Get in line! Banake rakhiye distance (keep a certain distance), ”yells Dolma Tsering, recalling a school teacher desperately trying to discipline a group of unruly students. Except that everyone standing in front of her is adults – little masked, less attentive. They all seem to be galloping towards Tsering’s shop at Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, squeezing through the crowd to get to a plate of moms.
Nothing diminishes the country’s appetite for moms, not even a raging pandemic. Food aggregator Zomato recently posted a report on his Instagram feed, titled ‘Introducing the 2021 Meme Rewind and A Little Bit About How India Ordered,’ which claimed the momo beat vada pav and its longtime rival samosa, by a few hundred thousands of orders. It received over 1 crore in orders, with the biryani consolidating its leadership position, with two biryanis delivered every second.
Like COVID-19 cases on the rise again, Delhi’s food vendors, mostly migrants, are gripped by fears of foreclosure and loss of livelihoods. “Bohot mushkil ho jayega agar lockdown ho gaya phir se (It will be difficult to survive another lockdown), ”said Tsering, 53. Not listed with a food aggregator, the lockouts meant long stretches of zero income for her. Tsering named her takeout spot after what customers call it – “Dolma Aunty,” an epithet reserved for women of a certain age, and Dolma Aunty Momos has become somewhat of a landmark in one of Delhi’s busiest markets, since she started shopping with steam dumplings in 1994.
Back then, she and her sister-in-law went to the market every night, armed with nothing but a plastic stool that served as a stand for her steam pot and a kilo or two of folded momos. and uncooked that she hoped to sell at the end of the day. Twenty-eight years later, four Dolma Aunty Momos outlets stand proudly in the city. “It was difficult at first,” says Tsering, who had never traded the streets as a salesperson before. She arrived in the capital as a new wife in 1990 and was employed as a domestic worker. “I did several jobs – cleaning, washing, cooking, even running people for people – but I couldn’t make ends meet. That’s when my sister-in-law and I decided to start our own momo business, ”she says.
The Delhi which once associated fried food with the streets, did not appreciate his efforts. They would accuse his steamed momos of being kaccha (uncooked), which would make them sick. With great difficulty, she tried, in rough Hindi, to explain what momos were. “But those who bought our momos were coming back. And with that, we were able to earn enough money to feed ourselves, ”she says.
It is not known when the momo came to the country. Estimates suggest that this is when the Dalai Lama sought asylum in India in 1959. Thousands of Tibetans, including Tsering’s parents, followed their leader. With them came the momo. “Ten or fifteen small meatballs (mo-mo)” would often be a Tibetan gentleman’s lunch, noted Tibetologist and British Indian Ambassador to Tibet Charles Alfred Bell in his book People of Tibet (1928). But here it has remained confined to the Tibetan settlements that have sprung up across the country – Majnu Ka Tila (Delhi), Bylakuppe and Mundgod (Karnataka), Puruwala (Himachal Pradesh), Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh), among others. Since most settlements largely functioned as stand-alone units, limiting day-to-day activities and interactions to the community, the momo was also mainly made and sold to Tibetan refugees, with the exception of a few momoficionados who made special trips for him.
The Nepalese have also contributed to its spread. Newar merchants in Kathmandu, on their travels along the Silk Road, are said to have picked up the Recipe, traditionally made with yak meat in Tibet, and brought it to India. Many momo sellers trace their lineage back to the Gorkha community (the British army began recruiting Nepalese under the name “Gorkhas” in 1815) and refer to Sikkim as their home, where the momo dethroned the traditional hyontoen – a cheese-filled steamed dumpling made with millet flour – as the state’s favorite dish.
Momos are essentially packages filled with a myriad of kinds and find expression in most cultures. It is the gyoza of Japan, the jiaozi of China, the mandu of Korea, the manti of Turkey, the mantoo of Afghanistan. Pierogi from Poland and ravioli or agnolotti from Italy could also be assimilated. Even in India, salty or sweet steamed variations existed before momo. Gujiya, the fara from Varanasi, with dumplings filled with jaggery and coconut, like those from Maharashtra modak, bhapa puli from Bengal, kozhukattai from Kerala, kolukattai from Tamil Nadu or kudumulu from Andhra Pradesh.
