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What momos, which clocked over 1 crore online orders last year, mean to those selling them

From a migrant dish to a city staple, the adaptable momo signals an evolving India, whose eating habits have been shaped by migrants from the sidelines of the food world

Written by Damini Ralleigh |
Updated: January 9, 2022 6:16:45 pm
Dolma AuntyDolma Tsering selling momos at her shop Dolma Aunty Momos in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Get in line! Distance banake rakhiye (maintain some distance),” hollers Dolma Tsering, reminiscent of a school teacher trying desperately to discipline an unruly bunch of students. Except, everyone standing in front of her is an adult — few masked, fewer heeding caution. They all seem to be galloping towards Tsering’s shop in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, weaving through the crowd to get to a plate of piping-hot momos.

Nothing shrinks the country’s appetite for momos, not even a raging pandemic. Food aggregator Zomato recently posted a report on its Instagram feed, titled “Presenting the 2021 Meme Rewind and A Little Bit About How India Ordered”, which claimed the momo trumped vada pav and its long-standing rival samosa, by some lakhs of orders. It received more than 1 crore orders, as biryani consolidated its top position, with two biryanis delivered every second.

As COVID-19 cases rise again, Delhi’s food vendors, mostly migrants, are gripped by fears of a lockdown and livelihood loss. “Bohot mushkil ho jayega agar lockdown ho gaya phir se (It’ll be hard to survive another lockdown),” says Tsering, 53. Not listed with a food aggregator, the lockdowns meant long periods of zero revenue for her. Tsering named her takeaway spot after what customers call her — “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 plying shoppers with steamed dumplings in 1994.

Back then, she and her sister-in-law would head to the market every evening, armed with nothing but a plastic stool that worked as a stand for her steamer pot and a kilogram or two of folded, uncooked momos that she hoped would sell by the end of the day. Twenty-eight years later, four Dolma Aunty Momos outlets stand tall with pride in the city. “It was difficult in the beginning,” says Tsering, who’d never negotiated the streets as a vendor before. She came to the Capital as a new bride in 1990, and was employed as a domestic worker. “I did several jobs — cleaning, washing, cooking, even as a runner for people — but couldn’t make ends meet. That’s when my sister-in-law and I decided to start our own momo business,” she recounts.

momos Steamed momos revolutionised street food’s fried image. (Source: Getty Images)

The Delhi that once associated deep-fried food with the streets, didn’t take kindly to her efforts. They’d accuse her steamed momos of being kaccha (uncooked), which would make them sick. With great difficulty she’d try, in broken Hindi, to explain what momos were. “But those who bought our momos, kept coming back. And with that, we were able to make enough money to feed ourselves,” she says.

It’s unknown when the momo came to the country. Estimates suggest it was 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 meat dumplings (mo-mo)” would often be a Tibetan gentleman’s lunch, noted Tibetologist and British India’s ambassador to Tibet Charles Alfred Bell in his book People of Tibet (1928). But here, it remained confined to the Tibetan settlements that cropped up across the country — Majnu Ka Tila (Delhi), Bylakuppe and Mundgod (Karnataka), Puruwala (Himachal Pradesh), Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh), among others. Since most settlements functioned largely as self-reliant units, keeping daily activity and interaction limited to the community, the momo, too, was primarily made by and sold to Tibetan refugees, save for a few momoficionados who made special trips for it.

The Nepalese, too, contributed to its spread. The Newar merchants of Kathmandu, during their travels along the Silk Route, are said to have picked up the recipe, made traditionally with yak meat in Tibet, and brought it to India. Many momo vendors trace their lineage to the Gorkha community (the British army began recruiting the Nepalese as “Gorkhas” in 1815), and refer to Sikkim as their home, where the momo has dethroned the traditional hyontoen — a cheese-filled steamed dumpling made with millet flour — as the state’s go-to dish.

Momos are essentially parcels with fillings of myriad kinds, and find an expression in most cultures. It is Japan’s gyoza, China’s jiaozi, Korea’s mandu, Turkey’s manti, Afghanistan’s mantoo. Poland’s pierogi and Italy’s ravioli or agnolotti, too, could be likened to it. Even in India, steamed savoury or sweet variants existed prior to the momo. Gujiya, Varanasi’s fara, to the jaggery-and-coconut filled dumplings, like Maharashtra’s modak, Bengal’s bhapa puli pithe, Kerala’s kozhukattai, Tamil Nadu’s kolukattai or Andhra Pradesh’s kudumulu.

