MOMOS AT ZOMBALA
(Watch a video of a typical lunch hour at Zombala at the end of this post)
THIMPHU, BHUTAN: NOV 2008:
Beef and cheese momos side by side at Zombala; both perfect, both delicious!
WHEN A TINY RESTAURANT OPENED IN THIMPHU calling itself Zombala (literally, “The Place Where Everyone Gathers”), my first thought was that its owners were overly optimistic.
After all what was being described was a mere hole-in-the-wall hidden in a dingy corner of Thimphu’s bustling “Hong Kong Market”. A friend invited me there with assurances they had “the best momos in the whole world!” She knew I’d never refuse the offer because of my weakness for the rich and savory dumplings. Besides, I wanted to go because my ego was bruised by the fact I had not heard about the place before she did. In my own mind at least, I was something of a momo connoisseur who should have been the one to introduce a new momo place to her instead of the other way around.
In any event I followed my friend to the much-touted Zombala. It was wedged behind a noisy shop where tailors were bent over pedal operated sewing machines working through a rainbow pile of brocade trimmings for unfinished ghos and kiras, the traditional wear favored by Bhutanese men and women.
Across the street—past the tailor shop, past evening shoppers, neighborhood grocers, butchers and fish purveyors—polite expats and well-heeled Bhutanese yuppies sipped frothy cappuccino at the upscale Season’s Pizzeria and Café, partaking such exotic delights as chef and owner Sandhya’s celebrated lemon tarts and her dense syrupy brownies.
The crowd that had convened at Zombalas, on the other hand, was a little less, how shall we put it, upscale? Here the most enthusiastic patrons were lower bureaucratic staff, police constables, taxi drivers on break, and farmers visiting from the rural valleys, as well as an assortment of Thimphu’s young drifters. As we entered, a man under a wide brimmed hat stared in surprise from the opposite corner of the tightly packed restaurant. In another part of the room, a white haired man was stroking a long wispy goatee that made him look like Bhutan’s 16th century saint and founding father, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Beside us a couple and their two children slurped intently from aromatic bowls of thukpa noodles, pausing only to add more fire-red chili sauce to increase the heat of their meal (and I don’t mean the temperature!). Indeed, on the several other occasions I went there, I found this diverse population huddled together, as if protecting a well-kept secret (or perhaps it was the food in front of them they were guarding so zealously).
As we awaited our orders—two plates of cheese and beef momos each—the delicious aroma of well-prepared momos filled the room. Waitresses in white floppy toques that appeared strange in such modest surroundings weaved through the anticipatory room. In a town where restaurant food is often served with a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude, it was a pleasant surprise to finally find a place where the momos were being served with pride. But the true jolt came when I bit into their juicy, tender, momos. As I tucked away each delicious morsel, I began to realize it was more than just the funny hats that set this place apart from the other ubiquitous “momo shacks” dotting the city.
For many years, I had haunted the side streets of Thimphu and Paro and Wangdue and Bumthang, trying to find a place that served the kind of soul satisfying momos that my mother made at home, or the kind that she and I sometimes ate in hiding from my father’s stern gaze, in some little Tibetan family shop, behind fragile wood and ply-board cubicles whose privacy was secured by begrimed cloth curtains.
The secretive, drifting, non-linear conversations I had with my mother in those little momo shacks are some of my most treasured memories. We talked about all our relatives, about life, about death, about my school, her childhood, her hopes and fears for me, and a myriad other tangential things under the sun.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that as we ate at Zombala’s the smile on my friend’s face as she dove into her cheese momos began resembling the glowing smile that lit my mother’s face each time we managed to sneak away on one of those clandestine “momo dates”. And that mental association made me wonder if everyone else sitting shoulder to shoulder in the tiny restaurant was having the same experience of refreshed memories being served up with the steaming plates of momos.
Someone else I remembered as I ate those delicious momos at Zombala was an old family friend I had forgotten for many years. Together, my mother and this friend made some of the most transcendental momos I have ever had in my life. Our friend was tall and wide shouldered like the proud Khampa warriors of eastern Tibet who were her forbears. She often wore jean trousers tucked into long black boots at a time when women were rarely seen in western clothes. Her eyelashes dripped a surfeit of poorly applied mascara, but despite the make-up she was a hard worker who was not afraid to put men in their place. She single-handedly built and retired with a very successful business she began by driving a large Tata truck that thundered across the mountains delivering groceries from India.
As a boy of 10 or 11, I often watched eagerly for her truck, which was decorated with multicolored plastic streamers and a picture of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama painted above the front. Sometimes I would see her truck groaning up the road, filled to capacity with several thousand quintals of rice bulging from a mountainous pile of gunny sacks that were gaily festooned with red, blue and orange plastic buckets. Each time she rolled into town she brought me colorful gifts from India—a red plastic ball, a black cap pistol that made a realistic puff of smoke and a loud noise when fired, an orange and green pipe that made a horrible squawking and a silver harmonica which I slept with under my pillow for many months…
As I broke from my reveries, I could not deny Zombala lacked the elegant charms of the lovely café next door. The place was low on ambiance with lime green walls and plastic chairs and tables, and yet I began to see why the owners had called it “a gathering place”.
Perhaps this was a gathering place not just for people but for long lost memories as well.
The older I get the more I seek food as a sensory trigger for my buried past. I can’t wait to see what cherished memories will gather there with my next plate of momos!
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