MAKING MOMOS – Kitchen Culture with Nepali Refugees from Bhutan

Dec 16, 2010 | Asia, Food Adventures, Spirit of Adventure, Women's Empowerment

I once took a cooking class in Thailand, but there’s no need to go that far to experience a foreign culture or learn an exotic dish. I recently learned to make momos, or Nepali dumplings, right here in Denver. My teachers were two Nepali refugees from Bhutan. This was a cooking class with a story to tell.

This story started in the 1890s, when the Bhutanese government invited Nepali farmers to settle in southern Bhutan to help supply food to the country. In 1958, Bhutan’s royal government granted citizenship to the settlers. Then, in 1988, the king ordered a census in southern Bhutan; those citizens who couldn’t produce land tax receipts from the year 1958 were reclassified as illegal immigrants. In the ensuing years, Bhutan’s efforts to protect its cultural heritage devolved into a campaign to eradicate Nepalese traditions.

Years later Hari would teach cooking in Denver, and tell a kitchen full of American women how Nepalis in Bhutan weren’t allowed to speak their own language.

Hari Khanal was a toddler then, but years later she would teach cooking classes in Denver, and one night she would tell a kitchen full of American women how Nepalis in Bhutan weren’t allowed to speak their own language or wear their traditional clothes. Women weren’t allowed to have long hair. Many Nepalis were subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. “The women were, I don’t know how to say it, they were forced…” Hari looked uncomfortable as she tried to remember the word for rape. Her family was one of many who fled to Nepal. Nepal’s government wouldn’t repatriate the refugees, so they lived in a refugee camp. “They wouldn’t let us go for 17 years.” Today Hari has such a ready smile it’s tempting to think none of it happened, but for many the crisis continues.

Perhaps one thing that sustained Hari was family tradition. Even in camp, Hari’s mother managed to pass down recipes her mother had taught her, recipes Hari would later pass on to American women in Denver: dishes like dal bhat, samosas, and momos. In 2008, Hari’s family came to the United States. “Our parents don’t want to come to America, because they don’t know the culture, they don’t know the language,” she says. “We convince our parents because we know we have more opportunities.”

Kelli became a “first friend,” helping Burmese and Nepali refugees cope with unfamiliar things like bus routes, doctor appointments, and junk mail.

Enter my friend Kelli Mlinarik Marko, a volunteer at the African Community Center of Denver, which serves all refugees who seek help adjusting to life in Colorado. Kelli became a “first friend,” helping Burmese and Nepali refugees cope with unfamiliar things like bus routes, doctor appointments, and junk mail. “I also helped them understand local culture, like, ‘Why are children in costumes showing up at my door on October 31st?’”

One day in 2008, Kelli helped a Bhutanese Nepali family register their children in school. Those were the children of Tekali Gautam, who would also later become a cooking instructor. When they returned to Tekali’s place, Kelli said, “She made me the most fantastic cup of chai tea I ever had.”

Hari is married to the nephew of Tekali’s husband—hmmm, let’s just say they’re related.

After that, Kelli practically became part of the family. She soon met Hari, who is married to the nephew of Tekali’s husband – hmmm, let’s just say they’re related. Kelli helped them with things like house-hunting, and in return they fed Kelli, soul and body. “Every meal was the most delicious meal I’d ever had,” Kelli said, which gave her an idea: why couldn’t these two women earn extra income by sharing their talents?

They taught this class at Pomegranate Place, a historic Denver mansion devoted to women’s groups, causes, and events.

Which brings me to my class, the ninth put on by Hari and Tekali. They taught us to make momos at Pomegranate Place, a historic Denver mansion devoted to women’s groups, causes, and events. As class started, the young teachers served us chai – no guest comes to a Nepali kitchen without being offered chai rich with milk and spices. From that moment on, Hari did most of the talking, although both women cut, stirred, and sautéed with the casual grace of fine artists.

Hari did most of the talking, although both women cut, stirred, and sautéed with the casual grace of fine artists.

Everyone laughed as Hari poured a copious stream of salt straight from the canister into the momo filling, but Kelli assured us it wouldn’t be too salty. Hari mixed the vegetarian filling by hand: grated cabbage, red onion, roma tomatoes, cilantro, mustard oil, garlic, ginger, and cumin. With her fingers, she scooped a dab of the wet mixture into a circular wrapper, then sealed and fluted it like a tiny turnover.

A dozen pairs of hands formed a circle to wrap enough dumplings for a feast.

A dozen pairs of hands then formed a circle to wrap enough dumplings for a feast. We amateurs giggled over our lopsided little bundles, some of which grew too plump or fell apart, unlike the delicate shell-like momos of Hari and Tekali.

We amateurs giggled over our lopsided little bundles.

Meanwhile, Hari made a spicy red dipping sauce, more of a soup really. For that, she sautéed tomatoes, onion, cilantro, japapenos, ground sesame seeds, oil, salt, water, and panch puran spice mix (whole mustard, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, and kalayi).

As the dumplings spent 20 minutes steaming, Hari told us more about life in a refugee camp.

Then, as the dumplings spent 20 minutes steaming, Hari told us more about life in a refugee camp: crowded in a bamboo hut, eating rationed rice and veggies, and cooking over open fires. Kelli pointed out one of many cultural nuances Hari and Tekali have brought with them to Denver: at their homes, relatives are constantly coming and going. “There might be 20 people in and out their door in an hour,” Kelli said. “At my house, nobody walks in, which is kind of sad.”

A dozen women sat in a circle on the living room floor, popping dumpling after dumpling into eager mouths.

Well then, that evening must have given Kelli joy, as a dozen women sat in a circle on the living room floor, popping dumpling after dumpling into eager mouths. What a delightful harmony of flavors – not too salty at all! As we ate, women shared more stories and laughter. “There’s something special about the tradition of women in a kitchen,” Kelli said.

Maybe that’s what I need to motivate me to make momos at my house: a bunch of laughing women in my kitchen.

***

WANT TO MAKE MOMOS?

If you’d like to learn to make momos, Hari and Tekali will offer the next class on Wednesday, January 12. If you’d like to learn to cook a full Nepali meal, complete with samosas and daal baht, the next class is on Friday, January 28. For more information, contact Kelli at kellimlin@gmail.com.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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