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?