The momo is the quintessential Tibetan treat enjoyed enthusiastically in Tibet and across the world since the Tibetan diaspora. As a treat stuffed with yak or cow meat, its popularity presents a peculiar paradox considering most Tibetans practice buddhism and adhere to a vegetarian diet.
Something profound pulls at the heartstrings of the Tibetans who crave these steamed pockets of satisfaction. What ever could it be?
Momos: The Dalai Lama, Delectable Dumplings, and Bos Grunniens
If the momo is the quintessential Tibetan dish, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the quintessential Tibetan figure. You can hardly think of Tibet without immediately picturing his kind face and enlightened teachings.
The Dalai Lama embodies the somewhat confusing partial-vegetarianism of Tibetan buddhists. As he so often does, let’s have him inform our world view as we delve into the cuisine of his people.
Tenzin Gyatso: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama
In a small farming hamlet in eastern Tibet in 1935, a boy named Lhamo Dhondup was born. Two years later, a group of monks ventured to this relative lowland in Tibet 9,000 feet above sea level and concluded the boy was the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama.
Little Lhamo and his family journeyed to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in 1939. The young boy would become the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, and his name would be changed to Tenzin Gyatso.
When China invaded Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama, like countless other Tibetans, fled the country. He left behind him many of the people who worked and lived at the palace where he resided in Lhasa.
One such man who stayed behind was a monk named Gyaltsen Phensok, whose chief responsibility was ensuring that His Holiness imbibed only the finest yak milk and yogurt. Incredibly, this responsibility was a shared responsibility. That must have been some phenomenal yogurt!
During an interview with this yak dairy savant, it was unclear as to whether or not the Dalai Lama ate momos, but the Internet is positively brimming with a recipe for the dumplings that supposedly are from Tenzin Gyatso himself.
Since the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in the 1950s, he has resided in India, and at his palace in Dharamhsala, it is officially a vegetarian-only kitchen. However, the Dalai Lama does eat meat when not at the palace, and apparently it’s for health reasons. Meat has been part of the Tibetan diet for generations, where the harsh mountain life demanded nutrient dense food in order to survive.
Jiaozi Begets Momos, Right?
In the now familiar song of recipes who date back hundreds or even thousands of years, it’s unclear exactly how momos came to be. Two main theories tear at the very fiber of would be “dumpling scholars.”
Did they enter Tibet from China, who enjoyed very similar jiaozi in their cuisine? This is one very real possibility. In Chinese, momo literally means “steamed bread.” Although, we were unable to make the connection between the name jiaozi and momo. Adherents to the jiaozi theory believe that dumplings came into Tibet with traders and travelers, and upon arrival, they were adapted and stuffed with the Tibetan meat of choice, yak.
Those who shun this theory posit their own. Did these piquant pouches actually originate in Tibet itself? Some believe that the Newari people of the Kathmandu valley (whom we saw with chatamari too) created them. These believers say that the Newari people brought the dumplings into Tibet, and that the dish is actually of Nepali origin… neither Tibetan nor Chinese.
We know better than to get in the middle of the “who created this recipe” battle. The memory of the waring towns in Nicaragua who claim creation of the quesillo is fresh in our minds, so we will leave the theories at peace and explore just what exactly these Tibetans like stuffing their dumplings with so much.
Yak-ety Yak, Don’t Talk Back
The most traditional, if we may be so bold as to qualify tradition, filling for momos is yak meat. In Tibet, yak meat is the most popular filling because it was traditionally the most available.
Perhaps you are asking yourself, why a Buddhist who normally shies away from meat would eat yak in the first place? It seems contrary to the common practice of avoiding meat for moral reasons, but when needing meat for sustenance, the “karmic load” of killing one yak is equal to killing a chicken or a rabbit. All else being equal, more people can be fed by the death of a yak than by the death of a smaller animal.
But why are yak so central to Tibetan life and cuisine? It’s not because of the song “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters soared to such popularity in Tibet in 1986.
In fact, yak, or bos grunniens if you prefer their scientific name, have been running wild throughout modern day Tibet for about 2.5 million years before they were domesticated. Yak are an incredible animal capable of surviving the harsh mountainous terrain and frigid temperatures in Tibet and are well-suited to survive at elevations of up to 5,000 meters!
