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Moh Moh Licious takes an un? or? tho? dox approach to Nepalese cuisine

The guy in front of me can’t find what he wants on the menu at Moh Moh Licious. He asks if there’s any jerk chicken, and the cook tells him no. Undaunted, the would-be customer wonders if there’s any coco bread — and receives the same bad news. Finally, patiently, the cook explains that the kitchen specializes in Himalayan, not Caribbean, fare.

The confusion is understandable, especially on the upper reaches of Georgia Avenue NW, where rotis, curries and other staples of the Caribbean have long been a part of the cultural life in the area. It doesn’t help that a large banner outside Moh Moh Licious advertises chicken and lamb curries. I mean, it would be easy for an immigrant from, say, Trinidad to assume he could find a taste of home here.

But Moh Moh is, in fact, a reference to Nepalese momos, those neatly folded bundles that contain small, stimulating hits of garlic and ginger, the aromatic spices that dominate North Indian cooking. India’s gastronomic influence serves as a common link between Nepal and the Caribbean, two regions that otherwise are separated by thousands of miles and radically different views on yak butter. (Well, I can only assume Caribbean natives would choose coconut oil over yak butter, but who knows.)

Truth is, despite some shared DNA and language, Nepalese and Caribbean cuisines have their own identities, shaped as much by indigenous ingredients and techniques as by the influences from faraway lands. Moh Moh Licious is further distinguished by its multicultural partnership and by the lessons that co-owner Farooq Munir absorbed when he launched the business on the highly competitive streets of Washington in 2014. It was then known as Moh Moh Dumplings.

A native of Pakistan and something of a serial entrepreneur (perhaps best known as the founder of Jolt ’N Bolt Coffee & Tea House in Adams Morgan), Munir wanted his dumplings to stand out from the pack. So he worked with a Nepalese chef to create a kind of fusion momo, stuffed with fillings that wouldn’t taste out of place in the Himalayas but paired with sauces that borrow from a variety of sources, including Munir’s mother country. The momo were a hit.

When Munir rebranded the business as Moh Moh Licious in 2016 and partnered with Sujil Dangol — the Nepalese native behind Himalayan Heritage in Bethesda — he continued the hybrid approach. The partners acknowledge as much on the signage out front of their restaurant: They dub Moh Moh Licious a “twist of Indochina.”

Moh Moh is a one-man operation. The person who takes your order is the same guy who prepares your food, and the person is usually Dangol, eager to explain Nepalese cooking and ingredients to the curious. This operation could quickly loose its moorings if not for the compact menu, which features no more than 15 dishes, a number that Dangol executes without creating unbearable delays. You’ll find Dangol’s speed is a small mercy, given the dining room’s uncomfortable counter perches and its electroshock color scheme, a combination of neon green and hot pink. It’s as if the Festival of Colors has been permanently cranked to 11.

The Nepalese faithful may scoff at Moh Moh’s approach, not to mention the spelling of momo. (“Moh Moh” was designed to make the pronunciation easier for Westerners, Munir says). The kitchen substitutes olive or vegetable oil for mustard oil, instantly dialing down the pungency of its dishes. Dangol and Munir are also frugal with the Timur peppers, Nepal’s answer to Sichuan peppercorns, which means you likely won’t get to experience the kinky pleasures of feeling your lips turn numb or recoiling as your tongue vibrates from the metallic sourness of this potent botanical. But you know what? You may not care that much, either. I didn’t. Then again, I’m not from Nepal. I’m from Omaha.

Credit Munir and Dangol for creating dishes that are Western-friendly while still having an air of authenticity. The masala entrees are uniformly delicious, and that goes for the one based on okra, that slimy little worm of the vegetable world. The okra pods are cooked down and softened, though they still hold their form. Even better, their sliminess is seemingly tamed by the pepper heat and mustard seeds. The lamb masala has a sweeter persona, its brick-red gravy tinged with just enough spice to give the dish depth and complexity. The channa masala hums along with its twin charges of ginger and garlic, garlic and ginger, electrifying one of the finest chickpea dishes in the District.

As much as I love spring, I wish I could roll back the clock just to experience Moh Moh’s Thukpa soup, a vegetable broth loaded with noodles, scallions, peas, corn, potatoes and strips of breast meat. It’s Nepalese chicken noodle soup, a spicy antidote to winter’s evil chill. The chow mein may also resonate with Western diners, but don’t mistake Moh Moh’s version for the salty, soy-sauce-drenched stir-fries at the Chinese-American carryouts. This variation pops with color and texture — carrots, broccoli, red peppers, a fistful of cilantro, seemingly picked that morning — as if the whole dish were a bold Nepalese rejection of brown-sauce culture.

And what about the momos at Moh Moh? They’re folded daily in the kitchen, packed your choice of filling: vegetables, chicken, beef or pork. I tried them all, along with the four dipping sauces. I’m not convinced the puckerish tamarind chutney works with any of them, especially the chicken momo, which explodes with ginger-infused juices, like a Nepalese take on the soup dumpling. The best of the bunch were the pork momo, fiery-hot but not oppressive. When dipped into the sesame-tomato chutney, the momo were practically picture postcards from Nepal, generating a powerful yearning for a place I have never visited. Not yet.

(Pork momos with dipping sauces at Moh Moh Licious. Photo: Dayna Smith-Washington Post) (Source: Washington Post)

Published Date: Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018 | 10:34 PM

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