If you were going to protest against a dumpling, would you burn it in effigy or steam it in a tandoor?
Ramesh Arora, a legislator from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), didn’t take the time to ask. Instead, he opted to lead a protest in Jammu against the humble momo – a dim sum-like snack popular across India that he says is “more dangerous than alcohol or psychotropic drugs”.
WATCH: Indians protest against the ‘Chinese momo’
Arora claims the momo – which originates in China – is a threat to Indian culture, although the dumpling has been a mainstay in India for decades and is little known in many parts of China.
Political demonstrations are an everyday affair in India, and even more common in troubled Indian border states such as Jammu and Kashmir. Over the years, every leader of consequence (from US President Donald Trump to Indira Gandhi) has been burnt in effigy while demonstrators cheer. So, in a sense, the momo could now be considered to be in elite company.
Arora declared teenagers were getting “addicted to momos like ... drugs” and that the dumplings should be banned for their “negative impact on Indian food culture”.
Then, as his supporters carried placards with such slogans as “Momos – Silent Killer” and “Momos – Slow Death”, Arora drew the media’s attention to the effigy at the centre of his demonstration. This time it was not a political leader but instead, an effigy of the momo, the silent killer of Arora’s rhetoric.
Even by the not-very-exacting standards of Indian political protests, there was something surreal about this demonstration. And, though Arora got his 50 seconds of airtime on television bulletins that evening, the general response was one of incredulity, if not outright hilarity.
Things did not get better when Arora declared that he wanted a ban on Chinese cuisine in general because it causes cancer of the intestine (perhaps it is a miracle that there are any healthy Chinese people left in the world).
Arora tried to find a scientific justification for his views, referring to the alleged ill-effects of monosodium glutamate (MSG), an old Indian obsession that led India to halt the sale of Maggi noodles some years ago. But nobody had told him that many Indian restaurants and locally made packaged foods also use MSG.
What Arora, and his followers, have failed to grasp is that the story of the momo and its journey to near ubiquity in India tells us something about how the country’s cuisine has developed. So many of the dishes that the world regards as Indian are either recent inventions or are adaptations of dishes from elsewhere.
Sometimes the dishes came from abroad with traders. The sambusak of the Middle East, originally a baked turnover, became the deep-fried Indian samosa that is popular the world over. The pilafs of Turkey were Indianised by court cooks and evolved into biryani. Even the chilli, regarded internationally as the building block of Indian cuisine, was introduced to India, from the New World, by the Portuguese. It was so adroitly incorporated into Indian dishes by local chefs that most Indians now regard it as an ancient Indian vegetable and condiment.
But some of the greatest dishes came from refugees. The best example is modern tandoori cooking (chicken, butter chicken, and all tandoori kebabs, including the chicken tikka). It was only popularised as late as the second half of the 20th century by refugees.
In 1947, India’s independence was accompanied by a bloody partition that cleaved the subcontinent into two nations – India and Pakistan. As Hindu-Muslim riots broke out, terrified Muslims left India for Pakistan while Hindus fled Pakistan to find new homes in India.
Hindus and Muslims had lived in peace, side by side, for centuries in such Punjabi cities as Lahore. But as the partition divided Punjab between India and Pakistan, many Hindus left the Pakistani part of Punjab and headed first to Indian Punjab and then to Delhi, a larger city with more opportunities. The refugees fled with not much more than the clothes on their backs. When they arrived in Delhi, the government set up refugee camps for them and they struggled to find work. Some drifted into the food business.
Among them was a man called Kundanlal Gujral who had worked at a restaurant in Peshawar (now in Pakistan). Gujral had learnt how to make innovative use of the tandoor, a clay oven that has traditionally been used in Punjab to bake breads (of which the naan is the most famous).
In Peshawar, Gujral had seen cooks at his restaurant put whole chickens on skewers into the tandoor. He was determined to replicate the idea in India. Not only was the chicken delicious, it was a cost-effective way of cooking. You could put three whole chickens onto a single skewer and cook them simultaneously in the tandoor.
Gujral opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi and built a large tandoor. He cooked naans and chickens by the dozens simultaneously in it. And his business flourished because it required no elaborate menus, few cooking vessels and virtually no cutlery. As Moti Mahal’s fame spread, the menu expanded. Pieces of cut chicken went into the tandoor and were called chicken tikka, lamb chops cooked the same way became burrah kebabs, and so on.
