Sunday, September 5, 2010

Tibetan Cooking: Shya Pakhlep AKA Deep Fried Momos

Lately, I've been doing a lot of cooking with my aamaala (host mother). Though she maintains that I'm a better cook than her ("you know how to make Italian food..."), the reality of the situation is very much to the contrary. She is an incredible cook and I've been learning a lot. She deserves full credit for the recipe I've posted below.

Pakhlep are a deep fried version of the traditional Tibetan dumplings called Momos. They're both crispy and chewy on the outside and usually filled with some kind of ground meat. I found them similar to samosas, but with much better dough and a more moist filling. They look like this:

You can make a vegetarian version, but if you're going to do a vegetable momo I highly recommend just doing a regular steamed vegetable momo as they're better than vegetable pakhlep. I'll probably be posting on vegetable momos sometime in the future, since we've been making them pretty frequently, so stay tuned...

Aamaala has been cooking these foods for most of her life and she's long since gone through that cooking apotheosis where you become capable of intuiting the right amount of each ingredient. I swear there isn't a single measuring cup, measuring spoon, nothing in the whole house. As a result, I've had to approximate and guess at measurements pretty frequently. I've also referred to a couple recipes floating around the internet to see what others recommend. So basically, just keep in mind that these are rough measurements...

For the dough...

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon oil (optional)

Some recipes suggest adding a pinch of salt to the dough as well. We didn't and it came out fine.

For the filling...

  • 2 lbs (very roughly) ground water buffalo -If for some inexplicable reason you can't get water buffalo meat at your local supermarket, ground beef, ground lamb, or especially ground pork are admirable substitutes.
  • 2 cups onions(about 6 small onions), cut into chunks -the smaller the onions, the better the flavor.
  • 1/2 cup leeks, diced.
  • 3 tablespoons cilantro.
  • 2 tablespoons ginger, crushed, minced, nuked, whatever
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, obliterated
  • 3 tablespoons cooking oil. -pretty much any kind is good, though I wouldn't use olive oil. This will be mixed in with everything else.
  • 1 Tablespoon Indian Spice Mix -This is a premade mix that Aamaala uses. Listed ingredients are Coriander, Cardamom, Cumin, Cinnamon, Black Pepper, Nutmeg, Ground Cloves, Turmeric. A little less than a 1/2 teaspoon of each and you should be good. It's not listed but I suspect there's some curry powder in there as well.
  • Salt to taste - Aamaala is a big fan of the salt so she usually does roughly 2-4 teaspoons.
  • 3-5 dried red chilis (optional) Use these if you want to add some heat. We left them out.

For the dipping sauce...

  • 7 plum tomatoes, chopped.
  • 1 small onion, chopped.
  • 3-4 spoonfuls cooking oil
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, mashed.
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, annihilated.
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • a pinch of turmeric
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 dry red chili (optional). Again, we left this out.


  • Additional flour to keep dough from sticking.
  • Additional oil for cooking the meat and, later, for deep frying the momos.

A note on ingredients: American supermarkets seem to operate on this assumption that bigger is better. You can buy onions large enough to crush a small infant, garlic cloves the size of an SUV, etc. My experience has been that the flavor of these swollen produce is poor.

Here in Kathmandu, small onions and tomatoes are actually more expensive than their larger brethren, because it is assumed that the flavor will be better. I was skeptical about this until I cut my first Nepalese onion. In the States, I routinely cut onions and my eyes barely tear up. So I was surprised when this tiny onion left me a bleary eyed mess. These tiny onions tasted incredible too. Now I'm a total convert. The smaller the produce, the better the flavor. This is also the reason why I recommend using plum tomatoes for the momo sauce.

To make the dough...
Combine flour, water, and oil in a big bowl or plastic tub. The oil is optional but nice. It's there just to make the dough more crispy when it is deep fried. Knead until you get a dough that is consistent all the way through. This usually takes 8-10 minutes.

To make the filling...
Put whatever meat you're using in a pan over medium-high heat with enough oil so it won't stick (about a tablespoon or so). You're just cooking the meat, stirring consistently until you get what looks like taco meat. Once the meat is thoroughly cooked, set it aside to cool. Meanwhile, run your onions, leeks, cilantro, garlic, and ginger (and chilis if you're using them) through a food processor. This will guarantee that you don't have any large pieces in your filling, something that can make it difficult to fold the momos later. Once the meat is about room temperature, combine it with all other ingredients in a large bowl, mixing thoroughly with your hands or maybe a large spoon. Cover the filling and let it cool for 30 minutes, preferably in a fridge.

