At a seminar organised in Jammu on June 7, a Bharatiya Janata Party legislator declared momos were the new crisis. “Our teenagers are getting addicted to the dumplings like drugs,” said Ramesh Arora. “It’s spoiling their health. We have to stop it.” The seminar was attended by members of Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association, doctors and the Drug and Food Control department.
This is not the first time Arora has declared war on momos. In February 2016, he met then Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary, BR Sharma, and municipal officials to discuss the increasing number of momo stalls in the state.
On Wednesday too, standing in front of a banner with the words “SAY NO TO MOMOS” plastered with a giant red cross on an image of momos, Arora blamed monosodium glutamate for turning the momo into a “killer”.
“We cannot allow a killer to grow in a civilised society,” he raged. “Ajinomoto is dangerous for health.”
MSG, a flavour enhancer, often gets a bad rap as the ingredient in East Asian cuisine responsible for causing everything from headaches to cancer. Some brands in the 1990s distanced themselves from MSG. Even now, menus and food products will declare that they do not contain MSG in bold lettering – despite the fact that studies have repeatedly indicated that consumed in ordinary quantities, MSG is quite harmless.
Momos are far from the only food that use MSG – it appears in french fries, ketchup, pickles and the vast array of “Chinjabi” food (a hybrid of Chinese and Punjabi food) that is served at a certain kind of Indian eatery. In fact, blaming MSG is only a thinly veiled attempt by Arora to blame communities he associates with the sale and popularity of momos – according to the National Herald, Arora expressed dissatisfaction with the “foreigners” including Bangladeshi and Burmese people, who were selling momos in Kashmir.
Culinary historian Charmaine O’Brien tracks the journey of the momo in her book, Flavours of Delhi. The story begins in 1950, when China invaded Tibet, causing their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to take exile in India nine years later. “Unable to endure the separation from their beloved leader and facing the threat of religious persecution by the Chinese, many of them made an arduous and dangerous journey across the Himalayas to reach India from Tibet,” writes O’Brien.
Many, to make a living, started selling this snack on street sides. “Tibetan momos are far more utilitarian than their Chinese cousins and the delicate and varied fillings of dim sums are replaced with a very basic meat or vegetable filling (a reflection of the limited foods that the arid land of Tibet can produce). The momo is a favourite treat in Tibet and is served at formal meals or celebrations.... momos have found their way on to menus and are a favourite with local populations wherever Tibetans have settled.”
The steaming three-decker aluminium container filled with momos is a common sight on the streets of cities like Delhi, Kashmir, Kolkata, Darjeeling and Shillong. While the momo originated in the Tibetan region, it has become the staple food of Delhi’s university and high school students – it is a cheap, delicious and relatively healthy snack, particularly when compared to other deep-fried street fare. While vegetable and chicken momos are most common in the capital, those made with minced mutton are a favourite in the Valley.
The momo has also evolved. It is common, particularly in Delhi, to find “schezwan” or “achari” momos on a menu. “I was hoping the momo would move more in the direction of Chinese soup dumplings in flavour and concept, instead it seems to be moving towards tandoori and makhani momos,” said Vikram Doctor, host of the Real Food Podcast, referring to the momos smothered in a spice mix, cooked in tandoor and served with a buttery gravy.
The traditional recipe, however, is supreme in its simplicity. The one used by Rinzig Tsering, who runs a stall in Delhi’s Alaknanda market, uses minced chicken, garlic, ginger and onions. “The chicken should not be cooked separately. It loses moisture,” explained Tsering. The wares on offer at his stall include paneer momos along with the usual vegetable and chicken. Tsering came to Delhi from Darjeeling in 1998 in search of a job. He learnt the recipe from his father. “The secret to a good momo is to roll the dough out thin and evenly. My father taught me exactly how.” On being asked whether he uses MSG, or “ajinomoto”, Tsering smiled and reluctantly admitted that he does. “Nothing happens,” he said. “Everyone has been using it forever.”