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A MOMO LEGACY

Award winning bartender and food ambassador of the Himalayan cuisine, Yangdup Lama on the many charms of momo – the most beloved export to culinary mainland of India


By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: Lungta Café

Who doesn’t know about Momo? When it comes to culinary association, nothing has quite connected us to Tibetan/Lama tradition like the momo – which is always a momo, says Yangdup Lama (dumpling aficionado and co-owner Lungta Café) “even if there is a dozen in a plate”. In fact, when it comes to popularity and beloved-ness, it rivals that of biryani: we can eat it for lunch, dinner, snack, and breakfast (mostly in that order of preference) and are anal about not just the way we like it, but also about the most authentic. Which interestingly differs from place to place. While those in Delhi would swear by Dolma Aunty (the first Momo lady) and Majnu Ka Tila and the erstwhile momo market in Chankyapuri; those from Bengal will take you from Tangra to Tiretta to other nook and crannies around this Colonial City to let you sample the best momo in town. Likewise is the case in Odisha, where one would take you to Puri that is house to one of the oldest Chinese restaurant run by Chinese for the most authentic experience.

Such has been the magic of these little purses of absolute joy and deliciousness, that every town in India today boast of this little hole in the wall [place, a small restaurant or khau galli that makes the best momo  (if not traditionally accurate) in town with a fan following. A facet that has egged cooks , chefs and street vendors across to find different variants of momo – which even has a dessert avatar today. But what was the real momo like and how did it traverse the boundaries to become a pan India favourite? Says Lama, “there is no benchmark for this popular Himalayan food, except that a traditional momo, which is usually the size of your fist, should have onions, chopped not minced.” This perhaps explains how the traditional varieties that included the outrageously delicious Sha Momo or Momo Cha came to the fore. For those wondering what is Sha Momo? It is the original Tibetan Beef Dumpling that introduced the plump round purse shape that it is known for today.    

THE HISTORY

While momo have existed in Tibet and regions since the earlier centuries, little is known about their exact place of origin. One school of thought connects it to the Chinese Jiaozi, which seems to have inspired some of the interesting dumplings including the famous momo; another one brings it to Tibet and to the Newari community in Nepal. Still another theory insist that it was created by Himalayan bakers who given the weather would often steam their bread to a soft, pillowy sponge that could soak the broth it was served with.

Which theory makes the grade, then by appearance momo -traditional one at least – seems to be a creation by the bakers who were inspired by the Chinese dumplings – a standard fare on the Silk Route dominated often by Imperial China. Of course, down to Tibet and Nepal, it was the community that tweaked it to suit not just their taste but local produce as well.

By cooking technique however, momo seems to pre-date Han Dynasty, the said creators and patrons of Jiaozi. Steaming and rice pancakes, says Lama, “are the two important pillars of Himalayan cuisine, which thrived (and still does) mostly on meat, rice and very little vegetables, courtesy the rather long winters that makes growing vegetation of any kind near to impossible.”

“Thus, most of the dishes that were developed were a clever utilization of the ingredients that could be stored for long period of time like rice, and those that were readily available, like yak meat and butter. With access to little spices, lard and later chillies were the only tastemakers. This could explain why traditional dishes from Upper Himalaya often taste bland to the mainland palate,” says Lama, who believes that was the reason that traditional cooks began looking for interesting ways to use chillies or their paste to give food that taste punch but that was until the tribes migrated to the lower regions of the hills or spices began reaching the region thanks to better logistics and trade.


THE FIRST STEP

Momo’s first avatar most likely was made with boiled yak meat cocooned in a rice globe and steamed. Chances are that the original was drier to the supple ones we have today. But even in that avatar it was of great use as dry food travelled well. Foodlore has it that the Mongolian army would carry boxes of momo individually while traveling through difficult terrain in the mountain region of Himalayas. Momo, many say, was an integral part of Genghis Khan and his army’s diet, before they discovered cumin and later chillies. Interestingly, momo still is a travel essential for most of the Himalayan tribes, who carry it with chutney made with chillies and salt. In homes, elaborates Lama, “it is still served with the broth of the meat, making it a meal rather than a snack.”

THE MODERNISING OF MOMO

Momo transformation began when it reached the lower hills of Tibet and from there to Nepal courtesy trtavellers, trade and wars. Blessed with generous nature, Tibetan cooks began adding onions, greens, ginger and even a variety of chillies and meat to the dumpling, which by then was all about rice, lard or, and yak meat.  Nepal went a step further when momo that went from being a fist-full to the dainty cocktail size. Fascinatingly, it wasn’t the shape that Tibet and Nepal changed for momo, it was also the casing. Unlike the original use of rice flour, Nepali momo had maida making its casing with the now quintessential red, chilli and tomato-based chutney added. It was this version of momo that mainland India was introduced – and it has since remained our introduction to momo, and in turn to the culinary world of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and even Northeast.

The new versions of momo did little to change the significant role that the dish played in the hilly region, which continued to be the “power meal” that could sustain people through a hard day of work or travel. Tales narrated by old soldiers of Assam Rifles tells how many of the Tibetan refugees rescued along with Dalai Lama in 1959, and refugees that came later, carried these little orbs of rice tied in a tiny swathe of cloth to survive the treacherous journey to Assam.  In fact, says an old hand, “a steamer and few mounds of rice was all that was needed to make a meal anywhere.” The use of pork in filling and frying the momo to give that crunch could have been adopted by the Tibetans while making Assam their home.

DIFFERENT STROKES

Thanks to all the travelling that momo did – both in its early years and later-  added to its all-palate appeal and turning momo into a versatile street treat. In Tibetan style for instance, says Lama, “momo is served with chilli paste; Mangolian style has a bowl of mildly spiced broth (usually beef). Nepalese people serve momo with chilli chutney, which has tomato as a base and is often flavoured with coriander, sesame seeds, or peanut; and Kathmandu’s serves the Momo-Cha or Sha Momo, which is the cocktail, bite size momo.”

Yet, when it comes to Himalayan cuisine and momo, ends Lama, “there is only one style of momo that emerges as favourite: steamed fist size dumpling served with a spicy chutney and a steaming bowl of beef soup.”

So which momo do you like?