To make the momos...
First, take your dough and break off pieces about the size of a golf ball. roll these into a ball and then flatten slightly so you get a sort of oval pebble of dough. Drop this dough pebble into some flour and move it to a large flat surface. With a rolling pin, roll the pebble of dough into a flat circle about the thickness of a cloth napkin. Be careful about rolling the dough too thin, as this will make folding the momos tricky.

Second, spoon some of your filling onto half of the circle of dough and spread it out. It can be tricky to get the right amount of filling intially, but just keep doing it and through trial and error you'll figure out how much is the right amount. Too much and the momo doesn't fold properly. Too little and your momo won't have much inside of it.
A momo just before it is folded.
Now fold the circle of dough over, forming a semi-circle, with the filling inside the fold of the dough. Press down along the edges of the dough to seal the momo, but leave a small hole at one end. Take the momo between your hands and press any excess air out of it through this small hole. This is very critical. If you leave much air inside the momo, it could explode when you deep fry it, potentially burning you with hot oil. Once you're confident that there is no air left inside the momo, close the hole so that the momo is completely sealed.
First you fold the circle in half...
...and then you seal the edges. But...
...leave a hole at the end so you can press excess air out.
Now the trickiest part. You want to twist the sealed edge of the momo. This serves two purposes. First, it looks nice. But second, it will ensure that the momo does not open or unseal itself while deep frying. To do this, start at one end. First, using your thumb and index finger pinch, pulling some of the dough along the edge away from the momo. Then push the dough back towards the momo with the nail of your thumb. Repeat this process all along the edge of the momo. The effect is a kind of spiral buildup of dough along the edge of the momo. Finally, check to see that there are no holes in your dough. If the momo isn't completely sealed, it won't cook properly, flavor will escape while the momo is deep frying, and it will not taste very good.
Aamaala twists the edges of the dough.
If you do it right, it should look like this.
Once you've folded a number of momos, it's time to deep fry them. It's easy to use too much oil for this. You want the momos just barely submerged in the oil. A relatively shallow sauce pan should be sufficient. Here we use a wok. Pre-heat your oil over medium heat. Once the oil is fully heated up, add the momos, on their sides, one at a time. Be careful about adding too many momos at once, as this can drop the temperature of the oil too drastically. We cooked three momos at a time. Cook until one side is light brown, then flip and cook until the other side is also browned. When you remove the momos, let them cool somewhere where excess oil can drip off, perhaps over paper towels (but be careful about them sticking to the paper towel...).
Notice how shallow the oil is...
To make the sauce...
Put the 3-4 spoonfuls of cooking oil in a sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and let cook until slightly brown. Then add all other ingredients and mix periodically. The ingredients should slowly reduce to a sauce, actually quite similar to and with the same consistency as marinara sauce. One way to know that the sauce has fully cooked is to look for the oil to bubble out to the edges of the pan. When you see this, the sauce is just about ready to come off the heat. Finally, run the sauce through a food processor to make it an even finer consistency.

And that's it. Momos (like most Nepali/Tibetan food) are finger food. The sauce is great for dipping, spreading, whatever. If you're short on time or don't want to make the sauce, fried momos go well with ketchup too.

P.S. If anyone makes these, let me know in the comments how they go for you. As I mentioned earlier, the measurements are a little rough so any advice such as "use less salt" or "you need more onions" would be greatly appreciated.


  1. Yum, yum, yum. When you get back, you're in charge of firing one up for the gang. PS- you, of all people, should be careful not to disabuse the Nepalese of the notion that bigger is better.

  2. Move over, Barefoot Contessa: you clearly have some serious competition heating up (no pun intended...oh, fine, pun definitely intended) in Nepal. Nick, these momos sound wonderful, and I greatly enjoyed reading the recipe! However, you have made me very hungry now, and I must go find something to eat.

    Sounds as if you're having a wonderful time with your host family. So happy to read all about it.

  3. Mmmmmm! Send some to me?

    Can't wait to try making them!