Tucked away in a corner of my kitchen is a little bamboo contraption that gave us all great joy once upon a time. It came from Kolkata and was introduced to us as a momo steamer. Shape your momos at home, place them in the steamer, cook them for some minutes — and you can have a plateful of piping hot dumplings to be eaten with a sizzling red chilli-garlic dip.
Even a decade or so ago, momos were not as ubiquitous as they are now, so the steamer came in handy. Today, I don’t know where the steamer is, because I don’t need it anymore. These days, you can spot a momo stall in every street corner in every city. Someone enterprising steams momos at home, and then makes a small profit selling them on the street side. If and when I have a yen for momos, all I have to do is step out of the house and stop by at the nearest momo stall.
I am often asked if there is a street food item that can be described as pan-Indian. There are quite a few popular dishes you will find across India, including the omnipresent dosa or the tandoori chicken, but I think the humble momo has pipped every other dish to the post of being pan-Indian.
It’s not surprising to see why the momo has caught everyone’s fancy — from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Kutch to Kolkata. It’s the seller’s dream item, needing neither much capital nor effort. You knead some dough, boil minced chicken with ginger and mild spices, shred it and keep it aside. You make small balls of the dough, shape them into bowls and stuff them with the shredded chicken (or pork in some happy circles) or shredded and boiled cabbage, then close the mouths and steam them. Voila — they are done. Cities such as Delhi even have some centralised kitchens where the dumplings are prepared in large quantities for momo sellers to take away.
For those who love their momos, the dumpling is like no other. For one, the name is easy to pronounce: It is a lot easier than, say, katlambe, a fried poori of north India, or radhabollobhi, a stuffed poori from Bengal. Momos are easy to eat — unlike, say golgappas, for which you need a wide mouth and military-like precision to enable you to pick up and pop the mint-water-and-potato-chickpea-filled ball into your mouth just before it breaks or spills. Momos are easy to customise, too. You like your food hot? Then just smear your momo with the hot sauce that it is usually served with. You like your food bland? Ignore the sauce. If you like fried food, momos ably step in — for you get some delicious fried momos, too. A momo is an otherwise healthy (despite the flour casing) and hearty snack. And a plate of momos (sometimes served with broth-like stock) is a meal in itself.
But what’s equally interesting is that the momo, unlike its other street food cousins, also occupies the high table. In fine dining parlance, of course, it is known as the dim sum or shumai, or the Japanese gyoza. The casing may vary, as may the filling. Sometimes, egg is added to the flour. The fillings can be anything from sautéed shrimps and ground meat to steamed and chopped asparagus or water chestnut and Chinese mushroom. Hotels and restaurants even serve dim sum meals, where you can eat all the dumplings you want.
Momos have started taking on new forms as well, some more bizarre than others. They are not just simple steamed dumplings anymore but are dumped in gravies or cooked in a tandoor. I was urged to try out the tandoori momo at a Mussoorie restaurant that served Oriental food. The momos were fiery red in colour, and I wanted to call for a fire brigade when I had my first bite. I am not going back there.
Be that as it may, the little dumpling has a story for us. I would like to think that it shows, in some small way, the opening of doors of our very insular world. I remember the time when the only place we got momos was at a complex that we called Tib Dhabs (short for Tibetan Dhaba) in north Delhi. Then eateries near Chanakya Cinema started serving momos, and soon some of the Northeastern outlets in Dilli Haat had momos on their menus. Today, the dish that is believed to have come to India across the Himalayas from Tibet is as much a part of our food lexicon as, say, the South Indian vada or the Mumbai pav bhaji, the Bengali phuchka or the North India papri chaat.
Let’s raise a toast to the momo. It is not just our window to the world, but reminds us, in these difficult times, to keep our doors open.
The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.