Taking down the momo monster, one myth at a time

Hindustan Times | By
Jul 02, 2017 09:45 AM IST

The success of momos proves that we not only accept all foods but transform them into Pan-Indian dishes

Did you read about the politician who called for a ban on ‘Chinese’ momos? And did you giggle a little? I know I did. And I chuckled more when I read further. It turns out that his primary objection to momos is that they contain monosodium glutamate (MSG or Ajinomoto).

Momos from Tibet were more homely, usually made of minced yak meat and coarser flour(iStock)
Momos from Tibet were more homely, usually made of minced yak meat and coarser flour(iStock)

Nobody has told the poor man that MSG is not an integral component of momos. Or that 99 per cent of all Chinese restaurants in India also use MSG in their cooking. As do street stalls and thela wallahs and more and more Indian restaurants.

I have written about MSG at length – most recently during the fuss over Maggi noodles. So I don’t want to go over old ground again. But here are the facts: 

Glutamates are naturally occurring substances in the body. About a century ago, a Japanese scientist figured out a way to extract glutamates from seaweed. The extracted substance contained concentrated umami flavour (umami is now widely regarded as a basic taste) and had the ability to make all food taste sharper and meatier once it had been added.

Commercial production of MSG (the extract) began, originally by the Ajinomoto company, and then by hundreds of outfits all over the world. Eventually, raw materials other than seaweed began to be used (in Japan, I once tried MSG made from tomato) and MSG spread to every corner of the Far East.

In the Seventies, American doctors began reporting what came to be called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, a condition where people reported headaches or a tingling sensation after consuming MSG. This led to a massive anti-MSG backlash and a fall in the consumption of MSG in the West (but not in Asia). Eventually Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was identified as MSG intolerance, which affects a small proportion of the population. (My wife has it, for instance.)

But most of the population can tolerate MSG and it is approved by the American Food and Drug Administration and continues to be widely used, even by non-Chinese restaurants in India and by the packaged food industry. (That is what the Maggi fuss was all about.)

In North India, tandoori momos, like those at QD’s in New Delhi, are a common variation (Getty Images)
In North India, tandoori momos, like those at QD’s in New Delhi, are a common variation (Getty Images)

It is possible that some people who make momos use MSG but you can make them just as easily without any added glutamates. And while there may be grounds for concern about MSG overuse, only a not-very-bright person would call for a ban on momos on those grounds.

But, as much as I shook my head at the foolishness of India’s politicians, I was glad that the controversy had put momos in the headlines. Momos are now ubiquitous all over India. In big cities (such as Delhi) there are momo factories, which make thousands of momos in bulk and then supply them to local street side momo-sellers who, naturally enough, pretend that they made them all by themselves, early that morning. And in Punjab, momos take on unusual forms: tandoori momos are a common variation!

But here’s the thing: there seems to be no agreement over a) where the momo came from and b) what the difference is between a momo and a Chinese dim sum.

Many people think that momos originated in the Northeast. But, as my former HT colleague Hoihnu Hauzel pointed out in a masterful recent piece, they have nothing to do with Northeastern cuisine. Hoihnu says that there are traditional dumplings in the Northeast. For instance, the hyontoen of Sikkim, is a millet dumpling filled with cheese. But, says Hoihnu, such is the popularity of the momo that the Sikkimese, like the residents of many other Eastern states, have abandoned their own dumplings and switched to making momos.

With India’s Northeast out of the running, there are only two other contenders for the invention of the momo. The first are the Newaris of Nepal who say that they invented the momo and took it around India. They may have a valid claim but in the public imagination, at least, they have lost out to a second contender.

Food experts argue that the classic dim sum are probably Cantonese in origin (Shutterstock)
Food experts argue that the classic dim sum are probably Cantonese in origin (Shutterstock)

That’s the Tibetans. Can it be a complete coincidence that there are no stories about momos from before the 1960s? That is when Tibetans, fleeing from the Chinese invasion of their homeland, sought shelter in India. If you examine the progress of Tibetans around India, you will find that the momo arrived in each city shortly after the Tibetans did. For instance, the Northeast really discovered momos only in the 1970s when Tibetans arrived (and flourished: they are a commercially savvy community) in the region. Even in Kathmandu, the momo only took off as a popular snack after the Tibetans moved there. It’s the same story in Sikkim.

