The artifact I chose to study, prepare, and eat is the momo. It is both a Nepalese and Tibetan dumpling that usually has meat and vegetables inside it. It can be both steamed and fried, but it is most commonly steamed, much like Chinese baozi. I first had momo when I went abroad to India for two weeks and I traveled to Dharmsala, a city with thousands of Tibetan refugees, who fill the city with their culture. I made momo with my homestay mother in Dharmsala and we bonded over a couple conversations while cooking. Now, I love to recreate momo in my kitchen and teach other people how to make them, sometimes with my own spin on them.
Here’s a photo of some momo I bought in Dharmsala.
Choden pinched the edges of the dough with her left hand and swiftly crafted foldings of the dough while she pushed the meat inside the momo. Her skilled hands told their own story of her Tibetan cooking experience, while she told me she, “Didn’t learn how to cook, I just always knew how to.” I didn’t know if that was due to her life, her culture, or even both, but I could tell she found some comfort in cooking momo. She and her mother were folding the momo and laughing at jokes without having to even look at the momo. The room smelled of both dough and the chai Choden offered me whenever I woke up, ate a meal, sat down, and returned home. Choden’s steamer pot held nearly sixty momo, and that is exactly how many we planned to make to feed her family of six. She must have taught all her children how to cook momo, because with a smile on her face, Choden taught me how to fold the momo like a purse in the simplest way possible. The hardest part of making the momo was pinching the ends of the momo while simultaneously pushing the meat inside the dumpling. For Choden, there was no hard part about making momo; she had been doing this her entire life. That had me questioning myself, however, “Why has she been making these for so long? Why does every restaurant I had been to in Dharamsala sell momo? Why does everyone love them? Do these have a strong cultural importance?” I didn’t get all my answers then and there, but I did find out that night that momo had close ties with Tibetan culture for as long as my homestay family could remember. They’ve been enjoying momo their whole lives, and they even said, “Everyone knows momo.” It should be noted that momo with short vowels means the Tibetan dumpling, while momo with elongated vowels means grandmother in Tibetan. This was something that took me at least three days to get the grasp of, since I’m not used to languages that have different tones. I accidentally referred to the dumplings as grandmother too many times. Cooking with Choden and her mother was not only a learning experience in terms of learning a new dish, but it was also an insightful experience in terms of CHoden’s life and culture. I understood that cooking was a social activity for her. I, however, had a completely different experience when making momo with the group from my school I went to India with three days earlier.
I don’t like to cook alone. Which can be a bit of a problem, because I prefer to eat alone. I find myself getting the best out of the experience if I’m creating a dish with someone whose company I truly enjoy. It’s not that I have less to do and clean up if someone else is helping me, though that definitely is a perk, but it’s that much like Choden, I believe preparing food is a great social activity. It gives me something to do while I cook. Or rather, does it give me something to do while I have a conversation? I find cooking and talking tend to go hand in hand. I like to multitask. I have music playlists for cleaning dishes, working out, going on walks, and even crying. I like to keep my mind occupied at all times. Cooking to be a perfect activity during which I can facilitate a conversation. Chopping onions with my friend goes well with talking about Super Mario. Combining meal making with conversations to have during them is like pairing a type of wine with a specific dish. To me, making meals I’ve made with my friends time and again goes well with reminiscing on memories they and I both share. Whenever my friend Shami and I make torikatsu, one of us will mention, “that one time we rented an apartment in Barcelona and made a giant plate of torikatsu and rice.” Meticulous projects, such as making French macarons pair well with long discussions, such as discourse on the identity politics of race and ethnicity. More often than not, I find myself talking to my friend about the future of Pokémon. However, I think that’s just because we’re both really excited about that series. Preparing momo, on the other hand, was a new experience for me, so it warranted a new conversation. When I walked to the cooking class with my closest friend Steve, I had no clue what I was going to talk about, nor was it really on my mind. I was mostly excited to learn how to make the dish I had the pleasure of eating every day that week. I’m sure eating was what was on Steve’s mind, too. India was new to the both of us. He and I had never been to India, and we had never went on a trip together outside the country. India was new to our friendship; I saw how mean he was at nine in the morning, and I saw the drastic change forty-five minutes later after he drank a redbull and took a shower. He never raised his voice to me, though. Or really anyone for that matter, but he was nice to me when he was working with two hours of sleep, no caffeine, and monkeys guarding the outside bathroom his family had. During a nine hour car ride, at one point he woke up from his nap, turned to me and said, “I love you,” and he went back to sleep. We saw each other after being chased by monkeys, running away from spiders, working on three hours of sleep, and dealing with an unnecessarily mean teacher who was our guide. The trip was a real test of our friendship; it only solidified what we had. With a redbull moving towards his mouth, Steve exclaimed, “I’m going to eat so many momo today.” It was good to see him happy to eat; he was always a picky eater. Sonam-la, our teacher and guide in Dharamsala, explained step by step how to knead the dough, make the filling, fold the dumplings, steam the dumplings, and fry them even. “The momo is very similar to Baozi from China. Momo originated in Nepal hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago and they migrated to Tibet soon after. That is why the momo is commonly known to be both a Tibetan and a Nepalese dish,” Sonam explained while we got ready to make the dish. Making momo was a completely new experience for us. In fact, by that time