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Why Calls to Ban India's Beloved Momo Will Never be Taken Seriously in the Country

A plate of pork momos in Delhi (Image Courtesy: DilettanteDiner Official Twitter Page)

A plate of pork momos in Delhi (Image Courtesy: DilettanteDiner Official Twitter Page)

Momo mia: an Indian love story

Growing up in Delhi in the 80s and 90s, an era sans mall or multiplex, one of the congregation points of the city was the Chanakya Cinema Complex and the abutting Yashwant Place complex. The former housed the Chanakya cinema and one of the finest (and most crowded) Nirula's in the city while the latter comprised a somber set of buildings characterised by wide open courtyards and courtyards and its labyrinthine lower levels.

These basements and sub-basements comprised rows and rows of shops selling a bewildering array of merchandise. Jewels and semi-precious stones glimmered at shop fronts, vying for attention against literal forests of furs -- coats, capes, caps and other confections of clashing colours and contours. Other stores boasted vast hoards of Indian arcana and others still leather goods in all manner of shapes, sizes and utilities. Given its location in the Capital's diplomatic enclaves, a host of travel agencies also had their representative offices in the building. Signs inscribed with Cyrillic alphabets hung outside most stores, testament to the market's popularity with Soviet (former or otherwise) expats.

As the years went by, one saw a few ramshackle huts begin to be put up towards one size of the market. Usually fronted by a curtain of plastic, these structures were set up by some enterprising momo sellers who rightly figured a plate of steamed dumplings, perhaps accompanied by a hot soup in the rains and winter, would be a welcome addition to an outing to the cinema. Especially when the Nirula's was full.

The whole scene -- from customers streaming in and out of stores and stalls, the sellers calling attention to their wares, touts sidling up to you and offering tickets to sold out shows in black, and the inevitable hapless cinema-goer who found him or herself with extra tickets and desperately trying to sell them off -- provided a diorama of Delhi.

Today, though both Chanakya and Nirula's are gone, relegated to the scrap heap of history and the occasional nostalgic column, the momos remain. Indeed, such is their potency that the few rude stalls have made way for a thriving food hub, where an elongated building is home to more than a score of eateries jostling for customers, of which there are a seemingly endless supply. Most of the establishments serve the staples of momos, fried rice, noodles and stir-fries, but a few serve Delhi's other favourite, hybridised North Indian-Punjabi fare. Keeping pace with the times, new variants of momos have been introduced, ranging from fried to fish momos; every place commands its own loyal following. But the cult of the momos have spread far beyond the flag-stoned courtyard of Yashwant Place.

Successive generations of DU North Campus enjoyed their flirtations with the hot pot stickers in the neighbouring Tibetan refugee colony of Majnu ka Tilla and spread word of the momo further. Meanwhile, the dumplings became ubiquitous to Dilli Haat, that collective of handlooms and handicrafts from different states, enticing shoppers and their restless offspring with beguiling bowls of clear soup or thukpa accompanying steaming mounds of momos and a splash of radioactive red chili sauce. Elsewhere, enterprising Delhi restaurateurs played around with the format and introduced tandoori momos, steamed and roasted, dusted with chaat masala (whether these originated in West Delhi or North Campus is a question still hotly debated).

In any case, the momo seller became as common as the paan-wallah, present at most street corners, dealing out their wares to the masses on the prowl for a quick, steaming fix. Chaat masala, green chutney, chilli sauce, mayonnaise, whatever you wanted to have it with, it was all kosher and available. From Mumbai to Manipur and Kashmir to Kanyakumari, momos mushroomed everywhere to universal acclaim. With recent restaurant chains basing their menus entirely on momos (momo lasagna or momo subs anyone?), the dumpling's ascendancy is self-evident. To most people, anyway.

So when a public figure calls for the banning of an item, especially a food item, so intrinsic to the Indian identity, it's bound to blow up in his or her face -- just like that still-hot pressure cooker your grandmother always frightened you about.

Our own affair with momos continues undiminished despite a stunning revelation a few years earlier. While interning at the butchery of a 5-star hotel in South Delhi where, on a daily basis, hundreds of kilos of chicken were processed according to the needs of the different kitchens, we were always told to never throw the fatty bits, gristle and other that were trimmed from the meat. These fowl coagulants were gathered in large black plastic bags and collected quietly but courteously by an elderly bespectacled Sardarji in a rather battered van, in which he drove away with the profferings. As it turns out, he supplied momo sellers in Yashwant Place and other locations, who used the grist from our mill as it were, to stuff the dumplings with. If the memory of those bags bulging with chicken trimmings and the knowledge of where they went didn't stop us from still devouring momos in Yashwant Place -- and everywhere else -- we don't think anything will.

first published:June 08, 2017, 15:50 IST
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