What momos, which clocked over 1 crore online orders last year, mean to those selling them

Damini Ralleigh
“Get in line ! Distance banake rakhiye (maintain some distance),” hollers Dolma Tsering, reminiscent of a school teacher trying desperately to discipline an unruly bunch of students. Except, everyone standing in front of her is an adult—few masked, fewer heeding caution. They all seem to be galloping towards Tsering’s shop in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, weaving through the crowd to get to a plate of piping-hot momos.
Nothing shrinks the country’s appetite for momos, not even a raging pandemic. Food aggregator Zomato recently posted a report on its Instagram feed, titled “Presenting the 2021 Meme Rewind and A Little Bit About How India Ordered”, which claimed the momo trumped vada pav and its long-standing rival samosa, by some lakhs of orders. It received more than 1 crore orders, as biryani consolidated its top position, with two biryanis delivered every second.
As COVID-19 cases rise again, Delhi’s food vendors, mostly migrants, are gripped by fears of a lockdown and livelihood loss. “Bohot mushkil ho jayega agar lockdown ho gaya phir se (It’ll be hard to survive another lockdown),” says Tsering, 53. Not listed with a food aggregator, the lockdowns meant long periods of zero revenue for her. Tsering named her takeaway spot after what customers call her—“Dolma Aunty”, an epithet reserved for women of a certain age, and Dolma Aunty Momos has become somewhat of a landmark in one of Delhi’s busiest markets, since she started plying shoppers with steamed dumplings in 1994.
Back then, she and her sister-in-law would head to the market every evening, armed with nothing but a plastic stool that worked as a stand for her steamer pot and a kilogram or two of folded, uncooked momos that she hoped would sell by the end of the day. Twenty-eight years later, four Dolma Aunty Momos outlets stand tall with pride in the city. “It was difficult in the beginning,” says Tsering, who’d never negotiated the streets as a vendor before. She came to the Capital as a new bride in 1990, and was employed as a domestic worker. “I did several jobs—cleaning, washing, cooking, even as a runner for people—but couldn’t make ends meet. That’s when my sister-in-law and I decided to start our own momo business,” she recounts.
The Delhi that once associated deep-fried food with the streets, didn’t take kindly to her efforts. They’d accuse her steamed momos of being kaccha (uncooked), which would make them sick. With great difficulty she’d try, in broken Hindi, to explain what momos were. “But those who bought our momos, kept coming back. And with that, we were able to make enough money to feed ourselves,” she says. It’s unknown when the momo came to the country. Estimates suggest it was when the Dalai Lama sought asylum in India in 1959. Thousands of Tibetans, including Tsering’s parents, followed their leader. With them, came the momo. “Ten or fifteen small meat dumplings (mo-mo)” would often be a Tibetan gentleman’s lunch, noted Tibetologist and British India’s ambassador to Tibet Charles Alfred Bell in his book People of Tibet (1928). But here, it remained confined to the Tibetan settlements that cropped up across the country—Majnu Ka Tila (Delhi), Bylakuppe and Mundgod (Karnataka), Puruwala (Himachal Pradesh), Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh), among others. Since most settlements functioned largely as self-reliant units, keeping daily activity and interaction limited to the community, the momo, too, was primarily made by and sold to Tibetan refugees, save for a few momoficionados who made special trips for it.
The Nepalese, too, contributed to its spread. The Newar merchants of Kathmandu, during their travels along the Silk Route, are said to have picked up the recipe, made traditionally with yak meat in Tibet, and brought it to India. Many momo vendors trace their lineage to the Gorkha community (the British army began recruiting the Nepalese as “Gorkhas” in 1815), and refer to Sikkim as their home, where the momo has dethroned the traditional hyontoen—a cheese-filled steamed dumpling made with millet flour—as the State’s go-to dish.(To be contd)