It was roughly 10,000 years ago that they were first domesticated in the “roof of the world.” In Tibet, yaks are not only raised for meat, but their milk is also used for butters and cheeses. Their strong bodies pull plows and wagons, and they are even ridden in yak races!
These large, extra furry bovines are actually believed to be more closely related to bison than to cows. Although the evidence of this is scant, if you take one look at a yak it seems clear that they are more than just cousins to the burly bisons. If you are thinking of going 100% authentic with your momo recipe, then we strongly suggest you find a butcher with a hefty cut of yak meat.
If you don’t think there is a yak butcher nearby, fear not, the Tibetan diaspora has adapted the ingredients to make the shopping list a bit more friendly.
About the Recipe
Yes, technically there’s the traditional sha momo made with minced beef – or even more traditionally, minced yak – but nowadays the momo has come to take on all sorts of filling options. As you’ll see in our version of the recipe, preparing a traditional sha dumpling is as fine as preparing a vegetarian-only option.
The filling is actually the easy part of the entire momo creation process. You’ll take all your ingredients for your preferred filling and put it into the food processor. Blitz and process everything until you have very finely chopped pieces that can nestle nicely in between the skin of your dumpling. You don’t necessarily want to puree your filling ingredients, but you don’t want such large pieces that they protrude and break the dumpling skin either.
As for the momo dough, you want to create a thicker, heartier type of dumpling skin somewhat akin to what we saw with Mongolian buuz. Take your wheat flour and mix enough water in with it to create a dough that’s somewhat elastic, but it should still feel slightly dry to the touch. As long as you can roll it out on a flat floured surface to ~1/3 inch thickness, you’re on the right track. And don’t worry about the moisture… it will get plenty while it’s steaming!
Just like it’s very easy to prepare the filling with the food processor, it’s very easy to prepare right-sized momo with a circular pastry cutter. Simply roll and flatten your dough until the right thickness, then cut out as many uniform sized pieces from your sheet as you can.
To finish the process, take on circle of dough in your hand and plop in a tablespoon of your preferred filling. Fold one side of dough over towards the other, and very tightly pinch your way along the dough line until you’ve enclosed the filling on the inside. Repeat until you have enough to fill a steamer tray for your first batch.
For steaming, in case you don’t have a bamboo steamer basket – though they’re very inexpensive and relatively easy to procure, especially at Asian supermarkets – one option you have is to take a wide saucepan with a lid and line it with ~1/2 inch of water. On top of the water, you’re going to place a steamer tray to help keep your momos safe from direct contact with the water.
Bring your water to a boil, and while doing so, lightly oil your steaming tray. One trick you might want to also try – which is also a great way to protect from direct water contact – is to line the steamer tray with either parchment paper or banana leaf or anything that can withstand the heat from the steam. When the water is boiling, reduce your stovetop heat to a simmer, place your steamer tray in, add your prepared set of momos and let it all steam together.
A momo should only take about 12-15 minutes to steam depending on the thickness of your dough. Check periodically towards the end to see how it’s doing. If it’s still slightly moist to the touch, it has some ways to go, but if it feels dry, then it is fully cooked and done.
Chutneys: Achar or Sepen
One thing’s for certain: Tibetans love their momos with a dipping sauce. Two very common options involve achar, a tomato-based sauce that’s equally loved by Nepalis, and sepen, an intensely hot sauce made from bird’s eye chilis and soy sauce.
In our case, we chose to go with achar for our own recipe, but the premise for making both chutneys is the same. Heat up and cook down your ingredients in a saucepan until well-mixed and relatively soft, then blend it down to your desired consistency and thickness.
Serve it alongside your momo, and enjoy!
Our Take on the Recipe
From start to finish, there were a few good options for reference recipes, but we found one that covered the dough, the filling and the chutney, which is why we chose it as our original source. Nevertheless, we made some changes both to ingredients and to procedure.
For starters, we made our momo dough less heavy on the all-purpose flour and more evenly balanced between all-purpose and whole wheat. Since it’s renowned as a wheat dumpling, we felt it was okay to add more wheat to the flour itself.
When creating the filling, we made the process easier by using a food processor versus manually chopping. Between that and using a pastry cutter to create uniform-sized momo, we were able to cut down the overall cooking process by roughly half.
Finally, we more generally made the switch away from vegetable oil to healthier oils like olive. Another key addition we made as well was to make abundant and generous use of chopped spring onion, which we thought made everything better.
