Ajanta Chef Popularizes ‘Momos,’ a Favored Nepali Food

Chef Dhruva Thapa describes the steamed dumplings as a significant Nepali dish and arguably Nepal’s single most common dish.


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Photos by Lance Yamamoto

After becoming Ajanta’s general manager and executive chef in January, Dhruva Thapa avidly applied his decade-plus of experience and expertise to crafting the classic Indian dishes that have made this Solano Avenue restaurant popular for over 25 years.

Even so, Thapa thought something was missing.

“Before I joined this company, most of its dishes were mainstream Indian, which usually means south Indian.”

Having co-owned and served as executive chef at the Gourmet Ghetto restaurant Taste of the Himalayas — which doubles as the title of his 2014 cookbook — Thapa is also an award-winning journalist, published poet, and Nepali-English translator who wants Western diners to know and love the dishes he grew up loving in Darjeeling.

Chief among these is momos.

These palm-sized steamed dumplings, round or crescent-shaped and stuffed with chopped, spiced meat and/or vegetables, “are one of the most significant dishes in Nepal,” and arguably the single most common dish.

Billing itself as an Indian restaurant, not a Nepali one, Ajanta’s official name is Ajanta Distinctive Indian Cuisine — “but more than 200 million Nepali people live in India, especially its northeastern states such as West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Mizoram, and Manipur,” Thapa said.

“Yes, all those places are in India, but their cuisine is dominated by that of the Nepali community with its dishes that originated in the Himalayas.”

Momos — “which we could technically call the food of northeastern India,” Thapa said — start with a basic but well-kneaded then well-rested white-flour dough, flattened into small circles atop that are placed spoonsful of traditionally ginger- and green onion-spiked filling, then pinch-twist-pleated into plump pouches. Steamed to a juicy tenderness, they’re typically served with chutney, hot dipping sauces, and/or the nonfermented Nepali tomato pickles known as achar.

An entire batch of momo dough usually contains just one spoonful of oil, if even that.

“Nepali food is less oily than mainstream Indian food, and more healthy,” said Thapa, who is working on a second book about his native cuisine. He’s also developing vegan and gluten-free momo recipes using buckwheat and millet flour instead of all-purpose white.

“I want people to recognize these things,” he said, “and know their names.”

 

Ajanta, 1888 Solano Ave., Berkeley, 510-526-4373, AjantaRestaurant.com.

 

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