Thursday, June 18, 2015

How Momos Have Come to Rule the Indian Streets

For a few years now, in India, two types of food become popular: those with health benefits and those without health hazards. Momo is a beneficiary of the later. It is not known to offer any health benefit, but the steamed momos containing minced meat or vegetables stuffing hardly can pose any health hazard.

Roughly, momos appeared on mainstream Indian foodscape about 15 to 16 years ago. Since then, they have grown in popularity to become one of the most preferred snacks of urban India. As a result of this phenomenal popularity, today momos are available everywhere, from interesting small joints and street stalls run by guys from the North Eastern states of India (they make the cheapest and best momos) to costly Chinese restaurants.

But what is interesting about this is not so much momos’ success as a restaurant offering but their emergence as a popular street food. Their acceptability as street food is so high that even people who are prude about street foods flock to street momo corners.

There are a few reasons for momos’ success as a street food. Momos are the most transparent food: their simple contents (some meat or vegetables and flour) assure you that there is no scope to adulterate them and get away with it. Momos, at least the steamed ones, are always ready to eat; just pluck them from their pans and serve them with red chili sauce, no preparatory period is involved unless you eat the fried versions. This is a significant advantage as it makes momos something you can eat on the go.  

But the most trust-inspiring thing about momos is that we find it easy to trust anything that is well-heated – and in this respect, momos stand on a very firm ground. They are always being heated in their multi-storey aluminum containers and are served to you piping hot.

So how can you not trust the momos? But are they great to eat?

They can be quite bland without auxiliaries but mop up some sauce and you can’t have enough of them, as with any food with South East Asian provenance.

I bit into momos for the first time in Calcutta where you are served momos with hot soup (the small joints serve chicken stalk even if you order veg momos) and you add sauce separately. But after I moved to Bangalore, I was surprised to find momos served without soup and only with sauce.

It reminded me of what my sister had once told me following a short visit to Gangtok, that, in Gangtok, they couple their momos only with home-made chilli-garlic sauce. The guys running street momo stalls, in Bangalore, mostly come from Darjeeling, which shares cultural similarities with Gangtok.

Driven by an investigative zeal, I quickly went to Wikipedia to find out how momos have changed since they descended from their places of origin and whether ‘what they are served with’ differs from place to place.

I found that momos have traditionally had meat stuffing. Varied animal meats are used depending on local preferences and availability. So the conclusion: veg versions are later attempts at localizations, like Chicken Achari Pizzas.

Wikipedia couldn’t inform me particularly on whether momo accompaniments differ from place to place, but it told that momo is served with soup in Nepal. As for the other places which the momo traces its origin to, there is no consistency of practice.

But frankly, who cares?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Piku - telling a tale with subtlety and grace

There was a time when Bollywood was obsessed with Punjabi culture. Even if a plot was located far off Punjab shores (London, New York etc), it had to have a Punjabi family at its heart. Now, at least this year, that obsession seems to have moved to Bengali culture. Piku is the second big movie this year to have a Bengali setting. But, unlike those Punjabi-oriented movies which were culturally Punjabi but geographically elsewhere (or everywhere), the Bengali-oriented ones are either fully set in Calcutta (Detective Byomkesh Bakshi) or partly but substantially set there.

But that’s not the only thing I liked about Piku. The movie is a refreshing take on a father-daughter relationship. Again, in a departure from filial relationships shown in Hindi movies in earlier decades, the relationship Piku has depicted is realistic with mutual love, concern and respect and without unquestioning reverence. While Piku objects to someone expressing contempt for her father’s senility, she shows understanding and accommodation when someone is genuinely annoyed with Bhaskar Banerji. Sujit Sirkar has skillfully avoided the clich├ęs of parent-child relationship and has caught its nuances beautifully.  

Bhaskar Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan), a widower, stays with his daughter, Piku (Deepika Padukone), in a Bengali neighborhood of Delhi. Bhaskar is old and grumpy and suffers from constipation; the daughter is a working girl who takes care of her father and is a little exasperated by his old-age tantrums, just as everybody else inhabiting the world of Banerjis is, domestic helps, family friends, relatives etc.  Apart from constipation, another old-age affliction keeps Bhaskar occupied: his belief that he has some serious health issue, although for a seventy year old he is quite fit and healthy.

The family travels to Calcutta (Bhaskar’s home town) and there, unbeknown to Piku, Bhaskar goes for an extensive nostalgic cycle ride taking the viewer through the narrow alleyways of North Calcutta and such famous landmarks as Dalhousie. The cycle ride gives Bhaskar more than a nostalgic relief; after the ride, he relieves himself to his heart’s content. The next day Bhaskar dies, his last wish fulfilled.

The performances are masterful. Bachchan is excellent playing different shades of the character, his age and crankiness, to perfection…but where he has particularly scored is in emulating Bengali mannerisms. Deepika is very natural as Piku and Irfan has almost made it a habit to be  excellent movie after movie.

Another notable feature of Piku is it maintains a good pace without too many twists and turns in the tale. With a subject like constipation it was easy to resort to front bench slapstick; instead Sujit Sirkar has dealt with the subject gracefully without missing an opportunity to tickle your funny bone reminiscent of the Basu Chatterjee movies of the 70s. And like those Basu Chatterjee movies, Piku has its share of social commentary, concerning women and relationships, made in an understated manner.  
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