Traveling opens you up to new experiences. These experiences can profoundly impact your understanding of the world. I had one of these experiences in Nepal with the humble momo dumpling. Momos are one of the most popular foods in Nepal. Not only is it cheap and versatile, it also has a very long history.
The momo is a dumpling that has some sort of filling that can be steamed or pan fried. It is an Asian styled dumpling that is common in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and North-East regions of India. While it is styled like a Chinese dumpling, the difference is the variety of flavors. There is a burst of spices, which is absolutely delicious. Furthermore, the dipping sauces are completely different.
The Momo in History
Momos date back to the fourteenth century. They have such a long history in Nepal that they are considered part of the national culture. In fact, some consider the momo to be the culinary symbol of Nepal with many of the recipes being handed down for generations.
However, there is debate as to whether momos originated in the Newar community in Kathmandu, Nepal or if they were brought in and then became integral to their culture. There is a story of a Nepalese Princess, named Bhrikuti (605-650 CE) who grew up in the Newari community. She introduced the momo to a Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo in the fifteenth century where it is known as dumplings. The Newar people were a group of traders who traveled throughout Asia and the momo spread with them, adapting to the different locations it touched.
Strength in Variance
There is a lot of variety in the types of filling which can be used in a momo. It was once very typical to find it filled with yak meat, however, in the Hindu regions of India it is also very common to find vegetarian variations. The humble momo can be filled with any ground meat, cheese, vegetable, or combination of them all. The spices used can also vary significantly. There are recipes calling for all types of combinations of; cilantro, onion, garlic, ginger, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg and curry. Furthermore, the momo chutney is a red chili dipping sauce, which can oscillate from being spicy, salty and even sour. There is also the achar, which is kind of like a spicy tomato salsa. While, there are many different ways to make achar, the base is usually of tomatoes and chilies.
The diversity found in the momo is astounding. A momo will taste very different based on the geographic location you are getting it from. A momo in Nepal may look very different from a momo from India. It may even taste very different based on the region in India you get it from. That being said, I have never had a bad momo. Some may be more delicious than others but the base line for momos is very good. Momos are at-home dishes, street food or even delicacies in nice restaurants. Their versatility is incredible and are found nearly everywhere in Nepal.
More Than Skin Deep
What struck me particularly interesting about the momo is that it felt like a culmination of two strong asian countries; China and India. Seeing the momo, it looks like any regular dumpling that you may have at any cantonese dim sum restaurant, however when you bite into it, you do get those strong flavors that are representative of India. It is a wonderful combination of the two. This makes further sense when looking at Nepal on a map. It is sandwich between India and Tibet, which is now considered a part of China.
As a child of a complicated heritage, which includes China and India, the momo felt like physical proof that the miscegenation of these cultures over time is a beautiful thing. It helped me to understand that my culture is a mixture of various backgrounds, but these things can be balanced and ultimately work in harmony. Food is a representation of culture. Eating something so rich in culture, yet undeniably complex has forever impacted the way I understand the world and myself. These dumpling skins held more than impeccably flavored fillings.