It Takes Years to Make a Good Tibetan Dumpling
Momos, the dumplings of Tibet, look deceptively simple to make. But as Alex Lobsang of East London pop-up The Momo Shack shows me, there’s real skill in getting them right.
Every cuisine has its own take on the carb-y pocket stuffed with sweet, savoury, crunchy, spicy, and soft fillings. Yes, we're talking dumplings.
But one that might not have crossed your dumpling radar is the lesser known—but no less delicious—momo of Tibet. To find out more, I tracked down Alex Lobsang of East London pop-up, The Momo Shack.
"One of the main differences that sets momos apart from other dumplings is that I've always eaten momos as a main meal, whereas you might just have a few gyoza before the main meal," Lobsang explains. "Momos are thicker and heavier than Chinese dumplings. At home, my family and I would have them with a bit of stir-fried pak choi and this tomato chili salsa on the side."
This momo master has kindly let me into his South London flat, where he'll be sharing his family's time-tested recipe.
"We usually eat like ten or 12 of them in one sitting and then we can't move for the next four hours," he adds.
Momos already sound like my kind of dumpling.
As Lobsang prepares the ingredients for today's beef momos, he explains that there's more to these hearty morsels of deliciousness than meets the eye. The dumplings are steeped in Tibet's troubled political history, as well as Lobsang's personal story.
"My dad left Tibet when he was very young, when the Chinese invaded. He grew up in a charity in India before a charity from the UK brought refugees from around the world to England," he says. "I think all his life, because he was with lots of other refugees, he made momos because they're one the easiest large-scale foods you can make. He's always made them when he was growing up in India or in the UK."
And it was a dish that Lobsang's dad continued to make.
"At every family get-together, we'd sit down and go through the process of making the dough and the mixture, and then wrapping it all," he remembers. "It's nice because making (and eating!) them involves lots of people being around."
Despite the fact that Lobsang does all of the dumpling prep for his residency at Dalston's Brunswick East cafe on his own, his family still lend a hand indirectly.
Pouring flour and water for the dough into a green and white stand mixer in the corner of his kitchen, Lobsang explains: "That's my grandma's mixer. It's still going strong! And my mum donated her old Magimix blender which I use to make the momo filling."
Lobsang kneads the dough before leaving it to rest for a moment. Then it's time to roll.
"When I was younger, my sisters and I would have to start off by rolling out the dough. My dad would make the dough and give us the rollers," says Lobsang. "When you climbed up the hierarchy, he'd be like, 'You can make the mince now.' The ultimate goal was to sit there and wrap them with him."
But the momo education didn't begin and end at the table. Lobsang also spent a year working at the Tibetan refugee school in India where his dad grew up. He says: "When we turned 18, we were all sent back to the school called the Tibetan Children's Village to work. The kids didn't realise I was half-Tibetan and were shocked that I could make momos and also shapale, which is essentially a flattened momo that's lightly steamed and shallow-fried."
"You just have to go through years of making momos to perfect the technique. I think I was 20 when I could finally make them properly by myself!"
Next, it's onto the filling, which Lobsang makes by whizzing garlic, onion, and coriander and adding to the beef mince and soy sauce.
"Tibetan cooking is a lot more similar to Nepalese and Indian than Chinese," he explains. "I also make chicken or lamb mince momos, which I mix with ginger, garlic, onion, coriander, and Indian masala. That's how my family make the dumplings but there are different recipes from different parts of Tibet. Lots of people in Tibet would use yak in them as well."
The dumplings Lobsang is preparing might be destined for a cafe in East London, but he's keen to keep the connection to Tibet.
"I've been working very closely with the Free Tibet society and the guys from Tibet Watch. They've been supplying me with flyers and prayer flags," he says. "It's nice to get a little bit of the story out there when people ask about the food and the history. It's just to remind people about what is happening in Tibet at the moment."
Finally, Lobsang wraps the dumplings, ready for steaming later. He places a dollop of the mixture on top of the circle of dough and puts his thumb in the centre. Edges of the dough are pinched and crimped in an upwards motion, then the whole thing is twisted to seal.
"Do you want to have a go?"
My attempt looks more like a squashed dough ball and is subtly put to the back of the pile. While I excel in the momo-eating department, I have a strong suspicion that Lobsang's dad would keep me on dough-rolling duty for a long while yet.