I ate my first momos on the streets of Darjeeling, at a stall run by an elderly Nepalese lady of impressive sprightliness. As I waited for a batch of her dumplings to cook, she filled and crimped a dozen or two more with machine-like efficiency. I had low expectations – the filling was a mix of white cabbage and carrot, neither of which are known for their striking personalities – but a torrent of flavour and red-hot chilli heat ripped through the first bite, and I returned to her stall three times in an attempt to dissect the secret of how such a simple little dumpling could have so much charisma.
The momo is the lesser-known cousin of Japanese gyoza and Chinese potsticker. Its origin is uncertain, but common belief is that it was introduced to Nepal and West Bengal by Tibetans who settled in the mountains. They can be fried or steamed, but frying crisps the bottom, to give crunch, while leaving the sides silky enough to run a tongue over; inside, the filling steams and creates a flavourful juice. Then there’s the wonderfully potent dipping sauce: in Nepal, momos are eaten with a fiery tomato chutney, but I prefer mine Japanese-style with soy, sesame and chilli, because it can be thrown together in seconds.
I buy my wrappers from a Chinese grocer and keep them in the freezer for a simple supper, when the filling and folding can round off the edges of a stressful day. Although the pleating can take a lifetime to master, momos can be pressed shut by toddlers without too much damage to aesthetics. Traditionally, the most respected members of the family are honoured with the first batch, so give Grandma hers before anyone else.
Sweet potato momos
Make sure your wrappers are vegan (some contain egg) and, if frozen, thaw for 30 minutes. Feel free to tinker with the filling: carrot and cabbage, mushroom and tofu, and butternut squash are all good alternatives. Makes 22-25 momos.
For the sauce
2 tbsp sesame oil
4 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp caster sugar
1 ½ tbsp white-wine vinegar
1 tsp chilli flakes
For the dumplings
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 bird’s-eye chilli, finely chopped
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
2 tsp dark soy sauce
½ tsp salt
4 spring onions, very finely sliced
25 dumpling wrappers (there are all sorts out there, but I like the Mong Lee Shangbrand)
To make the sauce, simply whisk all the ingredients in a small bowl and set aside until you serve.
For the filling, heat two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and, when hot, add the garlic and chilli, and sizzle for a minute, until it smells lovely and fragrant. Add the sweet potato, stir-fry for a minute, then add the soy sauce and salt, and cook for three minutes more, until there’s no liquid left in the pan. Off the heat, fold in the sliced spring onions and leave to cool a little.
To make up the dumplings, lay out a large plate or chopping board to work on and fill a little bowl with water. Take one wrapper (cover the rest with a damp tea towel, to stop them from drying out) and put a tablespoon of the filling mixture in its centre. Wet a finger, and use it to dampen all the remaining exposed parts of the wrapper, then fold over to enclose the filling, and pinch and pleat the wrapper closed, working from one side to the other and pressing out as much air as possible.
To cook the dumplings, heat a tablespoon of oil in a saucepan on a low heat. When hot, add as many momos as can comfortably fit in a single layer, fry for two minutes, until the bottoms are golden, then add five tablespoons of water and cover the pan with a lid. Leave to steam for six to seven minutes, or until the pastry is soft and the water has evaporated, and serve hot with the dipping sauce on the side.