Food

At Narayan Dai’s famous momo shop, stay for the momo--and leave immediately

  • It’s popular, it’s an institution and it’s good for a quick bite. But once done with the momo, nothing’s going to keep you from wanting to leave.
- HANTAKALI, Kathmandu

May 9, 2019-

Grown men impatiently wait in a huddle, yellow chits in hand. The young man over the counter yells out numbers while simultaneously paddling ping-pong ball packets onto metal plates. A giant silo of a pot is topped with an even pile of meat-filled mounds, and the young man is already hollering numbers high in the hundreds--the men rush to collect their momos like school children. It is barely lunchtime, and a fresh batch will soon be needed.

Crammed with dumplings, each plate is taken by the customer and walked down the counter to two clay cauldrons. One holds a muddy-red soup with flecks of green; the other, an earthy green slurry with flecks of white -- both a spicy omen for these seemingly simplistic mounds. They are taken at the diners’ discretion and Hantakali follows suit: a ladle plunges into the jhol’s depths. Flooding the gullies between the flour-lined boulders of buff is the only option. That is then followed by a reasonable -- not over the top -- dollop of green slush. Bumping through the hordes, Hantakali generously seasons the floor with his jhol overflow.

Students, professionals and everyone in between frequent Narayan Dai ko Masagalli ko Famous Momo at Gaushala, an institution built on its momo. One can hardly call the selection here a menu, for it contains just four items: chicken momo, buff momo, buff choila and chiura. Such confidence and simplicity must be this restaurant’s key to success, like many similar places in Kathmandu, which has seen this place run since 1962. A second branch opened in Basantapur just over two years ago.

Each momo is an imperfect assurance that they’re handmade--no frozen, store-bought dumplings here. Some are gnarly, with holes, while others are perfect. None follow their wrapping technique to a tee. The wrapper is thin in places, the perfect canvas for a meaty flourish, while the folds double up in others and provide a more al dente temper.

The buff is a teetering see-saw of flesh and fat, a little under seasoned, with miraculous juiciness necessitating that the momo is swallowed in a single bite. This moistness makes half-nibbles a risk -- bite one in half and risk collateral damage from molten bovine torpedoes shooting out at unsuspecting innocents. The buff spheres have an arranged marriage with the clay pot tinctures from the counter, for without them they would certainly err on the side of bland, belying their deep red hue.

The spicy green and well-balanced red jhol achars come together to deliver a punch in the mouth. Appropriate amounts of lime, tomatoes and chilli wrestle for dominance, with the restrained peanut a slight difference from other similar jhol momo joints. The green-chilli packed slush has a nice amount of numbing timmur, but is mostly a mix for fire breathers. Each packet of meat is a morsel made for a mouthful -- just enough to ensure that people shut up while they hunch over their lunch.

These momos are typically Newar, informally known as bhyar-bhyare, given the sound of the pumping action made by the kerosene stoves of old. Often, the Newar momocha come with a hefty pool of tepid jhol and the optional addition of a drier timmur-chilli achaar, but Narayan Dai’s breaks the mould with its use of green chilis in a Mexican salsa-like mixture.

One of Hantakali’s friends once said that bhyar-bhyare could also relate to the sound of churning stomachs after a less-than-sanitary experience. While Narayan Dai’s is far from surgically clean, this Hantakali’s stomach is made of cast-iron and a bhyar-bhyare belly was averted.

A few of the small list of items was also ordered from behind the tinted-glass counter. The service is cordial, but not unbelievably sweet, and the wait is non-existent if you want buff. Chicken, however, takes a little more time.

Following a 10-minute wait, half a plate of chicken momos and a half order of buff choila come next for this khanchuwa. For these chicken morsels, a little more restraint on the jhol and achaar front is an unknown masterstroke, despite no forewarning. The savoury-sweet mouthfuls, from sweated garlic and onion, would be mismatched with the violent chilli hooch, rendering their subtle personalities lost.  

The choila is a rather uninteresting and inconsistent affair, chewy in some bites and almost melt-in-the-mouth in others. The orange, oily varnish that covers the meat is garlicky, belying its spicy colour, but nothing much else interests the tongue. The toothpick provided as a utensil is best employed in its intended use: to pick the meat from between teeth, while choila should really be sought in a different khaja ghar.     

Narayan Dai’s Basantapur outlet is a little more hip and upmarket, though there is nothing remarkable about the interior of the Gaushala joint. While the restaurant is self-service, the ambience leaves everything to be desired. The bench tables encourage communal scoffing, but the lack of any comfort means it’s no wonder anybody lingers long. It’s decorated in typical Pepsi livery, despite selling Coke, and is built more like a prison than a pleasant place to stay. Most customers bow over their momos and methodically gorge before escaping quickly, so this Hantakali might well have served an equivalent life sentence in a relatively longer stay.

In Nepal, we have momos -- the US has hot dogs, Mexico has tacos and the British have meat pies. Our dumplings are a great democratic delicacy uniting everyone, but dividing them all the same. Some love Narayan Dai’s momos, while others don’t, and it will always be a subject of contention -- everyone has their favourite.

No one can deny Narayan Dai follows a successful recipe, for it has kept doors open for almost 60 years. But it’s not mind-blowingly good. Perhaps it is best to follow the local’s recipe for this joint: go for the momo, stay for nothing else.

Narayan Dai ko Masangalli ko Famous Momo: Rs 140 - Rs 170

Food: ★★★

Ambience: ★

Value: ★★★

Published: 10-05-2019 07:00

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