Consider the momo.
The momo comes in many forms, but in all of them it is Nepal’s iconic snack. In the Himalayas, momos can be eaten on nearly every urban street corner and in nearly every kitchen. To call the momo a kind of dumpling would be accurate, but simplistic; it is, in fact, many kinds of dumpling. Some are formed in neat little pyramids of dough and filling, shaped like Nepal’s towering mountains, with the wrappers’ pleated folds meeting at the summit. Others are made in a more circular fashion, and their tops form a sort of crown. Yet more are folded into enormous crescent moons, and a few resemble the dumplings popular in the country’s northern neighbor, China.
However you eat a momo, those bites of wrapper, filling and spice are little symbols of Nepali culture. They’re as ubiquitous and iconic in their tradition as the taco is in Mexico’s. To snack on a momo is to peer through a window onto a mountainous landscape on the far side of the world.
The best place to find momos in the United States is Jackson Heights, Queens. That neighborhood’s dozens of vendors participate in an annual “Momo Crawl” festival.
The second-best place to find momos in the United States is on the suburban, asphalt-covered flatland of Irving, Texas. Irving is home to the second-largest Nepali-American population in the country, behind only New York City. Two societies, a spiritual center and at least 13 restaurants cater to the growing community. But start asking around to find out why immigrants from a cool, mountainous country are congregating in a hot, flat suburb, and the answer is surprising: Nobody quite knows how Nepal came to North Texas.
One of the prevailing theories of Nepali migration to Dallas County centers on North Lake College, the community college that serves Irving. (Disclosure: This author is a North Lake College employee.) North Lake reportedly has the largest population of Nepali students of any American college or university. According to an unofficial tally by the college’s international student center, the school has around 650 Nepali students — a number which, before the Trump administration, was nearly 900.
Those numbers account for a staggering 80 percent of the college’s international student population — all from a country with a population slightly smaller than Texas’ and located 8,000 miles away.
Keith Landry, one of the college’s international student advisers, isn’t sure how to explain this affinity.
“I started here in 2006, and it was already 70 percent Nepalese,” Landry explains, referring to the college’s international student population. Landry says he visited Chicago a decade ago and met a Nepali-American working at Subway. “I said that I lived in Irving, Texas. ‘Oh, is that where North Lake is? I have friends who go there.’ Word of mouth.”
But not everyone in the community here attended North Lake, and anyone trying to explain why Irving became a Nepali enclave faces a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Many NLC students from Nepal say they came to Irving because they had family already here. But many of the locals say their families came here because of North Lake.
Ramesh Giri, one of two brothers who attended North Lake and now jointly own MoMo To Go, sums up the conundrum neatly.
“The people who came here in the ’80s and ’90s, they started making Dallas home,” he says. “Another reason is North Lake College and the DCCCD colleges. I went there. All of my friends and all of my relatives went there. The younger populations are because of the school. The people with the families are because there’s someone they know.”
The prevailing theory inside North Lake’s International Center is that the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which began issuing visas in 1995, opened up the United States to migration from Nepal, and that in the following years Nepali immigrants arrived at the college and in the city almost immediately. Why they chose this corner of Texas is still unknown. The entire wave of migration may well have started with just one or two people who told their friends and family about Irving, or about its community college.
Other local schools contribute to the population, too. Dipesh Acharya, manager of Cafemandu Flavors of Nepal, moved to Irving after attending Texas State University in San Marcos. Bipin Thakali, one of the partners at Peak Restaurant, came to the U.S. to get a pilot’s license at a school in Arlington, which has since moved to Fort Worth.
Although Thakali’s background is slightly different, his theory of how Nepal came to Irving still revolves around education.
“North Lake is in Irving, you know, and UTA is in Arlington, so it’s right in the middle,” Thakali speculates. “Some students take classes at North Lake and classes in Arlington and stay in the middle.”
In 2015, when a devastating earthquake struck Nepal and left almost 9,000 people dead and millions homeless, the student body at North Lake College responded by donating blankets, clothing and more than $8,000 in cash. Two Nepali students returned home with $4,000 each. In an interview with the college’s student newspaper, Sudip Hamal recalled spending his share to pack trucks with food and drive them to a remote village in the Sindhupalchok District, where the earthquake had destroyed 97 percent of homes.
“It was a four-hour drive each way,” Hamal told the North Lake College News-Register. “With that money, we helped 200 families. We distributed edibles, things like rice and cereal for them to eat.”
There must be 50 ways to eat a momo.
The dumpling’s traditional fillings can involve ground chicken, goat, lamb, yak or, most commonly, water buffalo. Vegetarian fillings are increasingly common; pork momos exist, too, and Peak Restaurant in Irving daringly serves beef momos, even though 80 percent of Nepal is Hindu. (Small minorities of the country are Buddhist, Muslim or some localized combination of those faiths.)
Steamed momos are the simplest order of all: The dumplings come out of the steamer basket with little more than a side order of dipping sauce. Pan-fried and even deep-fried momos can be had, and so can fried momos coated in a zestful rub of seasonings, herbs and diced red onions.
