Gurgaon-based food researcher and consultant Pritha Sen talks about how momos went on to become a popular street food in India
Could you please talk about how momos became a popular snack in India?
After the 1959 Tibetan uprising, a large number of refugees arrived in Delhi. As with refugees from any culture, the entrepreneurial lot set up local businesses, especially around food. I remember going to the Tibetan dhaba in the settlement near the Delhi University where a plateful of momos were sold for as less as Rs 2 along with a bowl of soup. You could have as much soup as you wanted. They also sold thukpas alongside, which were heavier soups served with noodles, meat and vegetables. Momos, in comparison, were steamed, with a filling of meat or veggies and came with that warm and light soup. They were nourishing and could be had as a snack or even make for a full meal. Also, these wholesome and healthy meals were made in front of your eyes so you knew they were fresh.
Many regional Indian cuisines have both sweet and savoury dumplings. What worked in favour of momos?
Most Indian dumplings are traditionally sweet. But momos could have either a meat or a vegetarian filling. Initially, momos weren’t street food for the masses. Back then, the intellectual, jhola types would savour these, making the momo joints an adda kind of a space. But they appealed to the Indian palate because Indians, who had a taste for the Chinese cuisine, could have them bland, just as they were made, or spice them up with the sauce if that’s how they liked it. Once fried, they were almost like samosas or kachoris. Soon it became cool to have momos over chhole bhature at a streetside eatery.
Their popularity isn’t limited to cities. We see momos being sold in many hill stations, such as Manali.
These also became a popular food in hillstations because a number of Tibetan refugees moved there and momos were a warming but light meal. In Kolkata (Calcutta then), come winter, many Tibetans would leave Darjeeling and Sikkim to set up shop along the streets, selling woollens and momos. Soon these became permanent shacks. In the hills, it is quite usual to find yak meat or pork momos flavoured with animal fat, which is warming in a cold climate . This is why the momos in the hills taste a lot better than those in the cities. Over time, the animal fat in momos was done away with. And today, cities like Delhi have centralised momo kitchens from where vendors pick up their supply and set up stalls across.
Last week, Ramesh Arora, the BJP MLC in Jammu and Kashmir, called for a ban on momos for the use of ajinomoto in them. Your views?
But it’s unlikely that the Tibetans use that in their preparation. The tough terrain and weather of Tibet made it impossible for the locals to grow anything there. Leave alone import such taste enhancers. Tibet has always been a trading society, bringing in supplies such as flours and other grains, from countries like India. It’s also why the Tibetan food is very simple and basic, and unlike dim sums, which are Chinese, momos have always been made from from flours like maida and atta.
Also, the use of ajinimoto is fairly recent in Japanese and Chinese cuisine. It’s much like garam masala, which is common with rise in affluence. Similarly, ajinimoto is not part of any rural cuisine, and is unlikely to have been used by Tibetans to prepare momos. Today while they may use it, all Chinese eateries and fast food joints use it. Like local eateries use cheap red chemical colouring for tandoori chicken or the very very harmful metanil yellow for biryanis. So, why are momos being singled out?