Nepali chicken momos, Jackson Heights style

“Add a little kheema,” the bartender at Himalayan Yak told me, when I described the ingredients I was planning to use for chicken momos.

Ready to break another blender?

This was the first of a few inquiries (followed by experiments) in my efforts to create Newar-style—or  at least Nepali-style—chicken momos. I broke two blenders in the course of these experiments, overate on as many occasions, and found myself studying momos at the restaurants in Jackson Heights with a more careful palate. In the end, experimentation was not enough.

“They are not juicy enough,” I told the bartender a few weeks later. This led to a consultation in Nepali with several people sitting at the bar. I could not understand a word of it, but eventually a youngish man, described by the bartender as a master of momos, turned to me.

“You just need to add chicken broth.”

The momos in my next batch were juicy, with a bright and clean spice profile typical of Nepali cooking. I overate again.

Here is the recipe I used for the last batch:

1 pound chicken thigh

1 red onion

3 cloves garlic

1 thumb of ginger

2 stalks of spring onion

1 long green pepper

1/3 cup sweet peas

2 tablespoons ghee

2 cups chicken broth

1 tablespoon momo masala

10 Sichuan peppercorns

The ingredients can be combined in a food processor. The result should be no thicker than a smoothie.

I spooned the filling into Northern-style dumpling wrappers and folded, then steamed for half an hour on low heat. I also used a bay leaf, green cardamom pods, cloves, and a cinnamon stick in the steaming water for aroma. I have found that the dumplings should be removed from the parchment quickly after cooking to prevent sticking; using Northern-style (thick) wrappers and dusting the parchment with flour also helps.

The result:

These momos are very different from Tibetan momos. The flavor of the meat is wholly subordinated to the flavor of the spices (although it still makes an important contribution). According to one journalist, this kind of momo has deep roots in the Newar community of Nepal, which had been trading with Tibetans for centuries and probably adopted and modified the Tibetan dish a long time ago. In any case, these Nepali momos are delicious.

Straight Outta Xi’an

The menu at Xi’an Famous Foods features names like Chang’an spicy tofu and Mount Qi pork hand ripped noodles, recalling the dynasties, adventurers, and armies that Xi’an has seen in its long history.

The Xi’an city wall

It was from Chang’an (as Xi’an was called in the Han dynasty) that Zhang Qian was sent out on the Silk Road by the emperor to negotiate with Central Asian tribes in the second century BC, and to which he returned thirteen years later with tales of a ten-year imprisonment and several other adventures among strange peoples in distant lands. Chang’an was also the city where the New Year’s Lantern Festival was supposed to have reached unparalleled heights of splendor and hedonism in the Tang dynasty. Mount Qi refers to a mountainous area near Xi’an, but may also call to mind the attempt of Shu Han (the kingdom of the South) to take Chang’an that lead to the disastrous Battle of Mount Qi.

But we are in Flushing. Hip hop from the 1990s plays in the background and young couples on dates come in for a spicy meal. The hip hop is not merely a passing whim of the waitstaff: old-school hip hop always plays at Xi’an Famous Foods. A plaque on the wall explains that the restaurant’s owner sees a link between the spicy, multicultural food of Xi’an and the spirit of old school hip hop.

The owner is not the only one impressed by the diversity of Xi’an. Residents of Xi’an I’ve talked to are proud of it. “We have so many dialects,” one Xi’an resident told me, “and a lot of different foods.”

I am interested in the foods, of course.

I order spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles. Hand-ripped noodles, or biang biang mian*, originated in Shaanxi province (of which Xi’an is the capital). They are a kind of hand-pulled noodle. Unlike la mian, which are pulled until they are thin strands, biang biang mian are pulled into thick, broad straps of noodle, in shapes often compared to belts. And unlike the noodles of Zhengzhou, these are not braised—they are thrown in boiling water for several minutes and then served, making them a little less chewy. In Xi’an, they are often served with beef or lamb, probably partly due to the influence of the Muslim Hui population in Xi’an, who cannot eat pork.