Cafemandu is the only restaurant in Irving — and, according to its owners, the only restaurant in the United States — to serve sweet momos for dessert, with a creamy dairy filling. Dairy lovers can pick up a savory alternative at Cafemandu, too: “cheesy white” momo, covered in “creamy cheese” sauce.
For many Nepali-Americans, the perfect cold-weather comfort food is steamed momos served in a hot broth. Jhol momo is, in essence, dumpling soup, with a richly aromatic broth made with tomatoes, chili peppers, cumin, and herbs and spices native to the Himalayas.
One of the most beloved of all preparations has its own shorthand: “C-momo,” short for “chili momo,” or, as many menus insist on spelling it, “chilly momo.” However it is named, chili momo is a steamed or pan-fried order coated with a richly spicy, deep-red sauce founded on the flavor base of indigenous hot peppers.
Chili momo, too, comes in many varieties. At Cafemandu, it’s got a subtle heat that may seem innocuous at first but builds in power with every successive bite. Just across Northgate Drive, inside the Texaco station on the corner, Momostop slathers its C-momo in a sauce so fiery red that it might as well be a warning sign. Peak Restaurant’s chili momo are deep-fried, with almost crunchy pleats of dough; some of them have menacing slivers of hot pepper on top or hidden inside.
Every Nepali restaurant in Irving serves momos, even if the kitchen’s primary focus is on another genre of food. Cafemandu is probably the most prominent momo specialist in Irving, with nine varieties available at any given time. Peak, which is nominally a sports bar, also makes the dumpling wrappers by hand. Some businesses, such as Hot N Spicy on State Highway 183, add momos to a menu that’s focused primarily on more generic Indian fare.
And, in a happy marriage of Dallas and Nepali food cultures, the momo has found a home inside gas stations. The rest of Dallas may feature convenience store taco counters, but a Fresh Food Store on Northgate Drive, with two pumps out front, is the home of MoMo To Go. Momostop’s Texaco location is just blocks away. (A second Momostop location, inside a Chevron on MacArthur, recently closed.)
MoMo To Go was established by brothers Pradip and Ramesh Giri as a delivery-only business that operated out of a small, central commercial kitchen. The location open now, which welcomes dine-in and carry-out orders in addition to serving as a delivery hub, is a mark of the business’ successful growth over the course of two years.
“We already used to make momos on the weekends in our house,” Ramesh Giri says. “If there is a small gathering or anything, we start making momos, because we expect some food from Nepal. We always thought, you know, there is pizza delivery and a lot of American food that can be delivered at home. With all these Nepalese people in the Dallas area, why not deliver momos?”
In the convenience store corner MoMo To Go calls home, specialties include choila momo, chicken dumplings fried in a mixture of spices, and rara momo, steamed dumplings served inside a warm bowl of noodle soup.
“Somebody who has never had Nepali food before, momo is the first thing I would recommend them to try,” Giri says.
Acharya, from Cafemandu, agrees. “It’s more like burgers here in the U.S. In Nepal you get in every corner, you drive by and you find momo stalls. You find restaurants selling momos in each and every corner.”
That’s close to becoming true in Irving, too. We all know the rule: Once we can eat a food inside a gas station, that food is officially part of the Dallas canon.
For Dallas natives, the best way to get to know Nepali culture — at least until construction on a planned cultural and spiritual center is completed in Euless — is through the booming Irving restaurant scene. Momos are just the beginning of a culinary culture that is far from monolithic. At Ramailo, off State Highway 183, Nepali foods get an upscale spin in an elegant setting; try chatamari, a kind of rice flour crepe loaded with toppings, which the staff likens to a pizza, or kawaaf, dry-braised mutton, which cooks slowly in its own juices.
Peak Restaurant is notable for being one of Irving’s too-scarce bars. The city still strictly enforces ordinances requiring at least 50 percent of a bar’s total sales to be food, and prohibiting the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, schools, hospitals and almost all forms of residential zoning. But Peak Restaurant is also notable because partner Bipin Thakali is from a tribal minority — also called Thakali — with roots in Nepal’s steep northern mountains.
Thakali people have their own slightly different culinary traditions. By way of example, take the bar’s thali, a sort of sample platter that is common across India and Nepal. A typical thali comes with rice, bread and an array of different curries and chutneys.
“There’s not too much difference item-wise on the plate, but it’s the spices that matter,” Thakali says. “Even between the Nepali and the Thakali thali. In the lentils we put a thing called jimbu — that’s an herb that you add on the lentils. You put a little bit of butter in the pan, you fry the jimbu and then you add the lentils. That’s something that grows in the mountains. I think the way you cook the chicken or goat is a little different too; a lot of Nepali items sell them more like a curry. Ours is not like a curry — it’s fried, but at the same time has a little bit of soup in it.”