Then, Gujral hit on his second good idea. He needed a way to use up the leftover tandoori chicken and chicken tikka. So, he created a tomato and butter sauce and began to rehydrate the dried-out leftover chicken in the gravy. That dish became butter chicken. Later he added the same gravy to homestyle Punjabi dal and created the buttery black dal that most Indian restaurants now serve. This was Indian-cuisine-in-a-hurry, based on one tandoor and one sauce, a far cry from the haute cuisine of Delhi or North India’s food capital of Lucknow.
So, the great chefs sneered at it. But the public lapped it up.
Hundreds of Punjabi refugees decided to follow Gujral’s example and set up tandoori restaurants. To help them along, the government allotted them land near New Delhi’s central Pandara Road to open stalls. That market still exists as a tandoori-lovers paradise, though the stalls have now become fully fledged restaurants.
As refugees spread throughout India, they took their tandoors with them. By the late 1950s, tandoori chicken had arrived in Calcutta and Bombay. By the 1960s, it was a menu staple all over India. By the 1970s, virtually every Indian restaurant in the world had its own tandoor. And today, tandoori chicken is the world’s most famous Indian dish.
Something similar happened to the momo, long before it became the subject of dimwitted protests.
The momo originates in Tibet ( 西藏 ). Given that Tibet has been in China’s sphere of influence for centuries, it seems reasonable to assume that, like the gyoza of Japan, the momo had its roots in the Chinese dim sum tradition. But, unlike the fancier dim sums of Cantonese cuisine, this was a peasant dish. It was made of the cheapest, most easily available flour and filled with minced yak meat and flavoured with local spices.
In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India, making the northern Indian town of Dharamsala his home. Some Tibetans arrived with him and throughout the early 1960s, Tibetan refugees kept streaming into India. The Indian government, which had some experience of dealing with refugee arrivals after the partition, provided them with housing. Then, recognising their entrepreneurial skill, it gave them stalls along Janpath, one of New Delhi’s main roads, to sell artefacts, “antiques”, and the like.
But the Tibetans chose to wander. Many went to India’s northeast, to Nepal and to the Indian protectorate of Sikkim (now fully integrated into India) where they looked for business opportunities.
Like the Punjabis before them, they decided that food offered the quickest route to making some kind of living. Momos were easy to make. Flour was readily available and steamers were not difficult to procure. There were no yaks so they made their momos from minced goat (the dominant meat in Delhi) or minced chicken. As they moved east, first to Calcutta and then to the hills of the northeast, they also began using pork which made for a tastier momo.
By the early 1970s, the Tibetan momo had taken over eastern India. Nearly everywhere the Tibetans went, the momo followed. As canny business people, the Tibetans refined the recipe for the filling depending on the market they were catering to. In Kathmandu, Nepal, momos come with a dark filling packed with spice. In many northeastern towns, they incorporated the local flavours of pork and chilli.
Around 1980 or so, the Tibetans had done so well that they found the returns from momo-making too small to bother with. So others entered the fray and as Bengalis, Khasis, Nepalis and others began making their own kinds of momos, the dish’s Tibetan origins were largely forgotten.
It wasn’t till the beginning of this century, however, that momos went truly national. A fast-food chain dedicated to momos, Momobelle, was launched. The fancy new Four Seasons hotel in Mumbai put momos on the menu, and in every Delhi market, you could find two or three momo sellers.
Inevitably, the business became corporatised. In Delhi, there are central kitchens where momos are made by the thousands.
Hawkers buy the dumplings each morning and then take them to their markets. They are steamed at the stalls and the hawkers claim their mothers or sisters made them at home.
Nothing in India remains purely regional. So now, momo stalls are mushrooming all over Jammu and Kashmir – hence the demonstrations and effigies. And two great culinary traditions have merged. All over Punjab, restaurants and stalls that would once have sold only chicken tikka or butter chicken now sell “tandoori momos”.
Tandoori momos? Well, momos are steamed dim sum; tandoor is an oven.
In that sense, it doesn’t sound that absurd, though Indian foodies regard the dish with derision. So are momos still refugee food? Clearly not. What’s more, it’s not even regarded as a Tibetan dish in most of India. As the BJP’s Arora put it: “this is a Chinese dish”.
But don’t let the foolishness of one dimwitted politician detract from the real story: every refugee who has sought shelter in India has enriched its culture and, especially, its cuisine.
There couldn’t be a better proof than tandoori momos. ■
A former editor, Vir Sanghvi is a columnist, TV presenter and author of Rude Food