My biang biang mian come in a pile with sliced lamb, cabbage, and diced cucumber. This is all slathered thickly in cumin and chili oil, with a handful of sliced green chilies adding some extra fire. The noodles and lamb are hearty, the noodles chewy and the meat tender. A hint of Sichuan peppercorns gives the chili oil a tingling touch and a clean, high note. The cool cucumbers counterbalance the green chilies and round out the flavor. It is a very satisfying dish.

The music track seems to be the only bold stroke in the ambience at Xi’an Famous Foods. But the interior design reflects the same interest in translation, making the food of Xi’an accessible for Americans. There are no decorative knots, Chinese landscape paintings, or imitation bronzes. There are no decorations at all; instead, the walls are covered in a mosaic of multilevel wood paneling. It is at once fashionable and generic in a way that is perfectly suited to chain restaurants.

Indeed, from the original stall in the basement of Golden Shopping Mall (with a menu of four items), Xi’an Famous Foods has branched out to locations throughout Queens and Manhattan. It would not be surprising if they open locations in other major cities.

The food is well worth trying, wherever you can find it.

*There is no Unicode for the character biang. This is a shame, since the character is celebrated, and frequently displayed prominently on stores selling biang biang mian. Here is an image showing the simplified character (the traditional character is a bit more complex):

Xi’an Famous Foods
41-10 Main St,
Flushing, NY 11355

Sun-Thurs: 11:00am – 9:30:pm
Fri-Sat: 11:00am – 10:00pm

Cooking Nepali cabbage momos with tomato achar

“Nepalis eat momos all the time. Even for breakfast. Even dessert.” Rachana, my cooking instructor, was exaggerating, but only a little.

Given the prominence of momos in the Nepalese diet, you might think that momos had been part of the national cuisine from time immemorial. But momos were scarce in Kathmandu before Tibetan refugees poured into the city in the 1960s. When I asked Rachana if her grandparents ate momos, she answered: “No, never.”*

Nevertheless, Nepalis have created their own, distinct version of momos. Nepali momos are often smaller than Tibetan momos, and they tend to have different fillings. Since the majority of Nepalis are Hindu, Nepalese momos rarely have the Tibetan favorite filling, beef, and Nepalese momos are often vegetarian (though water buffalo and chicken are popular substitutes for beef). They often have a spice profile that might sooner be expected in Indian food than Tibetan food. Rachana’s momos use a filling made mostly from cabbage and paneer, flavored with garlic, onion, ginger, and garam masala, along with the Indian subcontinent’s favorite ingredient, ghee.

roasting tomatoes at Rachana’s

I had signed up, along with three other students, to take a Nepali cooking class from Rachana through the League of Kitchens, a company that organizes small cooking classes taught by immigrants in New York City. (Rachana is a relatively recent immigrant, having come to the US roughly a decade ago. Her family was close to Nepal’s royal family, and when Maoist fighters began consolidating control of Nepal, she fled the country.)

one of Rachana’s spice boxes

The four of us arrived at Rachana’s home at noon and spent the next five and a half hours learning to prepare a variety of Nepali dishes. Rachana tested our familiarity with widely available spices of the Indian sub-continent, and then introduced us to less widely available herbs and spices of the Himalayas. After this, she put us to work, on dal, sauces, momos, and more. At the end, we ate the fruits of our labor, which were delicious. In the weeks since, I have made a few more or less successful attempts at recreating Rachana’s momos.

To prepare Nepali-style momos with pakako golbhenda ko achar (a Tibetan-Thakali tomato sauce), you will first want to try to find a few of the less widely available ingredients. While Rachana’s momo recipe makes liberal use of garam masala, it also makes heavy use of a mixture called momo masala. This is a Nepalese curry specially mixed for momos. It may be available at your local Indian grocer. Century brand momo masala lists Cardamom-amomum, cumin, pepper, nutmeg, mace, and cloves at the top of the ingredient list—but there are quite a few ingredients.

For the tomato sauce, you will want jimbu, a grassy Tibetan herb, and Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan peppercorns have a variety of names; to find them at a Chinese grocer, it might be easiest to show someone the characters for the Chinese name: 花椒.

