Momo-mia in Delhi

In Japan you’d find them as gyoza, a variant of the Chinese jiaozi and as manti in Central Asia.
Representational Image
Representational Image

The bone-chilling cold has kept me tucked-in inside the safe cocoon of my home, in a warm blanket and endless cups of soup. For all of us who spent the month of December complaining about the “not-so-cold winters”, this is the universe giving us the cold we asked for, but weren’t prepared for! Anyhow, due to a commitment, I had to brave the cold and step out to a nearby market, which is when I spotted a cart that was surrounded by eager food-lovers, waiting for their plate of momos! No surprise there, right?

Delhi’s love for momos is now as synonymous as its love for the good ol’ chole-bhature. Stand-up comedians would make jokes in the initial years about how the Tibetan momos, which once made one travel to Majnu ka Tilla to get one’s fill, will take over Delhi and then be “Delhi-fied”, i.e., that versions of it will be sold in the market which will be far from what the original dish was meant to be! Well, these stand-up comedians might as well be astrologers because they were on point with their predictions! Cream-laden Afghani momo, spicy tandoori momo, butter-garlic momo and what not, dot the markets and streets of Delhi today. I’d be damned but I have to say that even a sceptic like me enjoyed it once.

It is believed that the momos originated in Tibet, and from there they travelled across Asia. In Japan you’d find them as gyoza, a variant of the Chinese jiaozi and as manti in Central Asia. When the Tibetan refugees came to India seeking freedom from oppression, after the Chinese forces captured Tibet—with them came their culinary traditions. Another theory suggests that the Newar traders from Kathmandu in Nepal, travelled across the Silk Route and played a role in introducing momos to India. But what made Indians take to these little steamed dumplings filled with meat and vegetables? My guess is that it was partly the fiery chutney or sauce that it is served with. Made with red chillies, garlic, soy sauce and vinegar, it is pungent and spicy and not everyone’s cup of tea, but the perfect accompaniment for the momos. It amps up their flavour quotient.

The first time I had momos was at a humble eatery in Mussoorie, called The Rice Bowl. I was visiting the town with my family and everyone seemed excited to try the dish. For the six-year-old child that I was, what excited me was the name itself! I did not immediately take to the dish though, as I was biased towards chowmein, like any other kid.

It was in the year 2002 that I tasted the dish again, but this time at my father’s friend’s home in Gangtok. Mr Dawa Tshering Ladaki, my father’s friend, is a resident of Gangtok, and was his hostel mate in engineering college. When we visited him, his wife made delicious momos for us. The homemade momos were nothing like the ones that I had tasted in the restaurant in Mussoorie. The casing was thinner—almost crystal clear when steamed—and the filling was generous and made up of a myriad of vegetables (I am a vegetarian!) which held their crunch even after being cooked.

There are flavours that stay with us even years after having tasted them and this was one of those, where even after two decades, they remain to be amongst few of the best momos I have had.As it is with any dish, once it becomes a commercial success, it is replicated and sold by many and tends to lose its original flavours,to adapt to the growing needs of the customers. I believe that is what happened to the momos as well. The shop I ate momos from proudly proclaims that he sells almost 6,000 momos a week and I do believe him, but I must say that he sells some of the most below-average momos there are in Delhi NCR.
Yet, the ubiquity makes a point in favour of the beloved momo—so loved, that they are today available in all shapes and forms, prices and flavours, and at times, even colours!

Yet, even after all this time, if I had to suggest someone to have momos in Delhi, I would not readily suggest a roadside stall or cart—and instead proudly direct them to Kusuma Juneja and Nicole Juneja. Residents of Vasant Vihar in Delhi, they trace their roots to Darjeeling, and serve what I can say without a doubt are the best momos in Delhi—homemade and delicious. But if you must ask me for a commercial establishment selling momos that I am fond of, it is not in Delhi but in Kolkata, at The Blue Poppy by Doma Wang.

Vernika Awal is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog ‘Delectable Reveries’

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