Otherwise, it’s very much up to you how you’d like to shape and mold your own momo. It’s a fantastically flexible and versatile dish, and especially with a chutney in tow, it makes for a fun and memorable meal.
How would you fill your momo? Comment below!
Food plated and styled by Phil Roepers
Helpers for this Recipe
Momo: Tibetan Filled Wheat Dumplings
Yield 15 dumplings
- 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup water
Filling 1 - Vegetarian Filling
- 3 cloves garlic, cut into chunks
- 1 medium sized white onion, cut into chunks
- 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
- 2 cups raw spinach
- 2 large carrots, cut into chunks
- 1 medium sized cooked potato, cut into chunks (optional)
- 1 handful fresh cilantro (optional)
Filling 2 - Meat Filling
- 1 pound minced beef
- 3 cloves of garlic, cut into chunks
- 1 2-inch piece of ginger, cut into chunks
- 1 medium sized white onion, cut into chunks
- 3 stalks celery, cut into chunks
- 3 stalks spring onions, cut into chunks
Momo Chutney Dipping Sauce
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1/2 medium sized white onion, diced very finely
- 1 medium sized tomato, peeled and diced very finely
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 stalk scallion, thinly sliced and diced
Stage 1 - Pre-prepare the Momo Chutney
- Start preparing your dipping sauce by taking a small saucepan over medium-high heat with your olive oil. Once heated, add in your diced onions and garlic and let it fry for ~2 minutes
- As the onions and garlic start to become translucent and cooked, add in your chili powder, turmeric powder, black pepper and dried chili flakes and mix well through
- Reduce your stovetop heat to medium and add your tomatoes to the sauce base and stir through. Let your tomatoes cook for 3 or so minutes at this point
- Next, add in your soy sauce and stir through. Bring the stovetop heat to low and let the sauce simmer for another 5 minutes to cook the tomatoes through as you focus on preparing the filling
Stage 2 - Prepare Your Momo Fillings
- If you're making both fillings for different momos, start by making your vegetarian version. If making only meaty momos, skip the next few steps. Combine your garlic, onion, ginger, spinach, carrots, potato and cilantro into a food processor
- Turn on the food processor and blitz your ingredients until all the ingredients have finely chopped and broken down into very small chunks that can be easily scooped with a spoon
- Take your vegetable momo filling out of the food processor and set aside
- If making only meaty momos, start here: Next, add in your minced beef, garlic, ginger, white onion, celery and spring onions into the food processor. Blitz all the ingredients until you have a smooth consistency out of your filling
- Set both fillings aside and return back to finishing your momo chutney
- By this point, your tomatoes should have cooked down to be very soft, so you can take the saucepan off of the stovetop heat
- Add in your red wine vinegar and chopped scallions into the sauce and stir well through
- Optional: If you want a less chunky consistency to your sauce, run your momo chutney through the blender briefly then set aside
Stage 3 - Create Dumpling Dough
- With your chutney done, mix your flours and salt into a bowl and create a small well
- Very gradually pour your water into the well and mix it around into the flour. Once you've pour all the water in, mix around until you get a fairly dry, elastic dough. Here it's actually best to use your hands
- Take your dough and lay it on a well floured surface. Take a rolling pin and roll your momo dough until you have it flattened to ~1/3 inch thickness
- Take a circular pastry cutter and cut our circles of "future momos" from your dough
Stage 4 - Fill and Cook Momos
- Before filling your dumplings, first take a wide-bottomed saucepan (one with a lid) lined with 1/2 inch of water on the bottom to a boil
- As the water is boiling in your pan, lightly oil the top of your steamer tray and set it atop the boiling water in your saucepan. Make sure the water is not touching the steamer tray!
- Once the water is boiling, reduce your stovetop heat to a low setting, put on the lid and begin creating your dumplings
- Take one of your circular cutouts of dough and place up to a tablespoon's worth of filling in the middle
- Fold one edge of dough over to the other side, and very tightly pinch your dough together to enclose the filling
- When your dumpling is airtight, set this momo aside and repeat until you have enough to cover your steamer tray
- Lift the lid of your steamer, place your momos onto your steamer tray, then re-cover your pan with the lid
- Steam your dumplings for 12-15 minutes, checking periodically at the very end. When your momos feel dry to the touch, they're ready to go. If they feel at all a little moist, they have a bit to go
- Repeat until all your momos have been cooked, and enjoy!
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