For as long as momos have existed in Delhi, there have been rumours about their contents. Depending on where in the chain of Chinese whispers you come in, the meat is dog, pigeon or — put down your breakfast — rat. Bigotry is obviously at the heart of such rumours: you may have heard similar things about the shawarma at Al-Bake in New Friends Colony. There is also a sense of bafflement about it: how can something this good be this cheap? “Maybe that zing does come from rat meat,” I admit to thinking once, eating thirty at a sitting (all for Rs 120).
To see anti-momo sentiment swell yet again seems especially outrageous, then, from the vantage point of the capital. As these reports circulate, I can think only of what it feels like to eat a momo for the first time.
Smooth, glistening, pale, subtle. The momo is the discovery of a new sub-continent for the north Indian palate: truly a lesson in how harnessing the power of steam changed the fate of humanity. Punjabi taste buds can barely handle the blue packet of Lays without bursting into tears; but the fire-in-a-bowl red chutney we are now able to glug with no regard for the future of our race.
The Delhi momo was born in the first colonies of migrants from Tibet, and blooded in the stalls of Dilli Haat. Yet its sphere of influence has kept pace with the city’s own expansion. There are bywords for the best momos in every neighbourhood in this town. In the malls of Noida and the markets of Greater Kailash they reign supreme, and even possibly in the by-ways of Gurgaon (if the khaps haven’t outlawed them in a chowmein-momo combo deal already).
Momos may be the “other” elsewhere. In Delhi, they mean home, as much as kebabs, kulfi and banta. I think of the stall in my own colony market, which started life about a decade ago as a tiny outfit manned by ridiculously hard-working migrants. It’s now a slick fast-food outlet, owned by an aged, soft-spoken, north Indian gentleman. It has a kitchen, a printed menu, and a seating area. For six days a week, as soon as the sun sets, the place is packed and you’ll find the staff produces chicken and vegetable momos on loop, with supply usually running out by 8pm. On the seventh day, Tuesday, they serve no chicken.
To remove the momo from Delhi’s landscape isn’t just to deflate the street food economy. It’s to denude the landscape of a horrifying range of innovations. What would Delhi be without, for example, Chalte Firte Momos, a franchise that offers “mozzarella cheese fry onion capsicum gravy” and “chicken butter masala” momos? What would happen to the Afghani momo — because why appropriate one refugee cuisine when you can take two? — achari gravy paneer and chicken pizza momos? What would Friday night dinner for someone, somewhere, be without that prince of desserts, the chocolate momo from Wow! Momo?
It’s a bloodbath out there. But it goes to show how momos, unlike people, have found a safe home in Delhi. Take away the dimsum, if you must; ban the gyoza; pry even the char siu bao from our hands, especially if it’s from an overpriced gastropub. But momophobia is a step too far. And that is where Delhi, and I, will draw the line.
Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer in New Delhi.