Outside the Himalayan region, the momo, as we know it today, remained relatively unknown to the rest of India until the 1990s. When a newly liberalized economy held the promise of jobs and better living conditions, it has driven migrants, especially from the northeast, to metropolitan cities like Delhi. Immigrants, from Nepal and Lhotshampas, Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, who have become refugees in their own country, have also arrived in India. Then came their kitchens. Despite a liberal approach towards them, most refugees and migrants have struggled against invisibility, social exclusion and denial of their rights. This has prompted many migrants, especially women, to rely on the strength of their culinary skills to establish themselves in the city.
Entrepreneurs like Tsering dot the country today, selling momos at night and disappearing into the margins. “It’s a lot easier now; when we started, ladies-log itna bahar kaam nahi karte thhe (women did not go out as much to work). We would feel uncomfortable being the only sellers in the market, ”she says.
Ubiquitous in most cities, it is sold near metro stations, bus stops, outside schools, colleges and offices, and even hospitals. “I have often seen people sell momos from a single bike. They hook the uncooked momos to its handle and install the steamer on the stand. And sometimes it’s their whole store, the anatomy of the bike serves as an infrastructure for their store “, explains Shamita Chaudhary, architect and founder of Malba Project, a construction / demolition company. Waste Management start-up, who frequents momo vendors in his office area.
At dawn, in the “urban village” of Chirag Dilli, migrant workers start chopping onions, garlic and ginger, spreading small balls of maida, and stuffing them with cabbage and carrot or chicken stuffing. Each dumpling is shaped into a half crescent moon or a large round potli. These are provided to momo vendors before noon, who sell them all over town. Ready-to-eat and frozen momos are also sold by the kilo in wholesale markets like Sadar Bazar.
Like this relatively invisible workforce, salespeople, too, come from elsewhere. Pradip Ghorai, 32, from Medinipur, West Bengal, who sells momos in a ‘Chinese van’ in New Rajendra Nagar, first tasted them in Munirka in Delhi in 2001. “I came here to look for work and someone bought me a plate. I didn’t like the taste at first, ”he says. So why is he selling it? “Because it sells,” he said.
Unlike Ghorai, for Izacile Kenn, 36, it’s a way to remember her life in Dimapur, Nagaland, where she once ran “a little restaurant”, which she hopes to revive after saving enough money. thanks to his work in Delhi. the pandemic was hard. She lost a job she got in 2019 at a “Korean company” in Greater Noida. She also couldn’t go home and didn’t know what to do next. Then momos came to his rescue. “Momos was generally a Sunday affair for us. My family would get together after church service and make momos for the evening, ”she says. In her Zeliang tribe, this has “always been part of the table” and she “feels closer to home” when she cooks it at the pork ministry in Humayunpur in Delhi, an urban village next to the High Enclave. of Safdarjung, which hosts cafes run by people from the Northeast and other states.
Shyam Thakur, 38, founder and CEO of Momo King, a Malaysian restaurant chain he brought to Delhi in 2017 and which is now a growing cloud kitchen, finds the homogeneous taste of momos served across the slightly fun town. His company distinguishes momos from Darjeeling from those from Ladakh, using Nepalese spices such as timur and silum. They also offer gluten-free and vegan options. “The popularity of momo is undeniable. Unique in its versatility, it can be modified to suit any palate without destroying its essence. That it is loved by the elderly as well as by children, the health conscious and foodies add to its popularity, ”he says. Momo King plans to expand to Tier II and III cities, the United States and the United Arab Emirates next, and aims to open 100 cloud kitchens by 2023.
Their menu also offers the cult of the city: Tandoori momo. The momo has evolved, and how. From traditional Nepali jhol momo (momos in a comforting broth), malai momo fusion, Kurkure momo, the weird momo pizza or mobourg (momo burger) and the extravagant chocolate momo from a chain of cloud kitchens, Wow! Momo. “My best friend and I have an annual tradition of eating butter chicken momos – momos in butter chicken sauce. Now that I’m a vegetarian, they make me a paneer version. It’s gimmicky but fun. But nothing is as satisfying as the original steamed momos, ”explains Chaudhary.
Behind the adaptable momo, signaling a changing country, are migrants like Tsering, who have shaped the way India eats on the fringes of the food world. “When I started I wanted to earn enough money to feed my family, but today momos are intrinsic to my identity. If you take them away from me, I don’t know who I would be, ”Tsering said.
(Damini Ralleigh is a Delhi-based food writer)