate the filling but the sauce is the heart and soul of the momo. In the end, that is what distinguishes the Nepali momo from the rest of the dumplings of the world. Why change something that’s not broken?”