The air in Prarthana Pandey’s kitchen fills with a heady perfume of simmering ginger, garlic, purple onion, tomatoes, peppers, and spices – lots of different aromatic spices like cumin, cardamon, bay leaf, coriander, cloves, and Pandey’s homemade garam masala blend.
“The smell is so good,” says the Moody resident. That’s an understatement.
The native of Kathmandu, Nepal, is showing a visitor how she makes her Dalle Momo dumplings and special dipping sauce, which are attracting fans at the Birdsong and Pepper Place farmers markets in Birmingham.
Some form of dumpling is common in cultures worldwide. Nepal’s versatile version, the momo, is winning the hearts, minds, and stomachs of diners in greater Birmingham and either side of Mobile Bay.
Abhi’s in Mountain Brook Village makes them with ground turkey, while Bamboo on 2nd in Birmingham offers turkey or spicy ground pork momos. Both pork and vegetable versions are sold at the Indo-Nepalese restaurant Yummefy near the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In Mobile and Fairhope, Yak the Kathmandu Kitchen serves momos made from lamb, chicken, or vegetables.
Pandey likes to experiment with different meats and vegetables for her pop-ups, and even explore fusion fillings like pulled Alabama pit-cooked pork.
She sources meat for her traditional-style pork and chicken momos from Stillwater Farm near Pell City. She has used cabbage and carrots from Belle Meadow Farm and gourmet mushrooms from Underground Forest – neighboring vendors at the Birdsong market.
“What you put into the food you will taste it,” she says. “If you put in good stuff, you can taste the quality.”
As she talks, the tomato-based sauce continues simmering on the stove, thickening and melding its complex flavors. Pandey warms oil in a pan and grabs her masala daba, a spice container with separate compartments for the turmeric, cumin seed, peppercorn, bay leaf, and dried round Khursani chile she adds to the sizzling oil.
“If you put in turmeric at the beginning it won’t spatter; if you do it at the end it will,” she explains. “In my food, everything has to have ginger and garlic – and turmeric.”
After a good hour of simmering, Pandey purees the dipping sauce. For a spicier version, she tops it with her special recipe chile sauce.
To prepare the filling, she puts ground chicken in a bowl, adding some butter to ensure sufficient fat. Pandey sprinkles in spices including her signature momo masala — star anise, cinnamon, dried onions, fennel seeds, dried ginger, homemade garam masala, and what she’ll only describe as “secret stuff.” Some paprika adds color, and a bit of onion adds crunch.
She stirs the mixture by hand, swirling it into a homogenous mass. Now it’s time to make momos.
Pandey spoons the meat mixture into the center of a round dumpling wrapper, which she seals by pinching and folding the ends into neat pleats using a method she perfected through trial and error.
Pandey is an intuitive cook, sprinkling spices versus measuring and using non-traditional fillings while still staying true to traditional flavors. She watched her mother prepare Nepali food back in Kathmandu but didn’t really start cooking herself until she earned a degree in environmental engineering, married, and moved to the United States.
People loved the Nepali food Pandey would make for parties and gatherings and encouraged her to start catering. Her husband, Roshan, urged her to apply for a spot at Pepper Place, and Dalle Momos earned five slots this season. Most other Saturdays, she sets up at Birdsong, a few blocks away on 28th Street South at Fifth Avenue.
As we dip our momos into the chile-spiked sauce and munch away, Pandey reflects on how she wants to balance life and work.
The soccer mom says she is content for now focusing on her catering and market business. But she also sees commercial possibilities, including bottling her Nepali dipping sauce, which she also uses for simmering and grilling.
“I want to be involved in my son’s life,” she says. “In a few years, he won’t need me as much. Maybe in 10 years, I will open a restaurant with mostly Nepali food but also some fusion food as well. This can be a side (gig) for now.”