Note: For the details of Rachana’s preparations, you really must take her class. However, a similar method of preparation for pakako golbhenda ko achar can be found below. Add a little jimbu if you can find it.

Preparing the filling for the momos is relatively simple (see the link below), but the mechanics of wrapping and steaming momos may be a hurdle. Hands-on instruction may be needed for wrapping, and practice is certainly indispensable. In my first batch of momos, the filling kept oozing out the edges, making it difficult to keep the outside of the momo dry. Steaming also requires a little practice. Rachana used a metal steamer, which could be oiled before steaming—but I have a bamboo steamer. This means I have to use parchment papers, and the momos often stick to the paper. I think dusting the paper with flour helps. The type of momo wrapper may also make a difference.

with northern-style wrappers

If, like me, you lack a rolling pin or simply lack the time to roll out the dough for wrappers, it’s easy to find dumpling wrappers at a Chinese grocer. I have experimented with northern-style wrappers and Shanghai-style wrappers (thicker than wonton wrappers, but thinner than northern-style wrappers). The thick northern-style wrappers are more difficult to fold properly, but they seem less prone to stick to parchment paper. I believe Nepali momos usually use relatively thin wrappers, so Shanghai-style wrappers might lend your momos some authenticity.

with Shanghai-style wrappers

Again, I encourage readers to try Rachana’s class for details, but you can find a preparation similar to hers below. Add grated paneer for body and flavor, and add chayote squash to retain moisture. Add cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves to the steaming water to impart a nice aroma to the momos.

pakako golbhenda ko achar–still may need more tomato

For me, the result was a very rich dish. The garlic and paneer dominate the momos’ flavor, but the spices are powerful, and give the momos a bright flavor.

Tart, hot, and stimulating a tingling sensation from the Sichuan peppercorns, the pakako golbhenda ko achar is more powerful still. I had to roast more tomatoes than I had started with to give my sauce enough sweetness to counterbalance the tartness.

When served with the vegetarian momos, the pakako golbhenda ko achar engages every tastebud in an overwhelming burst of tingling, brightly spicy flavors, and deep herbal flavors.

It is worth the time and effort.

* It is possible that these Nepalese versions of momos have deeper roots in Nepal. Rachana says she learned to make momos from a Newar housekeeper, and the Newars, who speak a Sino-Tibetan language and mostly follow a form of Buddhism similar to that of Tibetans, had centuries of close contact with Tibetans. There are also many other ethnic groups outside of Kathmandu, like the Sherpas, who have probably made momos for centuries.

White Bear wontons

Their faces flare in the darkness; lightbulbs hanging from an awning illuminate the DVDs spread out on a table in front of them, and a TV fixed to the wall under the awning flickers as a movie plays. The three men are absorbed in a movie and don’t notice the pedestrians walking by. A little further on, an old man plays an erhu, and, at a diplomatic distance, another plays a violin—scraping out simple Western tunes like “Silent Night” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. It occurs to me to wonder if to a trained ear the tunes played on the erhu are comparable to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”.

It’s Friday night, and the retail shops on Flushing’s Main Street are closing up, but the bakeries, bubble tea shops, and dumpling houses are crowded. I am here to eat at White Bear, a modest establishment that has become a landmark among diners.

The menu at White Bear contains several dozen items, but supposedly they really only serve one thing, number six on the menu. Indeed, when I was there, someone asked for longbao (steamed dumplings), and was informed there weren’t any (“mei you, mei you”).

I didn’t get a chance to ask about dumplings.

“Yes, yes, number six,” the lady behind the counter cut me off as I was about to speak. “Sit, sit.”

“Number six” is wontons with hot sauce, White Bear’s famous specialty.

The distinction between wontons and dumplings may be a source of confusion, and I’ve found passionate debate online on whether there is any overlap between jiaozi (the little crescent dumplings traditionally eaten in northern China) and wontons. The word wonton derives from the Cantonese yuntun, meaning “cloud-swallowing.” Wontons generally have thin, pearly white wrappers haphazardly folded closed. When they are served in a soup, this can give them a cloud like appearance. (By contrast, jiaozi have thicker, cream-colored wrappers that are neatly pleated along a crescent moon shape.) In any case, wontons are all you are likely to find at White Bear.

