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MO:MO: Diaries - An Introduction To The Humble Dumpling

When i think of Kathmandu, many things come to mind. The initial shock of finding you luggage at the overcrowded airport, the crazy drive into the city, the mesmerising sight of the Kathmandu skyline against the backdrop of the mighty Himalayas on a clear day, and of course the mo:mo:. This well-known dumpling is served in a thousand shops around the city.

Walking the streets of Kathmandu, you’ll regularly pass a momo shop. More often than not, an over-sized mucktoo will be steaming away at the streetfront, beckoning passers-by to join the growing crowd inside in sampling the flavourful pockets of munchiness. Whether you prefer it steamed, fried, plain or in soup, it’s considered by most people here to be a delicious, healthy and affordable fast food.

Before we go any further, let’s address the pronunciation. Mo:mo: or momo is pronounced “maw-maw” in English or “mômô” in Afrikaans.

Momo is a dumpling with a meat- or vegetable-based filling, steamed or fried and mostly served with tomato-based chutney. The possible varieties might be endless, but in Nepal the main options are usually “Veg, Chicken and Buff” (Vegetarian, Chicken and Water Buffalo). These days some momo shops have started expanding their repertoire, but the three basic fillings tend to remain the same.

Although every Nepali you talk to would quickly tell you that momo is not Nepali food, but indeed Tibetan, it’s wormed its way into the Nepali palate quite firmly, and has become comfort food to many a Nepali nonetheless. The question most often asked, is “Where does the momo come from and how did it get to be so popular in Nepal?”

Although these facts are not completely verifiable, the most widely proclaimed theory is that momo is a Tibetan dish with ancient roots in Chinese cuisine. Even the name “momo” seems to originate from the Chinese word for “steamed bun.” It’s similar to the Chinese dumplings “jiaoz” and “baozi,” but flavoured according to the Nepali/North Indian regional palate. It seems most likely to have travelled from Tibet to Kathmandu by way of Newari travelling merchants, who introduced it to the valley centuries ago. Even though daal bhat is the national dish of Nepal, momo has gained a firm foothold in local society, and has been so completely absorbed in the local culture, that any claim about its not being a Nepali food seems ludicrous.

Making momo is fun, albeit labour intensive, and according to me, it’s best done with a troop of friends around the kitchen table. After rolling and folding and steaming a whole afternoon, the whole group is rewarded with a mouthwatering dinner. First, the dough is made from a simple mixture of flour and water. Then it’s rolled out, and a bit of prepared filling is spooned into each dough circle, then folded into the preferred shape, and then it’s steamed and fried and served to satisfy some hungry bellies.

Momo is such a fascinating part of living in Nepal, that we’ve decided to write a few stories about it. Now that you’ve been formally introduced to momo, we’ll continue with stories about how to make it, our recipes for variations on the standard momo recipes, and our favourite places to eat momo in Nepal. Feel free to comment with questions or momo topics that you’d like to know more about, and we’ll do our best to incorporate that into our momo series.

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