Momos Momos (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Outside the Himalayan region, the momo, as we know it today, remained relatively unknown to the rest of India till the 1990s. When a newly liberalised economy held the promise of employment and better living conditions, it drove migrants, particularly from the Northeast, to the metro cities like Delhi. Immigrants, from Nepal and the Lhotshampas, Bhutanese of Nepali origin, who were made refugees in their own country, too, arrived in India. Along came their cuisines. Despite a liberal approach towards them, most refugees and migrants have struggled with invisibility, social exclusion and a denial of their entitlements. This pushed many migrants, particularly women, to rely on the strength of their culinary skills to establish a foothold in the city.

Entrepreneurs like Tsering dot the country today, selling momos in the evenings and disappearing into the margins. “It’s much easier now; when we started, ladies-log itna bahar kaam nahi karte thhe (women didn’t go out to work as much). We’d feel awkward as the only women vendors in the market,” she says.

Ubiquitous in most cities, it’s sold near Metro stations, bus stands, outside schools, colleges and offices, even hospitals. “I’ve often spotted people selling momos from nothing but a bicycle. They hang the uncooked momos on its handle and set up the steamer on the carrier. And that’s sometimes their entire shop, the bicycle’s anatomy serves as the infrastructure of their shop,” says Shamita Chaudhary, architect and founder of Malba Project, a construction/demolition waste management start-up, who frequents the momo vendors in her office’s neighbourhood.

At the break of dawn, in the “urban village” of Chirag Dilli, migrant workers start to chop onions, garlic and ginger, roll out little balls of maida, and stuff them with cabbage and carrot or chicken fillings. Each dumpling is shaped into a half-crescent moon or fat, round potli. These are supplied to momo vendors by noon, who sell them across the city. Readymade and frozen momos are also sold by the kilo in wholesale markets like Sadar Bazar.

Like this relatively invisible workforce, the vendors, too, hail from elsewhere. Pradip Ghorai, 32, from West Bengal’s Medinipur, who sells momos out of a “Chinese van” in New Rajendra Nagar, first had a taste of it in Delhi’s Munirka in 2001. “I’d come here to look for work and someone bought me a plate. I didn’t like the taste initially,” he says. So, then, why does he sell it? “Because it sells,” he says.

Dolma Aunty Momos Dolma Aunty Momos (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Unlike Ghorai, for Izacile Kenn, 36, it’s a way to remember her life in Dimapur, Nagaland, where she once ran “a small restaurant”, which she hopes to resurrect after having saved enough money from her Delhi job. The pandemic was hard. She lost a job she’d secured in 2019 at a “Korean company” in Greater Noida. Neither could she return home, nor did she know what to do next. Then, momos came to her rescue. “Momos were usually 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, it has “always been a part of the table” and she “feels closer to home” when cooking it at the Ministry of Pork in Delhi’s Humayunpur, an urban village next to the upscale Safdarjung Enclave, that hosts cafés run by people from the Northeast and other states.

Shyam Thakur, 38, founder and CEO of Momo King, a Malaysian restaurant chain that he brought to Delhi in 2017 and is now a fast-expanding cloud kitchen, finds the homogeneity in the taste of momos served across the city slightly amusing. His venture distinguishes Darjeeling momos from Ladakh ones, by using Nepalese spices such as timur and silum. They also offer gluten-free and vegan options. “The momo’s popularity is undeniable. Unique in its versatility, it can be altered to suit any palate without destroying its essence. That it’s favoured by the elderly as much as kids, the health-conscious and gastronomes add to its popularity,” he says. Momo King plans to expand to tier-II and -III cities, the US and UAE next, and aims to open 100 cloud kitchens by 2023.

Their menu also features the city-bred cult: Tandoori momo. The momo has evolved, and how. From the traditional Nepalese jhol momo (momos in a comforting broth), to the fusion malai momo, kurkure momo, the bizarre momo pizza or moburg (momo burger), and the extravagant chocolate momo at a cloud-kitchen chain, Wow! Momo. “My best friend and I have an annual tradition of eating butter chicken momos — momos in a butter chicken gravy. Now that I’m vegetarian, they make a paneer version for me. It’s gimmicky but fun. But nothing is as satisfying as the original steamed momos,” says Chaudhary.

Behind the adaptable momo, signalling an evolving country, are migrants like Tsering, who have shaped how India eats from the sidelines of the food world. “When I started, I wanted to make 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,” says Tsering.

(Damini Ralleigh is a Delhi-based food writer)

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