It’s a drizzly Sunday in Queens and 1,200 momo-maniacs have gathered to sample momos from 24 purveyors in Jackson Heights—restaurants, trucks and one popular concession in the back of a mobile phone store. I’m there, umbrella in one hand, my official “Momo Passport” in the other, sampling dozens of the traditional Himalayan dumpling.
The Jackson Heights Momo Crawl is in its sixth year. As momos are securing their rightful place in the international dumpling pantheon, the dish that has come to represent the Tibetan diaspora is taking on new flavors and taking over as the world’s favorite dumpling.
Momo impresario Jeff Orlick founded the Momo Crawl in 2012 as a way for him to try and compare all the momos in his Jackson Heights neighborhood. He gathered a group for a friendly evening of tasting and competition to see who could consume the most.
Five years later, Orlick has handed the event over to Students for a Free Tibet. Each adventurer purchases a $10 Momo Passport with access to $1 momos at 24 locations. Most are nestled on one block near the 74th St-Broadway subway. To reach some of the outlying locations, Momo Crawl organizers run trolley buses, with the lure of kegs of free beer from local Queens brewery, Fifth Hammer.
The day has evolved from one guy’s momo binge into a festival to support and promote the community, its Tibetan refugee business owners and their signature dumpling, the momo.
“The whole culture can leap into people’s minds just biting into this little dumpling,” Orlick tells me.
What is a Momo?
Momos are a dumpling in exile. Little purses of Tibetan culture carried after the failed 1959 uprising against the Chinese occupation. Tibetans run momo stands in their native homeland, and took their dumplings as they relocated as refugees. “Momos represent our journey,” explains Urgyen Badheytsang, young Tibetan activist who has managed the Momo Crawl in Toronto and now in NY.
You can’t easily tell momo from any other culture’s steamed dumpling—mantou, manti, baozi, jaozi, potsticker. One difference is that they are typically finger food, and as such have a shell that is firm enough to be manhandled, yet, ideally, delicate enough not to overpower the filling.
The classic Tibetan momo holds a rich meat—usually yak or buffalo—and onion filling that become soupy as the momo cook. When you bite into it, “it’s the moment of truth,” explains Badheytsang, “That’s when you know if it was well made.”
In other countries, momos have been adapted and adopted and infused with flavors from new homelands. “They take on the flavors of the new environment, like immigrants in a new place gain an appreciation of the music of their new culture.”
Nepal now has a vibrant momo tradition. Nepalese momo, called jhol momo, are vibrant with spices and served in complex curry sauces.
This year was the first year that the winner of the Jackson Heights Momo Crawl was a jhol momo.
“I don’t think any are standouts,” Orlick, a true diplomat, told me when I asked for guidance on my crawl. “Go to the places with the shortest lines.”
Orlick is determined to make the event about the community. “I don’t want people just to eat. I want them to experience everything.” Orlick is clearly not a foodie at heart. It was a fascinating culinary voyage.
There were momos with thin skins, with thick doughy shells. Some had a filling like a meatball, some chunky. The Nepali momos were spiced with masala; one was served with a sesame sauce. The vegetarian momos were mostly packed with mashed potatoes, the Tibetan ones more buttery, the Nepali, spicy, more like a samosa or dosa filling. One standout vegetarian was Lali Guras on 76th Street.
The winner was Nepali Bhancha Ghar on 37th Road. This chicken and cilantro momo was served in a spicy bright light curry soup. The runner-up, last year’s winner, Little Tibet, serves a traditional beef momo with the perfect proportion of meat to dough.
Where Can You Find Them?
Toronto has enough Tibetan restaurants to run a momo crawl that rivals the one in NYC. The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s market has its own momo vendor and Indian Fast food chain Wow! Momo opened its 130th location serving “tandoori momos,” and baked “momo au gratin” and “chocolate momo.”