The Saga of Every Delhiite’s Favourite Street Food : Momo
Image Credit: Pexels. Steamed momos.

Momo is a dish that has become synonymous with the term ‘street food,’ in Delhi. With a new momo stall opening every other day in the city, Delhiites are often spotted relishing hot steaming plates of this Himalayan dish, with a dash of mayonnaise on the side. New and popular varieties of vegetarian momos with fillings of paneer and soya, have steadily become the favourite of many foodies in the city. However, despite momos becoming a popular comfort food of people, very few know about the history of this dish and how it is supposed to be eaten and enjoyed in its authentic avatar.

The place of origination of these delicious dumplings still remains a topic of heated debate. Momos date back to the 14th century. Tibetans and Nepalese stick to two different versions of the story about the history of momos. When you ask old Tibetan refugees living in Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tilla about the origin of the dish, they are quick to tell you how the Tibetan dumplings made out of Yak meat were one of the first momos that the world ever ate. In the unforgiving cold of the Tibetan valley, growing crops was a challenge. Therefore the mountain people depended on meat as their main source of diet. Making steamed dumplings out of animal meat, flour and water dough, was a common practice in Tibet. The Tibetans further claim that it was Newari traders from Nepal who visited Tibet and took back home with them, the art of making momos. Once the dish reached Nepal, it evolved in taste and variety.

The Nepalese however, hold a different version of the origin of steamed dumplings. They say that, the word mome in Newari, means cooking by steaming and the dish has its birth place in the culture of Newar people who were the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley. The Nepalese people who migrated to India years ago because of civil war, recount the tale of the Newari princess, who was married to a Tibetan king in the fifteenth century. They believe that it was the princess who took the recipe of momos to her marital home in Tibet and so the saga of momos began in Nepal and spread to Tibet.

Momos reached India courtesy scores of Tibetans and Nepalis, many of whom left their countries and settled in various parts of the Northern belt of India, throughout the past few decades. Dolma Tsering, also lovingly called as Dolma Aunty by Delhiites was one of the first people of Tibetan origin, to start a momo stall in Delhi in 1994. Interestingly, originally, momos were made only from meat as both Tibet and Nepal were the most rocky and cold regions of the Himalayas. However, as and when momos started gaining popularity in India, vegetable momos came in to being, to cater to the taste of vegetarians of this country. Momos have also travelled to various other parts of the world, often getting influenced by the cuisine of the country it travelled to.

Ask a few true blue foodies how many varieties of momos they have ever had in life and all of them will give different answers. While some may say they have tried five different types of momos, others may say they’ve tasted around twenty different types of momos. As you read this, chefs around the world would be experimenting with various types of dough and a variety of fillings to steam, roast, fry and even barbeque and grill a new variety of momo. “The way you knead the dough, the pattern in which you make the momo and the combination of fillings you put inside the momo, along with the way you choose to cook the momo, has a significant impact on its taste. Some people prefer putting oil and water to knead the maida to make momos, while others opt for healthier options and end up making aata momos. Tibetan momos are usually in the shape of half moon while Nepali ones are more circular. Now, there are tandoori momos, chocolate momos, vegetarian momos and myriad of other varieties in the market. Momo is a dish that has been experimented with the most in recent times. I have seen momo stalls where you get momos with chaat powder sprinkled over them,” says Phurba Tamang, chef of a home kitchen that specializes in making momos.

Broadly though, there are five basic varieties of momos, relished by Delhiites :

Steamed Momos : These are the most basic and authentic variety of the dish, whereby the momo is stuffed with your favourite choice of filling (paneer, chicken, mutton etc) and then steamed in a special steamer called macktoo.

Kothey Momos : These momos are half steamed and half fried and are usually made in an elongated half moon shape. A variety of dips and chutnies are usually served along with Kothey Momos.

Jhol Momos : Jhol translates to curry in Nepali language. The jhol for jhol momos is made from a paste of onion, tomatoes, chillies and masala. Once ready, steamed momos are dunked in to the spicy jhol and are ready to be devoured.

Fried Momos : Steamed momos are fried in a pan with some oil to make fried momos. Some authentic Nepali household cooks claim that, the left over steamed momos from previous night’s dinner were usually fried and used for breakfast the next morning and this was how fried momos became an interesting variety of momos.

Tandoori Momos : Momos that are dipped in Tandoori marination and then fried and cooked on a grill are called Tandoori momos. This is a modern experimentation with the Himalayan dish, which in its authentic version was only steamed.

Dhapu Momos : These are gigantic in size and are stuffed with your choice of filling to the brim. They are also called Tibetan Momos.

Momos are incomplete without an accompanying dip - a spicy sauce called chutney. Authentic dips include chutneys made from Dallo Khorsani (a spice, native to the Himalayas), onion, tomato, coriander and garlic. Chutneys range from spicy to mild in taste. The spicier chutneys are red in colour and have red chilli and other native Himalayan spices as the main ingredient. Chutneys that are mild in taste are usually green in colours and have coriander and green chilli as the main ingredient. Momo chutneys in the olden times were made using a stone silbatta called as achaar peesne ko silbatta by the Nepalese.  Authentically, momos were never had with Mayonnaise or a pinch of chaat masala. The trend of fusion cuisine has led to such innovations.

Food bloggers have been experimenting with content in order to make fusion dishes and momos have become the latest victim. From viral videos of momo pizzas to that of a fusion dish that mixes momo and paratha, reels of momos reimagined in fusion cuisine have garnered strong reactions from the public. “Big brands have started experimenting with momos in fusion cuisine. We have momo pizzas and momo sushi as dishes that can be ordered and consumed in big restaurants today. I sometimes miss having the dish in its authentic flavor,” says Avantika Arora, a food blogger from Gurugram. For other foodies who have fun with experimenting, momo being subjected to fusion cooking is a big yay. “Think of how they combined a dish coming from the laps of the Himalayas with the tradition of Tandoor that is said to have originated in Persia, to make Tandoori momos! That’s a momo fusion that has become a favourite of every Delhiite now,” says Sheetal Bhagat, a food blogger from Delhi.