Tucked neatly between China and India, Nepal combines the best of neighboring cuisines with little twists and turns that make it uniquely delicious. While better known for its towering Mt. Everest, the country is also the home of the momo, an instantly recognizable take on Chinese potstickers.
“Most people might not know what Nepali food is,” said Sama Acharya, owner of Urban Momo in San Jose. “I call it Indo-Chinese, a fusion between Indian and Chinese. Our food is the original blend of those two cuisines with our own kind of spices, which are slightly different and give our own flavors to the food. We use the rice, the noodles and the dough, but we do it in our kind of way.”
Momos are a perfect example.
Like potstickers, they are dumplings that can be steamed or fried. But this Nepalese version has a wider range of seasoning and is served with two types of achaar, a rich sauce made with tomato, sesame seeds, Szechuan peppercorns, turmeric and coriander—giving it the depth of an Indian curry that you don’t get with the traditional soy-based potsticker sauce.
“In Nepal, you can make momos out of anything,” Acharya told San José Spotlight. “We have three different versions: vegan momos with vegetables and soy chunks, paneer, which is essentially cheese, and chicken. We also have a chili version for people who like it more spicy. They are our best sellers.”
Acharya, 40, was born in Butwal, Nepal, near the birthplace of Buddha. Her mother was an excellent and prodigious cook.
“Back home, your parents and your grandparents feed you a lot,” she said. “My mother would say, ‘Try this, try that, you haven’t eaten anything since the morning!’ There was always food around, everyday food and food for celebrations. It was fun as a kid. But it was always fun for everybody.”
Acharya came to the United States in 2015 after spending some time in England, where she expanded her palate.
“I have always liked the idea of meeting up with people and enjoying food with them,” she said. “I am kind of a foodie, and I love to try different kinds of food. But deep down, I was missing the kind of food we used to eat every day, the basic simple food my mom used to make. And that is how it all started.”
She and her husband Bharat opened Urban Curry, located on Broadway in San Francisco, a big change from her previous occupation as a business analyst for Wells Fargo.
“It was a job, but it wasn’t my business,” Acharya said. “It was always my vision to have something of my own. Urban Curry was a huge sit-down restaurant. But my husband and I both had day jobs, and it did not work out too well. The building was old, there was a lot of maintenance and it cost too much to keep up.”
Opening a new chapter
Selling the business in 2017, they immediately opened Urban Momo in San Jose at the San Pedro Square Market, a food court-style collection of restaurants.
“I like it here,” she said. “It is a nice place, and we only brought our best sellers from the other restaurant.”
The restaurant’s downsized menu and causal order-at-the-counter style doesn’t mean Urban Momo takes their food less seriously. Everything is prepared fresh and to order. Local produce is used whenever possible. The momos are hand-wrapped every day, and the dishes could not be more authentic.
One popular Nepalese dish is the Gobi Manchurian, thinly battered fried cauliflower topped with a sweet chili sauce. The coating crunches nicely, and the sauce adds a nice counterpoint of heat that compliments the lightly cooked cauliflower. Think vegetarian boneless chicken wings, and you are close to the idea of this addictive and tasty appetizer.
“The Manchurian is a bit of a Tibetan twist,” Acharya said. “We make the sauce here, with Szechuan peppercorns and some special spices. It is a little tangy with a bit of sweetness and a little hot at the same time, maybe a five out of 10 for spiciness.”
Cauliflower also figures in the Aloo Gobi, a curry made with cauliflower and potatoes cooked with onions, tomatoes, turmeric and ginger.
“They have this in Indian restaurants, too,” she said, “but the way we make it is homestyle. This and the chicken curry are very authentic Nepali. They sell very well, and the taste is awesome.”
Indian restaurant staples like Chicken Tikka Masala and Biryani appear on the menu, as does Chinese fare like Szechwan fried rice. But dishes like Gorkhali Chili, vegetables served with a traditional spicy chili sauce, or Bhutte Ko Bhaat, Nepali fried rice, offer more adventure as the unique mix of seasonings turns your expectation for the dishes on its head.
“We get people coming in and seeing our food,” Acharya said. “It is something new to them, and they will want to try it. Nepali food is fantastic, and once they try it and taste the different spices, they are going to love it.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]
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