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Momo is at the heart of Tibetan cuisine. Its cultural appropriation is hard for me to digest

There’s little I or my people can do. If we hadn’t been fighting for our nation, perhaps we would have been the ones to take our culture all over the world

Such adoption of a minority culture, especially one which is under threat, without due acknowledgement, also leads to racial stereotypes, slurs and further marginalisation. (Photo credit: Dorjee Wangmo)

Among the most popular sellers of street food in Delhi, a city of many ethnic cuisines, are the various momo stalls, featuring steamers and paper plates containing blobs of red chutney — sometimes even mayonnaise. Go to any momo stall in the city and you’ll find people standing on the footpath, happily feasting on plates of momo, or gorging on them in the comfort of their cars.

These cars may, occasionally, even have Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags hanging in the back, whether or not the vehicle’s owner knows what the words on them mean. But then, this multi-coloured flag, much like the momo, is very much in fashion.

The Tibetan momo, which is now being sold in a number of different versions — chocolate, kurkure, mayonnaise and tandoori — is the go-to snack for a large number of Delhiites. This could be viewed as a form of cultural assimilation as against the usual exoticisation, for which, I, as a Tibetan refugee, perhaps ought to be grateful. But what could be a celebration of acceptance often seems like a mere hollow gesture, an inappropriate adoption of chosen aspects of my native culture.

As a Tibetan, I sometimes have trouble understanding how some aspects of my culture are chosen for “Indianisation”, even as others are used to alienate us.

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A few years ago, when I started my undergraduate studies in Delhi, I would not have noticed this. I’ve understood only now the cultural significance of the momo for my people, especially in exile, and I’m mortified that I once took pride in seeing Indians at Majnu Ka Tilla savouring and staking a claim to the food as their own and even rebranding it. Perhaps I was naive — I knew little about the concept of cultural appropriation before the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the initial days of the pandemic, before the national lockdown was announced, I wore my mask in public not out of fear of the virus but of being seen as a potential Covid carrier. I am neither from China, nor have I ever been there, but my face might appear “Chinese”.

Within a couple of weeks, the horror began. I was called “Corona” and at times shooed away from the local store where I had gone to buy vegetables. I had no option but to return home, mainly to ensure my safety from those who, in their frustration and hatred towards the Chinese, could lash out against someone who, in their eyes, looked like one.

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While during the pandemic, we were being misidentified as “Chinese”, at other times, we have been mistaken as coming from Northeast India. It is a frequent experience when trying to rent a house to be refused on grounds such as “Aap log ka khana types idhar allowed nahi hai” (Your kind of food is not allowed here).”

Yet, the momo, which is at the heart of Tibetan cuisine, has been harmonised to local tastes since the 1960s, when Tibetans arrived in India. In the decades that followed, momo has been appropriated, frequently losing any resemblance to the original. Indians have taken the momo all over the world — the Patel Brothers grocery chain is selling frozen momo in the United States and even Martha Stewart has a momo recipe now. (She, like others who have appropriated the food, incorrectly pluralise it as “momos”. For Tibetans, it is always momo, whether in the singular or plural). At a Wow! Momo outlet, when I ventured to taste the fare, my traditional food felt foreign to my own tongue.

One could say that this is a natural byproduct of globalisation. And it might very well be. But such adoption of a minority culture, especially one which is under threat, without due acknowledgement, also leads to racial stereotypes, slurs and further marginalisation.

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I vividly remember the night when a couple of people, after seeing my friend drop me off at a bus stand, called me a “momo”, and said, “Yeh do chinki ke chhote chhote momos paida honge (These two chinki [slur for individuals with Mongoloid features] will give birth to small momo).”

But does it even matter? There’s little I or my people can do. We are, after all, living on Indian soil as refugees. And maybe this is a small price to pay.

I do wonder, though, if we were not fighting for a larger political cause and for an independent nation of our own, maybe we would have been the ones to take our culture all over the world.

dorjee.wangmo@indianexpress.com

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 12:00 IST
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