• Sun. May 28th, 2023

What the Fork: Dharamshala to Mumbai, How Momos Have Become So Popular in India, Writes Kunal Vijayakar


Mar 26, 2023


I spend incredibly long hours on the road just being driven in Mumbai, getting from one place to another. Some people have found ways to kill time on long drives, especially if they are being driven by someone else like I, most often, am. Some people listen to music while stuck in traffic or read a book while moving, have long phone conversations, watch videos on their phones or at least backseat drive. But I do none of the above. I just have so many issues.

I find that music distracts me from watching the road while I am in the car. I also think my driver hates the music I listen to, and so I don’t want to upset him by imposing that on him, since my life is in his hands. I can’t read a book in a moving car because I get violently nauseous. I hate long phone conversations, period. So, that’s completely out. I can’t keep looking at videos or Instagram reels on the phone endlessly as my neck starts hurting. And I don’t do back-seat or front seat driving. So, what I do is, I look out of the window and stare inquisitively.

I stare at all kinds of things. I stare at other cars alongside, who is inside them, what they are up to, what they are doing. I peer at road construction or at crumbling architecture. I am fascinated by how unsightly our shop fronts are and how hideously they have been designed. I stare at dresses hanging on mannequins, bras propped up on plastic busts, streetside fashion, pretty women, ugly men, pavement dwellers, television sets inside their shanties, street-dwellers cooking on the road, street food stalls, fruit sellers, more roadside food, and sometimes I discover something new. I just discovered that that there are Momo stalls nearly at every corner in Mumbai.

Untidy crowds huddled around small tin sheds with a few aluminum steamers and all eating steaming hot momos out of small foil lined paper plates. With six hot momos in a plate, comes an orange spicy sauce and a blob of pink mayonnaise.

I first had momos in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. I had heard so much about minced pork momos that I just had to try them. Dharamshala is home to a large Tibetan community and momos are a staple part of the local cuisine. The momos you can find on the streets of McLeod Ganj are large and typically filled with minced meat or vegetables and flavoured with a blend of spices and herbs, like coriander, garlic and ginger. They are usually big and steamed, and can also be pan-fried for those who may insist on good taste and on being unhealthy. But what makes the Dharamshala momo unparalleled is the special dipping sauce that the momos are served, tritely called “momo sauce”. This sauce is made by blending tomato, garlic, chilli, and soy sauce and adds a spicy and tangy flavour to the momos. You have to dip the hot pork momos in ‘momo sauce’ for the full effect. Although I like them without any sauce as well.

But I can see why momos have become so popular in many parts of India, including the northern states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. A beloved snack among locals and tourists alike. In Uttarakhand, momos are often filled with a mixture of minced meat (usually chicken or mutton), onions, and some spices, and are served with a fiery chilli sauce. These momos are much smaller than the big filling ones in Dharamshala.

But momos are now everywhere, and the minute we as a race, embrace any food that is even remotely foreign, we smother it with not only our love, but also our flavours and spices. So, since we have made momos our own, if someone from Tibet tries some of those we get on our streets, he will realise that we have rendered them unrecognisable, and I daresay tastier. You can now get a variety of momos on the streets of Mumbai and elsewhere in India, starting with the all so familiar, Tandoori Momo. I mean if we are selling, Tandoori Tea and Coffee, why not Tandoori Momo?

Tandoori Momos are stuffed with either minced meat or veggies and are marinated in a mixture of yogurt, spices, and tandoori masala before being cooked in a tandoor oven. The result is both spicy and tangy. Then come the Butter Chicken Momos, which take this classic dish and stuff it inside the dumpling. The result is a savoury and juicy dumpling that is bursting with the flavours of butter chicken. If there is a Butter Chicken momo, how can a Paneer Tikka Momo be far behind? This momo is made by marinating cubes of paneer (cottage cheese) in a mixture of spices and yogurt before grilling or baking them. Paneer tikka momos combine the flavors of paneer tikka with the soft and steamed texture of momos. Only in India will we take two dishes from two different countries and Indianise them together. Here comes Chinese Schezwan Momos, which are coated in a spicy Schezwan sauce before being steamed or fried. The result is a fiery and flavourful dumpling that tastes like it comes from a Khau Galli rather than from China.

Well, it doesn’t end there, you can also find Sizzler Momos, served on a sizzling hot plate along with a side of vegetables and a flavorful sauce. Momo burger is made with a momo instead of a patty and the chocolate ones are filled with molten chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar.

Someone once said, in life, “Less is more”, I say, “Less said is momo”.

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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