Thakali food, with its roots in mountain crops, also frequently employs a tongue-tingling spice which the locals call timur, and which is better known in the rest of the world as the Sichuan peppercorn.
The use of timur points toward one of the less obvious facts about Nepali culture. The cuisine’s overlap with foods of far north India is clear — many menus feature chicken and breads baked in the tandoor oven, or certain varieties of biryani. But Nepal has another neighbor that also casts a massive shadow over its culture and is a major influence on its cuisine: China.
If any street food in Kathmandu rivals the popularity of momos, it’s chow mein. The familiar takeout dish of stir-fried egg noodles, proteins and vegetables is a massive hit in Nepal, and almost every restaurant in the Texas community serves its own rendition. Dive into a bowl of bhatti chow mein at Cafemandu, choose from five varieties at Peak or grab a “MoMein” platter from MoMo To Go, which is, of course, a bowl of noodles topped with pan-fried dumplings.
But Nepalese food is stubbornly distinct from the cuisines of its bigger neighbors. The difference lies primarily in the distinctive flavors and spices.
“The spices that we use — it’s kinda similar to Indian spices, right?” Ramesh Giri says. “But we have our own flavors. If you try Chinese momos, it’s more sweet, not very spicy. Chinese dumplings are not as spicy. The fillings are different.”
Finally, Irving’s Nepali community has embraced its new Texas home by building new kinds of fusion foods. Cafemandu even serves a sausage on a stick inspired by the State Fair. More tempting, perhaps, is Cafemandu’s “Nepali burrito,” with nine kinds of beans and a splash of hot pepper sauce.
“You’re in Texas,” Acharya explains. “You gotta know burritos.”
All of this — Chinese-Nepali fusion, regional thalis, goat and mutton curries, chicken burgers, noodle soups, the ubiquitous momo in its many forms — is an expression of the richness of a culture that simply did not exist in Irving three decades ago. But the growth of the Dallas area’s Nepali community faces its own set of challenges. At North Lake College, the Nepali student population has dropped by about one-quarter since fall 2016, part of a general decline in the international student population at the college and across the U.S. This presidential administration has, it appears, been successful in its efforts to discourage migration.
Now Irving’s growth is fueled instead by Nepalese-Americans arriving from elsewhere in the U.S., attracted by the city’s growing national reputation as a cultural center.
“The people who were in other cities have also moved to Dallas,” Giri says. “Because they have friends here or maybe they think it’s a very diversified area. Culturally, every item that they need is easily accessible.”
He gives an example: Nepali customers here have ready access to spices and home-country products via Irving’s Indian grocery stores.
Giri also addresses the question of Irving’s topography and climate, seemingly so different from Nepal’s. “I think they are not really concerned here about the climate or the weather,” he explains. “Most of the time you are inside the house or inside work.”
And not all of Nepal is nestled high in the Himalayas. “The northern part of Nepal is really cold, but if you go south it’s really close to Texas,” Giri says. “For example, where I was born is a place that is warmer than Dallas. We have 115, 120 in the summertime — 45 degrees Celsius.”
The prevailing mood at each of the city’s new Nepali businesses is one of optimism.
“The community is growing every day,” Bipin Thakali says. “Back when there was only one Nepali restaurant in town, we didn’t have many options. But now that we have more than 10 restaurants on the same street, it’s all about who has the better food and the service, you know? That brings a healthy competition along with a community of people.”
MoMo To Go, in the corner store on Northgate Drive, is thinking about building on its success by expanding further. The Giri brothers have been patient: They waited to open their restaurant until they’d completed their master’s degrees. They waited months more before searching for a location to open to the dine-in public. Now they’re “actively looking,” Ramesh says, at a potential second restaurant in another suburb, perhaps Plano or Frisco. The search for the right place continues.
The rest of Irving is quickly finding out about its new neighbors, too. Peak Restaurant attracts first-timers with an all-American lineup of sports on its televisions; the staff was happy to introduce Irving natives to snacks like badel sadeko (crisp slices of pork belly coated in spicy pepper sauce and garnished with scallions) at its Super Bowl party.
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The rest of the Dallas area isn’t as familiar with Nepali culture. Until this Observer series began in January, the only media mentions of Nepali food in the area were blog posts from D Magazine and CultureMap about two former Dallas Farmers Market stalls. Muda Flavors of Nepal has since grown into Cafemandu, and Momo Shack is now a pop-up business appearing at local breweries and festivals. But the area’s Nepali community has roots going back at least two decades, and even if nobody is quite sure how it happened, Irving is ready to start celebrating that heritage.
Just ask Dipesh Acharya about the goal of the business he helps lead, Cafemandu. His objective is not modest.
“Bringing Nepali food to mainstream around Irving and around Dallas,” he declares. “We really want people to know what momos are, what Nepali food is all about. A passion for letting people know our culture, where we come from.”
As more Nepali-American migrants come to Irving from elsewhere in the United States, and as more of them open restaurants, bars and pop-up businesses, it seems certain that Nepali culture will continue making its way across Dallas, one momo at a time.