With the breathtaking view of snow-capped mountains in the backdrop and a generous helping of the spicy chilly and tomato dip, I tasted momos for the first time at the age of 11 in Gangtok, Sikkim. Hot from the steamer at a pushcart at the foot of the majestic stairway to a Buddhist monastery, this small piece of heaven completely bowled me over. While my father was busy trying to communicate with the guide in his broken Hindi about the Budhdhist prayer wheels, my mother watched in disbelief as my sister and I gobbled down momos filled with cabbage–a vegetable we wouldn’t touch at home. As a family, we all took back something from that trip. My father some bits and pieces of religious history, my sister and I our love for momos and my mother a brand new triple-decker momo steamer. Although she uses it to steam puttu and idiappams for breakfast now, she did treat us to her version of cabbage momos once.
It took a long 13 years for me to feel the same way after eating a plate of momos. The chicken momos served at Dev’s Momos in front of Godrej Nature’s Basket near Worli Sea Face did it for me. Run by the reticent middle-aged Dev Thapa, who moved to Mumbai from Delhi in 2012, the small, unassuming cart with nothing more than a steamer as apparatus is the second stall set up the Tibetan in the city. There are three basic fillings to choose from–chicken, paneer and cabbage–and Dev’s momos are easy on the pocket, too. As we dug into our third plate of chicken momos, there was nothing less than a crowd forming near his cart. His daily stock was wiped clean by 7 p.m., less than an hour of setting up.
Considered the biggest cultural import from Tibet (second only to maybe Buddhism), momos have been a huge hit in the streets of Delhi and Kolkata. Their popularity in the streets of Mumbai has been slower but steadier, thanks to the population addicted to vada pav and pav bhaji. While street side pushcarts like Dev’s popularised the momo, its distant cousin from China, the dimsum, is making its presence felt in Mumbai’s posh fine dine restaurants like the newly opened Ping Pong in BKC.
Although the original version of the dish has a ground meat filling, usually pork or lamb, vegetarian options are also widely available. Krupa Shah, 24, of Kurla, a vegetarian, swears by this steamed delicacy because it is a healthier option than the other snack options available in the khau gallis of Mumbai. “Here, in the streets, it is almost always a chaat, samosa or vada pav,” says Krupa. “I would choose a momo anyday over these because it is a lighter, yet filling and tasty option. The vegetables they usually use in momos–cabbages and carrots–are the ones I love and is a welcome change from all the aloo that is stuffed in other snacks.” Krupa recommends vegetable momos from Carter Road’s Kepchaki Momos. “I like the chilly, tomato sauce and their serving style,too, in plates modelled on bamboo steamers is innovative,” says Krupa.
Kepchaki Momos was the outcome of hairstylist Milan Thapa’s nostalgia and frustation. When he moved to Mumbai with the dream of styling for movie celebs, the one thing he missed the most was his favourite food. Although he tried a few versions sold on the streets of Mumbai, nothing reminded of the ones he had eaten in his village Bahudangi in Nepal. “Most of our customers are college goers, which is why we started another stall near Bandra’s National College,” says Milan. Apart from the usual fare of chicken and veggie options, Kepchaki is also one of the few places that serve the authentic pork momo and other innovative fillings like prawn and chicken and mint.
Although they look and taste similar, there is a difference between momos and dimsums, says Chef Mitesh Rangras of Lemon Grass restaurant. “All momos are dimsums, but all dimsums are not momos,” he says. “Literally dimsum means ‘little bundle of joy’ and it refers to small parcels of food.” According to Mitesh, a dimsum, historically, must contain all food aspects and has to be an all encompassing meal. He also narrates an interesting story that he believes gave rise to the dimsum (or small portion) mentality in China. “The dimsum was first made in 16th century China by the royal chef, as per the queen’s request,” says Mitesh. “The queen wanted to eat small portions that ensured that she stayed in shape but yet satiated her hunger. So the chef created different fillings that would keep the queen interested and happy. This is how dumplings like rolls of rice paper, spring rolls, cling wraps inside pandan leaves, banana leaves, lotus leaves and a whole lot more, is believed to have gained popularity in China.” This explains the reason why restaurants like Ping Pong promote the small plate philosophy with just three dimsums per dish.
Chef Zubin D’Souza, executive chef, Waterstones Hotel, says that momos are derived from Chinese dimsums. “It came to India almost forty to fifty years ago and is gaining visibility in smaller cities as well,” says Zubin. “I think as long as the population moves towards a healthy lifestyle, momos will not go out of fashion.” And as with any food item that finds its way to Mumbai, there are city special versions of the Tibetan dish, with fillings ranging from Bombay Duck to chocolate and chicken bhuna.
Whatever be the filling, a good leakproof casing is what makes the perfect momo. That was put Shalini Sharma, of Delhi, who had recently visited Mumbai for work, off at the Dimsums and More outlet at Churchgate Station. “Having had momos made by Tibetans in Delhi, one thing I noticed about Mumbai momos are that they mess up the casing,” says Shalini. “Also, the filling are too spicy here. They add unnecessary masalas while the authentic momos are known for the mild seasoning.” The sauce is important, too, says Mitesh. “As the momos are comparitively bland, what completes the experience is the fiery dipping sauce, usually made with a mix of tomato, chilly and garlic,” he says. “A tasty filling (soft or crunchy), a good casing (that doesn’t leak) and a flavourful dipping sauce are the three things that are to be taken care of to get the best results.”