THERE IS AN old childhood memory embedded deep in my mind. It is the 1980s in Kalimpong at the foothills of the Himalayas. A dark and dingy kitchen with the smell of offal in the air. A garland of dark sausages—goat intestines stuffed with meat—strung up like a wreath of marigold flowers along its walls. Chinese sausages, glistening with fat and sweetened with cheap brandy, hanging on nylon strings like the day’s washing. On a corner table, a boiled goat lung stuffed with flour. Beside it, a buffalo tongue, rolled out almost in embarrassment, ready to be cooked, sliced and dipped in chilli paste. At the centre, a deep-red fire licking out of an earthen stove. From the vapours of this kitchen, a pair of ancient eyes appear, enlarged by a pair of dark soda glasses, and then gradually, a man’s face.
In my hand is a Rs 20 bill. In my mouth, a tremble, “Pela n-yin paksha momo… kuchi (two plates of pork momos… please).” And then the eyes of this man—a maajen (cook) in a Tibetan restaurant— retreats into the vapours again. When he emerges, he carries with him, on two bright aluminium plates, momos puffed up with baking soda.
The vapours of this memory fog me up, but the recollection of the first juicy bite takes me back again and again to a childhood sensation as clear as yesterday: a hot jet of steam escaping the momo to meet every startled bite, imbued with the aromas and flavours of an enchanted Tibetan kitchen.
Tibetan cuisine, as a result of the harsh climate of the land, tends to be warm, hearty and simple, with a preponderance towards meat and soups. But among all these dishes, it is the momo that has come to be Tibet’s unofficial national dish. The momo, faced now with a political campaign in India against it, had already made a long and arduous journey in the 1980s. It had travelled far and wide, from the roof of the world, traversing the Himalayas, into this small frontier town nestled in the foothills of the range. Since then, it has travelled down south across the vast Indian plains into street corners and malls, making some suspicious, others joyous, finding new mouths and new homes, releasing ever newer vapours of flavour and feeling.
The journey of India’s varied food to the rest of the world is well documented. But back home, there has arguably been no snack in the past 25 years that has stormed Indian palates quite like the momo. It has gone mano-a-mano and stood its ground with old Indian favourites like the samosa or panipuri. It has moved from Tibetan ghettos—if you can call them that—to the shopping centres of cities like Kolkata, Delhi and Chennai. And it is not rare to find on a sudden corner street, a solitary man with a rack of aluminium steamers and a container of fiery red chilli paste, selling momos. A newspaper article a few years ago about how momo was emerging as Kolkata’s most popular street food called it ‘Momo Moshai’, an honourific. Tibetan Buddhism is often projected as Tibet’s greatest gift, especially to the West. But it is perhaps not the nourishment of the mind and soul, not even the colourful prayer flags that are strung up and destined to not flutter inside Indian cars and homes, but the nourishment of the stomach through momos that is perhaps Tibet’s biggest cultural export.
There have been various theories about the origin of the momo. Some have claimed, pointing to the Chinese jiaozi, that at some point, it passed through Tibet, where minced yak meat became the preferred filling. There is also a version of the jiaozi, served in a hot soup called rue-jiaozi, in Tibetan cuisine. The Dalai Lama himself jokes about the wit of Tibetans, claiming that they took the best of all the religions from India, the warmest of clothes from Mongolia, and the most delicious of foods from China. Others claim that the momo originated in Nepal’s Newari community. Other guesses include that it comes from India’s Northeast. According to yet another claim, Tibetan scholars of yore who used to visit Nalanda University for Buddhist studies were inspired by the Indian sweet gujia to formulate the momo.
But the truth is that its origins are Tibetan, and it has probably got a lot to do with the vastness of the Mongol Empire. A few years ago, the Tibetan essayist and writer Jamyang Norbu, who maintains a prolific blog, Shadow Tibet, devoted an entire piece to the history of the momo, ‘Biting into a Juicy Momo Mystery’. He was driven by a request from a Tibetan restaurateur in New York, who was looking up the snack’s origins online and “all that BS pissed me off”. “Someone writes that momo originated from Nepal and then later to Tibet. I’m having a food battle right now. Thank you,” said the restaurateur. According to Norbu, the Tibetan momo probably came into existence through the cultural mash- up of the Mongol Empire. In its heyday, Tibet was a part of it. Norbu points to the similarity between the Tibetan momo and the Mongol buuz and the discussions among historians that jiaozi-like dumplings may have their origins in Persia and Khorasan and spread from there during Mongol rule. “We should remember that the Mongols had the greatest land empire in the history of the world, and, in spite of its ferocity, it was a very multicultural, multi-ethnic and, by extension, multi-cuisine empire. Many of its cultural and culinary arts were adopted by different nations and races, including the Chinese,” Norbu says.
“People thought the momo won’t work. But it has. Various countries have given the world all sorts of finger food. It is time India gave it a dish” – Sagar Daryani, co-founder, Wow! Momo
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The momo in all probability was first carried out of Tibet by Newari craftsmen and traders. This Nepali community whose members had been working in and trading with Lhasa for several centuries, switched the filling from yak meat to the meat from water buffaloes, and, adding local spices to it, introduced it to the Kathmandu valley, where it became a rage and acquired the name momo- cha. There are also other versions of the momo in Nepal now, one of which the Manangki community prepares and includes large amounts of fat in the filling that not everybody can stomach.
The momo’s recipe was simultaneously also transported on mule caravans by Tibetan traders to frontier towns like Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Sikkim. And later to other parts of India, when Tibetan refugees poured into India en masse after Lhasa fell to China in 1959.