Steve and I hadn’t ever cooked together. In my mind, learning new dishes ties well with new discussion topics and getting to know about the person one is talking to. The room was a bit cramped and not air conditioned, but we were used to that by then. The weather in Dharamshala was surprisingly colder than expected with it being only around seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. Our group did spend a week in New Delhi, where it was over one hundred degrees every day, prior to Dharamshala, so it was likely we found Dharamshala cold compared to New Delhi. It rained almost every day I was there, but I didn’t really mind. I was just glad to enjoy my time there. When it rained, my friends and I took cover in clothing stores, restaurants, and internet cafes. I’ll never forget all the ornate patterns on blankets, clothing, scrolls, and jewelry that were sold in the shops. There was also a great deal of art being sold everywhere; most of the art had religious influences, and it was common to see a number of paintings of deities in homes and shops in Dharamshala. We made momo in a room with a small statue of Chakrasamvara and in the room next door was a bedroom with a photo of the Dalai Lama. I remember one way the Buddhists in Tibet paid respect to the deities and the Dalai Lama with art and photographs. The room was packed with our group as we sat around the table covered with plates of different ingredients for the momo. We sat on one side of the room while the cook demonstrated what to put inside the momo and how to form them. He pointed to different bowls of ingredients: cabbage, onion, cilantro, garlic, and a number of other ingredients, and he started to mix them together with the meat. Sonam-la continued providing some context by stating, “Momo are served differently depending on the place: Some look more like Chinese baozi, others look more similar to Japanese gyoza. It’s popular for them to be fried, but they are also commonly steamed.” The cook even rolled the dough in front of us and helped us with that portion of the preparation. After he made his batch of momo, he gave everyone enough materials to make a few momo of their own. I spent time looking at other people furiously rolling the dough and others concentrating heavily on folding the momo like a purse. I was having trouble with the momo, but I really had my mind on other things. Steve was also having trouble with the momo, and due to frustration he was saying a few curse words in Korean, some of which I recognized because he and I would spent time telling each other curse words in languages we knew how to speak. I learned that day that my multitalented friend with innumerable hobbies hated cooking. Sonam pointed to the momo and provided some context with why some were with meat and some weren’t. He said, “Dharamsala is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees, many of whom are Tibetan monks, who are vegetarian, so it is common for people to make vegetarian momo with mushrooms instead.” I didn’t really have a preference to the kind of momo I ate, I just liked when they were made well. By then, however, I hadn’t had a momo I didn’t like. As I reflected on what I’d be interested in what could be added to a momo, Sonam continued, “Hundreds of years ago when it was less common to make vegetarian momo, because the ingredients were scarcer than yak, Tibetan monks would use the meat of yak in order to feed more people. Now, it is popular to use ground beef with cabbage, potatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, ginger, and other spices.” I wondered if chicken instead of beef would taste good, and I wondered if something sweet could be added to the momo to make it both sweet and savory. Steve and I eventually got the hang of making momo, but something still felt off to me. My stream of consciousness during that point was: “Why do I still not feel like I am fully comfortable around Steve? Did I learn he was too mean during this trip and that intimidated me? But I thought seeing him that way helped me be more comfortable with him. What was it?” As Steve folded the momo to close it up and make sure nothing fell out, he opened up and unfolded all this information about himself to me. He told me about his girlfriend he fell in love with, his mother whom he works hard for, and his ultimate ambitions in life. I felt this imbalance in our friendship, and I resented him for things I knew weren’t fair to resent him for. I placed my first perfectly crafted momo on the table and took it as a sign. I looked at Steve and sighed, “Hey. I’m gay.” He turned to me and replied, “really?” “Yep,” I said. He stated, “Okay. That’s cool. I still love you.” “Cool. Love you, too,” I replied. I felt a sudden equilibrium in our friendship after the easiest, yet ironically most difficult, coming out of my entire life. Steve proceeded to ask me questions about boys, and I had years of information to fill him in on. I was so distracted from telling Steve about my life, I hardly even focused on my momo. As one of my poorly crafted momo opened up and fell apart, I opened up and still felt put together. I finally had a friend I could open up to completely, and we will always have this experience we can look back on together. Maybe that is my subconscious reason for having such a close connection with the momo. My initial attraction to the momo were the taste and look. They looked like no dumpling I had ever seen before, and usually when I discover a dish I love and am intrigued by, I want to learn how to make it. Tying coming out to Steve with my first experience making momo must’ve sparked my emotional connection with the dish. Then, bonding with Choden and learning about both her and her culture solidified my interest in momo. Now, I enjoy teaching others how to prepare momo and telling them what I’ve learned about both the dish and the cultures it is prominent in. By the end of the session, I had learned how to make momo and I felt even more comfortable with my friend. It felt good succeeding on two different fronts. When the preparing was over, Sonam-la helped us make steamed momo, fried momo, and even chocolate momo. I guess the chocolate momo answered my question about sweet and savory momo. I couldn’t stop thinking about the chocolate momo, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. As much as I liked the chocolate momo, I find myself nowadays focusing on making a perfect steamed beef momo. Until then, I’ll keep the chocolate momo and my own variations in the back of my mind. I have a long way to go and a lot to learn, but that’s what’s exciting, isn’t it?