A momo evangelist introduces foodies to a lesser known dumpling and to the Tibetans and Nepalese who love them.
February 4, 2015
“The time is right for the momo. It’s the momo’s year.”
That’s the prediction of Jeff Orlick, a Jackson Heights resident and Queens food blogger who organized the third-annual Momo Crawl in Jackson Heights on a Saturday in late November. Orlick estimates that some 800 intrepid souls joined in to sample the neighborhood’s finest momos, dumplings from the Himalayan region, including Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan.
Seventeen food establishments within a half-mile radius of the Jackson Heights 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue subway station participated this year, selling the tiny parcels of deliciousness from places like a window on the side of an Indian restaurant, a kitchen hidden in the back of a cell phone store, and a metal cart underneath the 7 train platform.
“Momos are the greatest ambassador to the Himalayan community,” said Orlick. He calls himself a sort of “James Franco of the Queens food scene,” dabbling in such diverse pursuits as organizing a Jackson Heights street food festival, leading neighborhood food tours, and creating an “ambassador” program where people with cultural expertise take a group for a meal at their favorite place and tell them the back story behind the food. “We’re very lucky around here to have so many Tibetan and Nepali people. It’s just a dumpling, but it’s exotic.”
Momos might be new to many people, but to the Tibetan and Nepali people of the neighborhood, they are a staple of daily life here and back home. Tshering Gurung, 34, who was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, and now lives in Jackson Heights, called momos the national food. “People can eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they love it so much,” she said.
“Momos are the greatest ambassador to the Himalayan community.”
The city’s Tibetan and Nepalese populations are fairly small. Estimates put the Tibetan population in New York City between three and five thousand and the number of Nepalese in Queens somewhere between five and twenty thousand.  The majority emigrated after 2000, in part because of heightened political and economic disruptions in Nepal. A 2011 report by the Nepali nonprofit Adhikaar found that 85 percent of Nepalis in New York City had immigrated less than a decade ago.
Although the Himalayan communities’ numbers are low, New Yorkers’ interest in momos is high, and the momo crawl drew a surprisingly large turnout. “I’m quite amazed—I didn’t expect this many people,” said Gurung, standing in Diversity Plaza on 37th Road as she sold momo maps that Orlick had hand-drawn.
Gurung, who is friendly with a wide, bright smile and high cheekbones, has her own favorites – Gangjong Kitchen for beef momos and Tibetan Mobile/Lhasa Fast Food for vegetarian momos. And she has definite advice on how to eat the dumplings like a Himalayan. Don’t put the entire momo in your mouth, as it’s very hot inside and will scorch your mouth. Take a small bite so the steam can come out. Then dip it into the accompanying sauce before taking each bite.
One difference between how momos are served in Jackson Heights versus in Nepal is the sauce, observed Phoolmaya Gurung (no relation), 36, of Woodside. “For us, the sauce is the most important part of the dumpling,” she said. “I would not eat a dumpling without the sauce. It’s like pizza without the cheese.” Here, momos are always served with plain chili sauce; in Nepal, the sauce would be either tomato with chilis or tomato with onion, depending on the season. She prefers the peanut sauce served at Lali Guras.
Many stops on the momo crawl were tiny spaces. With the crowds, it meant that they ended up with lines extending far outside the doors into the icy cold, gray afternoon. The average momo wait time was around 15 minutes at the peak of the crawl, far longer than even the busiest business day.
Orlick said that the first momo crawl in 2012 drew about 30 people. Last year’s saw around 80 attendees. “This year it totally exploded,” he said, at a loss to explain why interest had surged this year. Maybe coverage in media such as the Village Voice and Gothamist had helped, or the fact that November has fewer food events than the jam-packed summer months. But one of Orlick’s theories was simpler: it’s all in the name. “People just hear the word momo, and they want it,” he said. “They don’t even know what it is.”
Food led Orlick to become a staunch supporter of the cultural life of Tibetan and Nepalese immigrant communities. He said he sees a “strong resemblance” between their lives and his own family’s experiences as European Jewish immigrants. In his time getting to know the community, Orlick said he has seen a growing emphasis on cultural programs involving singing, dancing and language. “I have a lot of conflict in myself regarding this,” he said, “as I see my own culture fading away in some aspects such as the Yiddish language and other traditions.”
Some in the Himalayan communities are doing their part to make sure their customs and history are well-preserved here. Inside Little Tibet, in the shadow of the 7 subway tracks on Roosevelt Avenue, owner Tenzin Choenyi demonstrated to the waiting crowds how to make different types momos, and served a bit of knowledge on the side.
As she expertly rolled, pinched, and twisted pieces of dough, Choenyi explained the significance of a variation of deep-fried empanada-style momo called shabhaley (pronounced “shahb-hah-lay”) and how they played a pivotal role in the 1987–1989 pro-independence uprisings in Lhasa:
Shabhaley became so ubiquitous in prison they earned the name “independence bread,” according to Tibetan activist and writer Jamyang Norbu’s blog Shadow Tibet. When the occupation authorities heard about shabhaley’s popularity in prisons, they immediately banned visitors from bringing them, and banned the making or selling of any shabhaley in the city.
