4 February 2015 – Lucky Peach
I ate my first really memorable momo, a simple Tibetan dumpling, in a small mudbrick house near northern India’s border with China. I was nearly 15,000 feet above sea level, it was my twenty-first birthday, and I was with a quiet old woman and her son, doing my best to help pinch the delicate dumpling skins into crescent moons around the filling of yak (or was it pork?), chili, ginger, and garlic—a task that mother and son completed with shaming aplomb.
I’d been hiking in the Spiti Valley—a high-altitude desert at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau—for the previous three days. I walked along mountain trails, past tattered prayer flags and piles of stones crowned with sun-bleached yak skulls, and between white-washed villages where I spent my evenings staring silently into large pots ofthukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup) boiling over stoves fueled by dry yak dung, while my hosts watched Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan cavorting around Kashmiri pine trees on the televisions that had come to the valley just five years earlier.
Each night, when the sun had gone down, the head of each household I visited would pull out shot glasses and a bottle of the local homemade rice liquor, arak. I would sip at the first shot and, immediately upon finishing, find my glass replenished. If you’ve never spent time at 15,000 feet above sea level, you may not realize how little it takes to get drunk at that altitude. Solidly buzzed by the second shot, I’d try to leave my third half full, a clumsy tactic inevitably met with decorous offence—“You like it, no?”—to which I would respond, “Yes, of course,” finish my cup, and promptly find myself faced with another. The upshot was that I spent nearly every night in the mountains totally soused and passed out by about nine p.m.
Except, that is, on the night that I made momos. As the first batch of dumplings emerged from the steamer—the skins of those made by Tsering and his mother soft and unbroken, mine split at their poorly sealed seams—I asked if I might have a glass of arak to celebrate my birthday. Tsering instead presented another plate of dumplings (so fragrant that they didn’t even require a dipping sauce), shrugged, and apologized: he and his mother didn’t make alcohol in their house. I’m not one for homesickness—I wasn’t then and I’m not now, after years of living abroad—but at that moment, away from friends and family on my birthday, I felt it acutely.
After finishing my dinner—a good fifteen momos, still among the best I’ve eaten—I excused myself to go to the roof and look at the stars, something I did nightly to the amusement of my hosts, for whom the spectacularly cracked-open sky was as mundane as their new TVs were to me. I huddled into a warm woolen shawl, pulled gloves over my white-knuckled fingers, and, feeling unacceptably sober for an American on his twenty-first, popped twenty milligrams of Valium (purchased over the counter in Delhi two weeks earlier). I clambered up to the flat-topped roof and stared into the pixilated night.
Momos originated in Tibet, and are cousins to Chinese jiaozi. The Newar trading community of the Kathmandu Valley brought them to Nepal and into neighboring Himalayan kingdoms like Sikkim (now a state in the Indian Union) and Bhutan, where they have become a staple. Or so I’ve read—while this history seems pretty sensible, it’s surprisingly difficult to find anything resembling actual documentation regarding the momo’s origins.
There are an estimated 120,000 Tibetans living in India, where I also live. There are also a great many ethnic Nepalis living here, due to the sketchy definition of borders before India’s independence in 1947 and the ongoing (and sometimes controversial) influx of immigrants from the politically fragile nation—particularly into Delhi, which lies just about three hundred kilometers west of the border.
It’s hard to say when the first momos were sold commercially in Delhi. By the time I first came to the city in 2009, you could find momo stalls in all of the major markets, at mall food courts, and even at cinema halls. In Mumbai, where I’ve lived for the last three years, you won’t find them with the same frequency as in Delhi, but even here momos are common. This is true in practically every big city in the country.
In most of these places, as well as in many of the popular “pan-Asian” restaurants that serve an ersatz version, momos are dense, bland, and graceless. They are made with a doughy skin that gets soggy and splits, and are filled with tough meat, stringy cabbage, or, in their most inanely Indianized avatar, paneer. In Delhi, where the momo has been more indigenized than in any other city, some places have succumbed to the local tendency to put absolutely anything in the tandoor. The result, tandoori momo, is vile.
The popularity of momos has precipitated a proliferation of momo stands run or stocked by people who would never have made momos at home. A short article published in the Business Standard last year told the story of a woman from Manipur, a small and especially fragile state bordering Burma, who learned to make the dumplings from a Punjabi neighbor.
For people of Tibetan or Nepali origin, momos are—to use the wonderful South Asian term—“home food,” prepared, as I learned to prepare them, by a group, then shared. Now, in Mumbai, the only place I bother eating momos is at the home of a Nepali friend, who serves them in staggering numbers with a scorching red-chili chutney.
After its years of migration and commercialization, the momo remains a prototypical food of exile, a home-based comfort food for people like my friend, and a kind of culinary metonym for what is probably the world’s most famously exiled community.
I typically go back to the States once every six to nine months—pretty often, really, given the distance—on trips planned months in advance to coincide with things like weddings, graduations, and birthdays (and to avoid the horrible dead-of-winter months that I used to tell myself I didn’t mind before I moved to the tropics and realized, actually, fuck winter in the Mid-Atlantic).
My most recent trip, in the first week of January, came as more of a surprise. On the day after Thanksgiving I’d gotten a call from my mom telling me that my paternal grandfather—an extraordinary man who still drove himself to the office every day, even in his ninety-first year on earth—had been taken to the hospital after Thanksgiving dinner. He was sick, something to do with an enlarged aorta compounding an ongoing issue with his kidneys, and not getting better. She said I might need to come home soon to see him, so I planned a trip for the first week of February. On January 11 she called again asking if I could come home sooner. On the night of the thirteenth I was on a plane, and twenty-seven hours later I arrived home in suburban Baltimore. My dad had kept a single serving of his homemade matzo-ball soup waiting in the fridge. I was tired and it was fourteen degrees outside: exactly what matzo-ball soup is for.
Like momos, matzo balls are a dumpling of exile. The story they commemorate—the flight of the Jews from Egypt and their wanderings in the desert, the unleavened bread they ate during those four hot decades—has for millennia been the touchstone of a community whose primary narrative about itself is of repeated persecutions, dislocations, and expulsions. It’s a community that, for most of its history, was caricatured—often with overt racism—as belonging nowhere. It wasn’t until after the Holocaust that being Jewish was incorporated into many countries’ ideas of ethnic normalcy. For most American Jews of my generation, that experience feels remote. For people of my grandfather’s generation, it was life.
Many of the foods of the Jewish diaspora, specifically the foods of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, have been absorbed into the lexicon of American cookery. None, though, has been taken up more enthusiastically than matzo-ball soup. Matzo-ball soup remains “ethnic” in some vague sense, something you buy at a Jewish deli that may or may not actually be Jewish—just as in India you buy your momos from someone who may or may not actually be Nepali or Tibetan. In both cases, these humble dumplings have become not just cultural touchstones for the communities that created them, but also essential to the national eating cultures of the places they now call home.
Surely it’s a coincidence that dumplings have become the emblematic foods for both of these communities. But I wondered, eating my dad’s soup in my kitchen (still mine, yes, despite having left it nine years ago): Is there something inherently comforting about dumplings? Or is it the experience of exile itself that makes them taste so much like home?