The Indianization of Momos

Anyone who has had some contact with the Tibetan people would recognize “momo” as a distinctly Tibetan delicacy. This dumpling, filled with vegetables, cheese or meat, is (along with the Thukpa or noodle soup) one of the main menu items in all Tibetan restaurants. At least in the post-1959 period, for several years momo was the symbol of either a party in progress or someone having food in a restaurant. Momos were seen in private homes occasionally and during special occasions. In short momo is considered as Tibetan as the yak or the mythical snow lion.

But in reality, we have shared this food (just as we have done so with our Yak) with our cultural cousins in the Indian Himalayas, Bhutan and Nepal. Even then, Tibetans continued to be seen as the owner of the momo brand.

Now things are changing (at least in Delhi) with the Indianization of momos. I don’t know how it began (may be an enterprising Tibetan must have opened a roadside shack selling momos) but today there are several road side stalls in South Delhi as well as in North Delhi selling momos. Last week I was in north-west Delhi and I had the latest sighting of one such stalls in a small market there with the announcement of the different types of momos and their rates all written in Hindi. The common feature is that these stalls are all owned and operated by Indians. The momo brand has become generic, I guess.

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8 thoughts on “The Indianization of Momos

  1. Yes – it might be that young indians are growing up thinking that momo is a traditional indian street food now!!

    A young nepali friend I had used to swear that momo is a native dish from his country – his earliest childhood memories are of him sitting with family eating their favorite family dish of momos.

    At the same time, I was amazed when a young 19 yr old Tibetan boy told me that his favorite tibetan dish is dal and rice … He grew up in south india eating this almost every day !

    50 yrs in exile has made its mark.

    Note: momo history – I spoke with an older Tibetan and he told me that traditionally, in Tibet, momo didn’t have the high recognition it does now, it was more of a family fare meal … eaten in the kitchen with the family. It was considered a simple home meal and wasn’t served at parties and events.

    1. Exactly, Momo is native to Nepal. I see some posts in #instagram saying momo is native to India. That is not true. It could be spread out because many Nepalese travel to India for work and many Indians have restaurants in Nepal. Momo is one of the most common food Nepal and among Nepalese. Every Nepalese knows what is momo and how its taste is.

  2. It is interesting to read this post. Shows how much the Tibetans have changed. Momos became the Tibetan national dish only after coming into exile. It is true momos were served amongst Lhasa people but it was introduced to Lhasa by Manchu troops stationed in Tibet. Later, when the Amban and Qing troops were expelled from Lhasa, some soldiers remained in Lhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse to make a living, many of the former Qing troops started to sell momos and they were in demand as cook at aristocratic parties. In fact, after the fall of the Qing, eating momos was regarded as unpatriotic and reflecting the sinicized lifestyle of some of the aristocratic families, such as playing mahjong. Kungo Lhukhangwa, who was very traditional in his taste and temperament, refused to eat any dishes that were not authentically Tibetan and refused to play mahjong, preferring to play sho.

    If you examine menus served for visiting foreign dignitaries, e.g. the British, momos were never served as a traditional Tibetan dish. Even in Lhasa it became a popular dish only after the introduction of aluminium streamers. In traditional Tibetan cooking there is simply no tradition of steamed food. The older steamers were made out of copper or brass, they were simply too expensive for ordinary households and had to be beaten by hand. Only the wealthiest family could afford such utensils. The aluminium steamers became widely introduced to Lhasa only in the 1950s when they were imported from Calcutta where there was a sizeable Chinese community who were manufacturing them.

    In the refugee community, momos came to be established as the Tibetan national dish through the Tibetan Homes Foundation, where many of the first generation house parents were former cooks or servants of aristocratic families and this quickly spread. Also, former cooks to aristocratic famililes and Amdowas established the first Tibetan restaurants.

    If you look at the term momo, it has no meaning in Tibetan language. The term is a loan word from the Chinese 馍馍 (mo mo – a steamed bun). The Tibetans simply adopted the Chinese word.

    The Qing soldiers who remained in Tibet after 1911 were responsible for introducing three things that are now taken as a part of Tibetan national tradition:

    1) Momos as I explained
    2) Introduction of the Snow Lion Dance. Before 1950, the Tibetans never performed this and if you look at any old photographs or mural paintings you will never see snow lion performance. During the period of Amban, the snow lion dance was only performed during the Emperor’s birthday.
    3) The introduction of musical instrument yang chi as part of Tibetan orchestra, here again this became popular only after the 1950s when the Chinese began to establish propaganda dance groups. The first teachers at TIPA had been schooled in music schools in China and they adopted many styles taught by the Chinese

    So, the post should be really titled Tibetanisation of Memos

  3. I grew up in Australia, I’m not Tibetan, but thankfully I have always known this dish as Tibetan, and I find it delicious.

    In Poland (where I now live and my family comes from) we also have a kind of ‘dumpling’ national dish – Pierogi.

    Home food, comforting.

    I look forward to eating more Mo Mo when I travel to the Himalaya later this year.

    Thank you for this fascinating piece. 🙂

  4. It is very hard to tell whether something is traditionally belonging to one culture or another, especially when one stands back from time and looks over the result of trade.

    What is the difference between “momos” and “potstickers” or other dumplings? They are all delicious to me, but if I had to pick, I would eat a momo served by someone who knows how to cook it properly, either someone who is Tibetan/Nepali/whatever other culture, or someone who has been trained by someone who knows how to cook them!

    Chowmein is everywhere in Tibetan communities, but isn’t it a Chinese dish?

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