The most critical aspect of making momos, as anyone proficient in it will tell you, is not the task of preparing the filling, which can easily be gleaned from cookbooks. It is getting the shape right. It takes years of practice. A little too thick or a little too pinched, and the results can be disastrous. As Norbu points out in his blog, momos come in various shapes. The standard shape, called ‘shay-mo Dawa- Tsekyi’, (moon-tip-center) is for momos shaped like the crescent moon. Other popular versions include the momo folded into the shape of a ball, and another where the tips of the crescent-shaped momo are made to stick to one another, making it look like the hoofs of a donkey. In another popular version, the pleats of the momo are folded atop one another, and called ‘tsi-tsi momo’ (mouse momo), taken from its appearance.
For Tibetans, a momo is more than just a snack. Since it is fairly labour intensive, often the entire family or friends have to come together, as is the practice, to prepare it. In exile Tibetan life, it is common for people new to a city to meet at a momo party, each one of Tibetan ethnicity but from a different part of the world now, to sit together and mould momos only to discover that they have made new friends too.
When the momo boom occurred a few years ago, it weren’t just Tibetans who prepared it. Locals from Darjeeling, its nearby regions, and Nepal, driven by unemployment in their home regions, fed and drove this growth.
The momo has always evolved with the times. The common practice today of adding cooking oil to the meat filling, as mentioned by Norbu, probably came about because of the poverty of living under Chinese rule and exile life in India, where real fat was hard to come by. In India, the stuffings have transformed from yak and beef to chicken, pork, fish and even vegetarian items like cheese and cabbage. But as it moves deeper and deeper into India, it is taking forms that are often unrecognisable. People are using potatoes, mushrooms, beans and even chocolates. Making fillings like minced chicken in schezwan sauce. They are baking it and cooking it in tandoors. One restaurant in Delhi called Queen’s Boulevard serves what it calls vodka momos, with the drink kneaded into the dough.
Unsurprisingly, as the momo moves into unfamiliar places, some have become suspicious of it. Some have even wondered, as reported by a news daily earlier this year, if momos available at Gurgaon’s roadside stalls actually do contain the remains of missing pet dogs—as a few rumour peddlers would suggest. Others have looked at it and worried if within its harmless wrapping, a bomb of ajinomoto does not lurk. Some have pointed to studies like one conducted by the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering and Nutrition, Pusa, to show that streetside momos contain high volumes of Ecoli bacteria. But the truth is that this has more to do with the city’s sanitation and the stall’s hygiene. A BJP leader in Jammu, Ramesh Arora, has been running a campaign to have momos banned. Armed with a microphone in front of ‘Say No to Momos’ posters, Arora organised a conference recently where he told a gathering of municipal and district officials, lawyers and doctors, according to The National Herald, “Our teenagers are getting addicted to the dumplings like drugs. It’s spoiling their health. We have to stop it… Momo is a killer and we cannot allow a killer to grow in a civilised society…” He also expressed reservations, according to the paper, about ‘foreigners’ he saw as being behind the business. He met municipal officials about the increasing number of momo stalls last year too. His opposition has drawn widespread ridicule on social media. Contacted by Open for his views, Arora now refuses to comment on momos.
IT WAS ONLY a matter of time, though, that momos would become an ‘issue’. Also, that it would attract fancy money as investment. It has moved from the humble family kitchens of Tibetans and cheap roadside stalls to the foodcourts of glitzy malls. There is money in it.
When Sagar Daryani, today a 30-year- old entrepreneur from Kolkata, finished college at St Xavier’s, he was fascinated by the idea of starting a business and creating a brand of his own. “The startup scene was not so sexy then,” he says. “But I wanted to start something.” That is when his thoughts turned to the memory of lunch hour at his St James School, where a Nepali woman would appear outside its gates to sell momos. “That’s when I began to think, ‘When Domino’s can come to India to sell pizzas or McDonald’s can sell burgers, why can’t we come up with our own McDonald’s of momos?’” he says. The idea has moved from a tiny outlet called Wow! Momo in Kolkata in 2008 to a chain, the 116th shop of which will open soon. Today, it sells around 200,000 momos daily during weekdays and 250,000 every weekend day across six cities. It has raised several rounds of funding, has a monthly turnover of over Rs 5.5 crore and has over 1,100 employees. During the latest round of funding, it was valued as a Rs 230-crore enterprise. “There were many naysayers in the beginning. People thought a momo concept won’t work. But it has,” Daryani says. “The momo is not just delicious. It is healthy and very versatile.”
This versatility is leading the company to explore various new versions of the momo. It currently makes 12 variants, from steamed, fried and pan-fried, to a choice of flours and novelties like sizzler momos, momo burgers, tandoori, baked, chocolate, and, depending on the season, even mango momos. “Some [traditionalists] don’t like it, and I respect their judgement,” says Daryani, “But most of our customers just love these new versions.”
Daryani and his co-founders are also putting together an ambitious new plant in Kolkata where up to half a million momos can be churned out daily and frozen for despatch abroad. By next year, the firm hopes to export frozen momos to the US and UK. “Various countries have given [the world] all sorts of finger food. It is time India gave a dish to the world,” he says. Momos are gaining lovers globally. Jackson Heights in New York, for example, teems with momo trucks, and a momo crawl is a done thing there.
It has come to mean so many things to so many people. For some it is a cheap, quick and tasty snack. For some, an exotic eat. To others, it is an addictive, dangerous thing. Its form and meaning will likely change even more.
Every time I bite into a well-made momo, I am taken back to a childhood memory, a home. And to Tibetans of an older generation, I am certain that it reminds them of an even older time and a home, one that has now ceased to exist.