Madhu Budhathoki knows about the viral urban legend known as the Momo challenge. A customer at his University Village restaurant told him about the creepy bird lady who supposedly appears on the screens children plant their faces to and ultimately encourages them to kill themselves.
The only real challenge at his small counter-service spot the Momo World is avoiding death by dumpling—that is, expiration after eating too many of the twentysomething different Nepali-style momo Budhathoki and his wife, Poonam, offer.
The momo is a dumpling similar in some respects to the Korean mandu, the Japanese gyoza, and the Chinese soup dumpling, or xiao long bao. In Tibet, the momo’s ancestral home, they’re often stuffed with yak meat. In Kathmandu, where Budhathoki comes from, water buffalo momo are prized. And since water buffalo is hard to come by here, the Budhathokis stuff dumpling wrappers with paneer, chicken, pork, vegetables, fish, and even chocolate. They steam them, fry them, saute, and sauce them, or serve them in soup—johl achar, to be specific, a thin, tomatoey broth with soybeans and sesame sauce that is another specialty of Budhathoki’s hometown.
I don’t have a lot of use for tilapia, which the Houston Chronicle not-famously-enough once described as “tofu with fins,” but the Momo World’s fish momo, stuffed with a forcemeat of the ignoble species, seasoned with lemon and masala (including cumin, cinnamon, cilantro, and onion), is so kinetically juicy that it comes close to a credible xiao long bao.
At the Momo World, they’re using commercial dumpling wrappers, which results in a durable dumpling unlike those at Chiya Chai Cafe, the city’s other momo specialist, where the wrappers are more delicate but tend to tear, making desirable qualities like juiciness a bit of a gamble with each individual dumpling. Other varieties may not be as nicely aqueous as the Momo World’s fish momo, but they are consistently juicy, whether they get an assist from their saute medium, as with the choela momo, a fiery chicken- or vegetable-stuffed purse stained with chiles, Sichuan peppercorn, and pickled tomato that may be the Nashville hot chicken of the dumpling world; or dipped in one of eight sauces that accompany plain steamed dumplings such as the graceful spermatozoa-shaped paneer momo or the classic squat ziggurats filled with chicken or pork.
The Budhathokis also traffic in modern variations like the momo marinated in tandoori-style spices, skewered, then grilled, or the cross-cultural chipotle momo, panfried in smoky chile sauce and cream and served with sour cream and cilantro.
One can live or die on momo alone, but dumplings aren’t everything at the Momo World. Budhathoki, who is a former partner in the group behind Himalayan Restaurant and was a cook back in Kathmandu, offers a few other Nepali dishes such as sekuwa (chunks of sauteed chicken, lamb, or paneer marinated in yogurt, chiles, Sichuan peppercorn, turmeric, and coriander) and the potato salad aloo ko achar, with chickpeas, avocado, and yogurt.
And he knows how to make a mean goat biryani and other familiar northern Indian dishes, like chana masala and aloo gobi matar. There are samosas and a Himalayan riff on the universal street-food standard the potato tornado, this one dusted with masala.
But it’s the chocolate momo—chewy fried purses drenched with chocolate syrup and filled with a kind of ganache loaded with almonds and dried fruit—that reveals the platform’s potential to cross over into state fair territory. It’s a dumpling that suggests its own kind of challenge: What else can you put in a momo?
What can’t you put in a momo? v