So what should an authentic momo taste like? Well, there seems to be no standard flavour for the modern momo. I have eaten bland, almost Chinese-tasting momos in Kolkata and I have eaten palate-burning, chilli-hot momos in Kathmandu. And that is in the era before they invented the paneer momo or the tandoori momo. The Tibetan momo may be bland but the Indian palate now demands spice.

If the momo is a Tibetan dish, then is it wrong to call it ‘Chinese’ as our momo-banning politico did? Well, yes and no.

We forget that, as far as the Chinese are concerned, Tibet has always been a part of China and that even before the People’s Liberation Army marched in and took charge, there were frequent contacts between Tibet and China.

 The Chinese have no difficulty in regarding the momo as a dim sum. They point out that the term ‘dian xian’, (meaning “a little something to eat”) was used over a thousand years ago when the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) ruled and during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) many of the dim sum we know today (baozi buns, for example) had already been invented.

British writer Fuchsia Dunlop, an authority on Chinese food, inclines to the view that over a thousand years ago, the Chinese were already taking dim sum to every corner of their empire. The classic dim sum, she suggests, are probably Cantonese in origin but each region has its own versions of dim sum.

The ‘soup dumpling’ or Xiao Long Bao, which is now trendy and popular all over the world, comes from Shanghai. The tradition of a dim sum breakfast or lunch, she argues, comes not from any mainland practice but from Hong Kong, where it became popular in “the post-war years when many people lived in crowded accommodation and needed places to do business and entertain.”

Dim sum, dumpling, momo – the dish comes in many names and many flavours (Shutterstock)
Dim sum, dumpling, momo – the dish comes in many names and many flavours (Shutterstock)

So is the momo just a not-very-fancy dim sum? Sadly, the answer is probably ‘yes’. There are many dumplings in the East including Japan’s gyoza and Vietnam’s banh bot loc, but almost all can be traced back to China. There are even those who argue that the Italian tortellini, which is pretty much the same dish as the (older) Chinese wonton, has its origins on the Silk Route that connected Europe with China.

To say that the momo is a dim sum is not to belittle its origins. The Chinese ‘dim sum’ is a catch-all term for all kinds of dumplings and the momo is as much a free-standing variety as say, the har-gow. Certainly, in terms of technique, there is very little to distinguish the momo from the dim sum family.

 I asked Saurabh Udinia, who has travelled extensively through the Northeast, what the difference between a dim sum and a momo was. Saurabh is a chef at the Masala Library, the one upmarket Indian restaurant where the food of say, Nagaland or Mizoram is given as much respect as the food of Karnataka or Awadh. His view is that Chinese dim sum can be incredibly complicated to make. The momo, on the other hand, needs no special dough and is easy to cook. And as for the differences: well, that’s about it.

At Masala Library, the food of Nagaland or Mizoram is given as much respect as the food of Karnataka or Awadh
At Masala Library, the food of Nagaland or Mizoram is given as much respect as the food of Karnataka or Awadh

To me, that makes sense. Tibet may not have been part of Greater China (no matter what Beijing says) but it was always in the Chinese sphere of influence. So its momos were more homely versions of the Chinese dumplings. They were usually made of minced yak meat and the flour was coarser.

When the Tibetans fled to India, they rebuilt their steamers, substituted goat, pork and chicken for yak, and gave Indians a taste for momos. The parallels with the Punjabis, who came over after Partition and fell back on their tandoors to sell tandoori chicken are startling. In many ways it is the same story.

 So, only a man with no understanding of history (or of the MSG issue) would call for a ban on the momo. Instead we should celebrate the symbolism of the momo. India not only accepts all foods but within three decades, we transform them into Pan-Indian dishes – so successfully that their origins no longer matter!

From HT Brunch, July 2, 2017

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