Momos remind them of home
ARLINGTON — At her kitchen table, Krishna Maharjan rotates a round dumpling wrapper in a bowl of water, wetting about a half inch of its edge all the way around. She rests the dry center in the palm of her hand, adds a spoonful of ground chicken filling, and expertly pleats the edges to make a crescent-shaped dumpling.
Maharjan’s 18-year-old son, Gaurav Dangol, whirls sesame dipping sauce in a blender and eagerly waits for the first batch of the dumplings, called momos, to finish steaming. His mother learned the recipe in their native Nepal, and when she makes them, she brings a taste of their homeland to the table.
She and Gaurav came to the Boston area in 2006, two years after her husband, Deepak Dangol, arrived. As Gaurav adjusted to a new country and a new school, he counted on these dumplings as comfort food. “At school, I didn’t know the simplest words. I came home and cried because I didn’t know anyone. I was very shy back then,” he says. His mother’s momos always made him feel better. “Part of home came with me to the US.”
Like many immigrants, Gaurav never outgrew his craving for the familiar flavors of his early childhood. Yet he has adapted the recipe to his new home by adding vegetables he grows at The Food Project, a sustainable agriculture and youth education program in Lincoln, Boston, and Lynn. This summer, the Arlington High School graduate is an assistant crew leader. In the fall, he starts the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Gaurav learned about the Food Project when he saw a soccer teammate wearing a T-shirt from the group. He started working there in 2013. “My mind was blown by the vegetables. I had never heard of kale, chard, or rutabaga. I had never seen beets,” he remembers. Cabbage, however, was familiar and soon he brought some home for his mother to use in the momos.
In Nepal, the Dangols kept a large garden and grew onions, tomatoes, ginger, and cilantro. Grapefruit and guava trees also flourished. Recently, the family moved to a home with a backyard, where Gaurav planted cilantro seedlings from The Food Project. He looks forward to harvesting the leaves for momos.
His family comes from Lalitpur in the center of Nepal. The recent earthquake flattened some buildings there, but their relatives are unharmed. Though the country is best known for its mountains, the family grew rice. His mother remembers standing barefoot in the flooded paddies with other women and planting the grains by hand. Children tagged along to help.
In Nepal, 12 people crowded into the kitchen whenever Maharjan and other relatives made momos. The dozen extended family members shared a house and typically ate in two shifts, except on momo days.
“We made the dough,” says Maharjan. “There was someone to make it round, and someone to make it flat. We made a lot because there had to be some leftovers. My mother-in-law wouldn’t feel good if there were no leftovers.”
At markets near Arlington, where the family settled, Maharjan was happy to discover packaged dumpling wrappers because they speed up her work. The dumplings can be formed into round or crescent shapes; Maharjan prefers crescents. She typically makes 100 at a time for Gaurav, Deepak, and her younger son, Adarsha, age 7. They eat some right away and freeze others to make another time.
In Nepal, Deepak says, momo restaurants can be found “on every block,” making the dumplings the Nepalese equivalent of fast food. Buffalo meat is the traditional filling, but there are many variations, including Gaurav’s favorite, ground chicken. Maharjan adds lots of vegetables to her filling — though, like mothers everywhere, she doesn’t always tell her sons what’s in them.
“I make meat ones and add vegetables,” she says, laughing. “I trick them to eat vegetables.”
Gaurav laughs, too, and devours the dumplings, vegetables and all.