As Choenyi spoke, people crowded at the counter to try their hand at making momos. Choenyi encouraged one struggling momo neophyte, saying, “One momo has so much work, sir—that’s why we appreciate the taste of it so much.”
“You want the edges to be thinner and the middle to be thicker because once it comes out of the steamer, you want to make sure that the momos don’t break,” Choenyi said, into a perfect “restaurant momo” form (think of a pot-sticker shape). “The best part of the momo is the juice, so you want the juices to be intact so everyone can enjoy it.”
She also made what were once called “elite momos,” little round sacks that are twisted at the top (similar in look to Shanghai soup dumplings). They were called elite because they were served to the very rich. This type was easier to eat without burning your tongue (just bite off the top and let the steam out). There were also wonton-style momos called mokthug, and tsi tsi momos served in soup (tsi tsi means mouse in Tibetan, and these momos look a little bit like mice).
Phoolmaya Gurung remembers how making momos would be a neighborhood event back in Nepal, where she born and raised. “When we make dumplings at home, everybody would be talking about it,” she recalled, shivering in Diversity Plaza. “We don’t make only for our family. You invite everybody, and people expect to be invited.”
Buying ingredients for homemade momos was almost a ceremony; she recalls waking up early to get fresh meat from the butcher and starting to cook the momos right away. The telltale sign the work was in progress? The sound of meat being ground on a wood block. “When you’re chopping the meat, everyone can hear,” she said, laughing.
Momo-making could take almost an entire day because they would make hundreds. “A person can eat 10 to 20,” she noted. “So just imagine if you have ten people, you’re making more than a hundred.” To lessen the workload, they would make big momos at home so two or three would fill a stomach, and the whole community would join in to help in the kitchen. “It’s a kind of gathering—you’re sitting all around, you’re making, talking, eating, enjoying.”
“A person can eat 10 to 20…. So just imagine if you have ten people, you’re making more than a hundred.”
Today, momos can be found in restaurants across Tibet and Nepal. But Phoolmaya Gurung says they’re just not the same as the homemade variety. “At home, it’s made with love so it tastes better,” she said.
But the people on the momo crawl didn’t seem to have many complaints. Valerie Fristachi, 35, a Jackson Heights resident doing the momo crawl for the first time, ate a few dumplings from a small styrofoam plate outside Little Tibet. She said she hoped people walked away with a different impression of the borough. “Queens doesn’t get a lot of respect in terms of coolness or prestige,” she said. “I hope they get out of it that it’s more than just two airports and a baseball stadium, and that it’s kind of a microcosm of the whole world.”
At the end of the day, momo eaters returned to Diversity Plaza to cast their votes to decide which shop had the best momos. They literally voted with their feet, gathering around flags with the handwritten name of each shop, like warriors joining their clans in preparation for battle. As the pool of contenders narrowed, cheers erupted from the crowd, and voters moved to join the ranks of their second or third favorites, as sporadic chants of “momo, momo, momo” broke out.
Standing behind the Delhi Heights flag was Jon-Jon Mendoza, 32, of Elmhurst. Out of the ten places he visited that day, he liked “the halal taste” to the momos there most. He also said the crawl had helped him discover new spots in the neighborhood, which he has visited many times before.
“You know how they say you only get to touch 15 percent of New York? This was the first time I went to more than one dumpling place here,” he said. “You see a storefront, you just pass it by, you don’t even notice what it is. This helped boost the confidence of businesses in the area, so I think it’s really dope.”
Sue Blank, 53, from Forest Hills, stood behind Tibetan Mobile’s flag. She had been to Jackson Heights before, but never with a map, which is almost necessary to find Tibetan Mobile, aka Lhasa Fast Food. “When you go past it on the street, it’s just another phone store,” she said. “I would have never had that opportunity if someone hadn’t said, “ ‘No, no, go in there, there’s actually food in there, and it’s delicious’.”
Rounds of voting whittled down the competition to two shops: Little Tibet on Roosevelt Ave and Tibetan Mobile. Ganjong Kitchen came in third. Voters for the last two contenders were asked to form lines facing each other and grasp hands with the person in opposite them, a fast and easy way to see which line was longer. At the very end of the line, only one person had no partner. The momo place in the back of the mobile store was the winner by one vote.
Here is the scene at the moment of truth:
The Momo Trophy was handmade by Orlick with his father. “The trophy came to me in a dream—a golden momo floating atop a mountain and spinning,” he said. It was held aloft and paraded around the corner by Orlick and a rowdy mob of participants, and ceremoniously presented to Lhasa Fast Food.
“The trophy came to me in a dream — a golden momo floating atop a mountain and spinning.”
There, Philippa Bogle, whose ancestor was the first Englishman in Tibet in the late 1700s, confirmed Lhasa Fast Food’s supremacy.
“It was very tasty, hot, with a soft skin,” she said. “The beef quality was better so the meat was tastier so the flavor all around was better.” It was her first momo ever and her first visit to Jackson Heights.
After the crawl, Tenzin Choenyi of Little Tibet looked exhausted, but happy, if not a little disappointed by coming in second. “It was a very hectic day for us,” she said. “My head was just blown off.” Her plan to charm attendees with momo-making lessons had not quite worked, but she said she hoped the day’s visitors learned that Tibetans are friendly and compassionate and “hopelessly patient,” she laughed.