Handmade Tibetan-style dumplings and “Witchy Woman” by The Eagles may not be the most obvious pairing.
Yet sitting at the counter at Momo Ghar, watching these dumplings deftly tucked and folded a mere foot away from your seat; listening to the cooks sing along to the radio as they sling out spicy, steaming plates to hungry customers… somehow, it all feels right. Found inside Saraga International Grocery, owner Phuntso Lama will greet you with a warm smile and help you navigate the tiny space to find a seat.
With barely more than 10 spots between the counter seats and two tables, it’s not uncommon to find Momo Ghar at capacity—but Lama has the system down. She’ll invite you to place your order and return in 15 minutes, and she’ll have an empty seat and hot food waiting for you. (Wondering what you’ll do for those 15 minutes? Just wander up and down the aisles of Saraga—it’s a treasure trove of international foods ranging from Mexican, to African, to Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern and more.)
The momo is Nepal’s take on the dumpling—typically round in shape with fillings of meat and vegetables, and most commonly served with a tomato-based dipping sauce called jhol achar. Momo Ghar’s most popular dish, jhol momo (eight for $8.95) features Kathmandu-style momos filled with a savory mix of chicken, cilantro, and spices swimming in a shallow pool of the customary fragrant and spicy tomato broth topped with fresh cilantro. The sauce packs a pleasant kick and is just enough to enhance the flavor-filled dumplings.
Anyone who’s a little rusty on their geography will be reminded that Nepal is bordered by India and the Tibetan region of China—flavors of cumin, curry, chili pepper, and cilantro are immediately obvious with your first taste.
American palates will find the pork kothey (eight for $8.50) a bit more familiar, as its appearance and flavor resemble the potstickers found in most Chinese-American restaurants, but with a distinct twist. As the owner Lama observed, the kothey has less spices than the momo, with a cleaner, more pure flavor that comes from a simple combination of pork and vegetables. It’s served, however, with a side of the same jhol achar sauce—which is welcomed because, let’s be honest, some of us would be happy drinking that sauce directly from a straw.
If you’ve still got some room left, Momo Ghar also offers alu momo (eight for $8.50), which is a pan-fried dumpling filled with turmeric-spiced potatoes, peas, and cilantro. Extremely reminiscent of an Indian samosa, Lama admitted the relation and actually referred to it as a “samosa momo” when asked—she was quick to explain that these are her personal renditions of very popular household dishes in Nepal, and that her version of alu momo has more tumeric than some, but less spices overall in order to let the potato and pea flavors shine. The menu has more momo variations to offer (including a vegetarian option) in addition to a couple non-momo Nepalese dishes that are worth returning for on a second visit—if you can resist another plate of momos, that is. While visiting, you’re sure to observe Lama greeting regulars, singing along to the music with her staff, and smiling appreciatively when customers rave about the homemade hot sauce. It’s a simple experience, but one that’s incredibly genuine.
For a completely different type of dumpling experience, head for Jiu Thai Asian Cafe on Bethel Road.
Specializing in cuisine from the Xi’an Province, this area of China has historically had a large Muslim population and is characterized
by dishes filled with chiles, noodles, and lamb. Positioned in a strip mall location off of Bethel Road in the Olentangy Plaza, you would never guess the treasures inside Jiu Thai Asian Cafe—which is partly the appeal, right? Walking up to the door, you’ll notice poster boards in the window, written completely in Chinese, displaying the specials. But don’t worry if English is all you’ve got at your disposal, the staff is friendly and will happily translate—even though we all know you’re here for the dumplings.
Inside, you immediately find yourself standing in a single moderately-sized room, festively decorated (with an inexplicable Christmas tree in the corner… in the summer), and a direct view into the busy kitchen, the cheerful staff bustling to and fro. With a look over the menu, you’ll see some of the requisite Chinese-American dishes, but you’d be smart to pass over those for more authentic items, like their dumplings. An order of lamb with onion steamed dumplings (12 for $8) arrives with a simple dipping sauce of soy, vinegar, and a hint of garlic. The dumplings are small—perhaps a single bite for the ambitious and uninhibited among us—and irregular in form; it’s obvious they are handmade. The wrapper has a really satisfying, chewy bite where the two edges have been sealed, and is perfectly tender around the filling. The filling itself is insanely succulent—each pocket filled with meaty, juicy deliciousness. Lamb lovers will be content—there’s no doubt these have the distinct lamb flavor to them, in the best way possible. Upon comparison, the pork with pickled cabbage steamed dumplings (15 for $8) appear almost identical to the lamb—same size, same wrapper, same dipping sauce—but one bite, and it’s a totally different experience. The pickled cabbage isn’t really discernible, but it’s clearly lending to the very complex flavor, and surely is contributing to yet another incredibly juicy bite. Partnered with an order of the crisp, refreshing cucumber salad (which arrives garnished with toasted sesame seeds and fresh cilantro) the dumplings at Jiu Thai Asian Cafe are worthy of a meal on their own—not to be relegated to the “appetizer” section as most Americanized Chinese restaurants would have it.
This is a craft finely honed by people who take pride in sharing their homeland’s recipes with our Columbus community—so please do yourself a favor and step away from the pre-made potstickers in your grocery’s freezer aisle. Check out Jiu Thai Asian Cafe and Momo Ghar and take in the sights and sounds of their holiday decorations and Eagles Pandora radio, but most importantly, dive into a plate of their unbelievable dumplings and be very, very happy.