Momo: the one dumpling that rules them all
The momo's journey from Lhasa in Tibet to Nepal, India and the rest of the world started with the 17th century Newar traders
A friend of mine had once said, “Nepalis don’t think. We just eat momos." And he wasn’t off the mark. Every Nepali has a momo story, usually to do with how many they’ve eaten, or where they’ve eaten it. Momos are ubiquitous in Nepal, and, thanks to the thousands of streetside vendors across north India, are common in the Indian capital as well. The other day, while sampling a plate of steamed chicken momos at Savitri Nagar, Delhi, I asked the boy behind the steamer how many he sold in a day. “Six-hundred momos", he said with a grin. Not too bad for a humble dish that has traversed a long way to become a staple across the country.
From Darjeeling to Dharamshala, the momo is an essential street food. Its roots, however, lie in Tibet, where Charles Alfred Bell, the British India’s ambassador to Tibet and one of the first “Tibetologists", noted in 1928 that locals ate “ten or fifteen small meat dumplings" for lunch. Since then, the momo has evolved into different forms in different cuisines. The Japanese call it gyoza, a variant of the Chinese jiaozi, while in central Asia, it is known as the manti. The many flavours and textures of a common dumpling—a small piece of rice dough filled with meat—excites the gastronome, but how did it first arrive from the Tibetan highlands to Nepal?
The momo’s journey from Lhasa is a story not just of the dumpling, but of the fortitude of thousands of Newar (an ethnic group who were the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley) traders who went back and forth between the Himalayan passes. Each journey they took from Lhasa to Kathmandu took at least 10-12 weeks (on foot initially, and then on horses), and these were regular ever since the treaty between the ruler Lakshminarasingha Malla of Kathmandu city-state and Tibet in the 17th century that permitted 32 trading houses to be established by Newar traders in Lhasa. The treaty also appointed a permanent representative to the Lhasa court, exempted all goods sold by Newar merchants from duties throughout Tibet, ensured Kathmandu’s monopoly of route on any Tibetan trade with India, and, most importantly, gave Kathmandu the sole right to mint coins for Tibet in exchange for equivalent silver and gold.
In the absence of roads, long caravans of traders, either on foot or on horses in the plateau, carried rice in exchange for salt in the older days, then “cotton goods...woollen goods, hardware, corals, precious stones, tobacco, dried fruits, sugar, molasses and various domestic utilities such as matches, needles and soap" from India, bringing back “skins, musk and money", as well as Chinese silk and tea, thangka paintings, and gold dust. The routes were arduous, the altitude unforgiving, and attacks from bandits frequent. Most traders—from a caste group called the Urays—followed the uniquely syncretic tradition that is Newari Buddhism, and some even took Tibetan women as a second wife in Lhasa. Some of Newari literature’s most famous songs featured wives whose husbands had gone away to Tibet. One such song goes, Why, oh lord, should I eat and adorn myself? My husband has gone to Tibet.
Although the centuries-old trans-Himalayan trade came to an end with the closure of the Nathu La pass in Sikkim before the 1962 Indo-China war, its indelibility had already become an essential part of Kathmandu Newar culture. So, it was no wonder culinary habits too were passed down and turned the momo first into a home-made food, substituting the yak meat for buffalo, then into a streetside delicacy, not just in Kathmandu, but wherever Newari traders settled, including Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok in India. Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, author of Caravan To Lhasa: A Merchant Of Kathmandu In Traditional Tibet, says, “Newar merchants lived in Tibet for years at a time, and they learnt to prepare local foods, both out of interest and necessity (limited choice of ingredients). When they returned to Nepal, they taught their family members to make them." Thereon, it would be just another jump to the streets.
The first roadside momo stall, Tuladhar recalls, was seen in Kathmandu around 1942. “In our home, we made momos with three kinds of fillings—minced meat, mashed potatoes and khuwa (dried whole milk)." It was not just momos that had come down from Lhasa with the traders. The shaphaley, a flatbread stuffed with minced meat and deep fried, was another import, so was the loko momo, a pan-fried derivative of the momo. There was a second influx of the momo when Tibetan refugees arrived; this variety, first served in the various refugee camps, including Majnu ka Tila in Delhi and Bylakuppe in Karnataka, was less spicy than the Nepali variant, where the momo became smaller and spicier.
Momo nights were particularly looked forward to in my family home in Pokhara, Nepal, where the entire process—from mincing the mutton finely on a chopping board to preparing the tomato-chilli chutney—played out like a well-oiled machine. My grandmother would direct the proceedings, while all of us played our respective roles, chopping, mixing, folding the momos in their wraps. Little error was permitted. The reward: a steaming momo, accompanied by half a glass of aila—the Newari home-made rice liquor—for the matriarch, beer for the adults and Frooti for the children. We suspected it was all so elaborate because my grandmother had an abiding fondness for momos. Yet she would only eat momos made at home. A single exception was the chicken momos from the Bakery Café in Kathmandu, the only ones she deemed worthy enough.
Such meticulousness is not uncommon. There are streetside vendors in Kathmandu who routinely sell 6,000 momos every day, and the answer to the question, “Where are the best momos to be found?" is not easy. There are thousands of momo restaurants and streetside vendors across the length and breadth of Nepal and India, as well as wherever in the world there is a Nepali diaspora. And they have all added their own mutations to the original, both in terms of the casing and the filling. Today, the momo is a thriving legacy of the Newar traders, who brought it down from the highlands of Lhasa to the streets of Kathmandu, and from there it has travelled as far as Queens in New York.