White Bear has no more space than one of the cramped dumpling shops that line the dingy shopping malls and food courts along Main Street—it is distinguished only by having an outside awning. There are four tiny tables crammed close together, and there is little to look at, save for the menu and some bric-a-brac on top of a refrigerator. I sat and watched a pair of mosquitos that had come through the open door as I waited for my food.

I didn’t wait long. The wontons (brought to me with a sharp “eh!” as if I might have fallen asleep) were beautiful. Glowing white, sprinkled in blackened chili and pickled vegetables, splashed with chili oil, they were a pleasure to look at. And they were delicious. The pork filling was soft and succulent, and the chili gave it a deep smoky taste. The pickled vegetables sweetened and rounded out the dish.

The menu at White Bear, like the playing of a certain violinist, might be more aspirational than accomplished–but the wontons are certainly worth a visit.

White Bear
135-02 Roosevelt Ave, Ste 5
Flushing, NY 11354

Thurs-Tues, 9am – 8pm

Zhengzhou Hand-pulled Noodles (郑州烩面)

“In Zhengzhou, they keep the noodles hot in big pots of water all day…hand-pulled noodles. They are cooked just before serving.” I was sitting at a cafeteria table in the food court at New World Mall, and had consulted my neighbor about the characters in the restaurant’s name. “Zhengzhou is a city,” he had said uncertainly…“and these are a kind of noodle.” Then he had consulted his wife, sitting next to him, who happened to be from Zhengzhou.

Zhengzhou lies between Xi’an and and Jinan on the Yellow River. China’s mythical founding father, the Yellow Emperor, is said to have established his rule here some five millennia ago. The Xia and Shang dynasties are also said to have ruled here (in the third and second millennia BC). The city rivals Baghdad, Memphis, and Athens for ancient culture.

It may not be surprising that the cuisines of Xi’an and Zhengzhou share some things in common, such as a fondness for hand-pulled noodles. Of course, both Xi’an and Zhengzhou are northern cities, and so the diets there have historically included a lot of millet and wheat, and not much rice. But there was likely a great deal of cultural continuity between the cities too. The capital moved from Zhengzhou to Xi’an and then back to a city neighboring Zhengzhou during the Zhou dynasty. Today, it is a short train ride from Zhengzhou to Xi’an.

In any case, the process my neighbor’s wife was describing is a kind of braising. In Zhengzhou, they partially cook the noodles at low temperature and then, just before serving, cook them quickly at high temperature. The result has a chewy texture very like that of pasta. In the dish I had ordered, hand-pulled noodle with lamb soup, the hand-pulled noodles—thick and long ribbons—mingled with glass noodles, wood ear fungus, sliced dry tofu, cabbage, and bits of roast lamb. It was delightful.

On a separate trip to Zhengzhou Hand-pulled Noodles, I ordered “old duck soup.” This was mainly a mixture of glass noodles, sliced dry tofu, cabbage, tofu, and duck offal. One of the main items in this dish is duck blood cakes, which are dark-red patties of cooked duck’s blood. I mistook these for liver at first, but the flavor is milder and smoother. The other offal included heart, liver, and stomach. There was also a nice clump of gold needle mushrooms.

The old duck soup had the superior flavor, with the subtle warmth of spices and rich seasonings that seemed to include ginger. The braised hand-pulled noodles are, however, excellent, and their texture alone makes them worth trying. For adventurous eaters, the menu also features duck blood soup (which I assume contains raw blood).

For dessert, I walked over to E Noodle Village, which has a few sweets. I ordered sweet black sesame dumplings. This consisted of a mildly sweet liquid in which floated lychees, sesame dumplings the same size and shape as the lychees, and sesame seeds. This is a restrained, perhaps even Spartan treat. Next time I think I will try tapioca balls at the Taiwanese stall nearby.

Zhengzhou Hand-pulled Noodles @
New World Mall
136-20 Roosevelt Avenue
Flushing, New York 11354