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Momos, tandoori chicken & other refugee foods

Political demonstrations are an everyday affair in India.

A significant part of the whole ritual of political protest is the burning of an effigy. Over the years, every leader of consequence (from Donald Trump to Mao Zedong to Indira Gandhi) has been burned in effigy while demonstrators cheer.


In the troubled Indian border state of Jammu and Kashmir, demonstrations are even more common than in the rest of India. Even so there was something unusual about the recent protest organised by Ramesh Arora, a legislator from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Mr. Arora and his followers were not demonstrating against any political party or leader. The target of their ire was the ‘momo’, a dim sum-like dumpling that is popular all over India.


   The momo, Mr. Arora declared, is “more dangerous than alcohol or psychotropic drugs". Worse still, he added, teenagers were getting “addicted to momos like they do with drugs.” So, the “Chinese momo”, as he called it, had to be banned for its "negative impact on Indian food culture".


   Then, as his supporters carried placards with such slogans as 'Momos - Silent Killer' and 'Momos - Slow Death’, Mr. Arora drew the media’s attention to the effigy that was the centrepiece of his demonstration. This time it was not a political leader but it was, instead, an effigy of the momo, the Silent-Killer of Mr. Arora’s rhetoric.


   Even by the not-very-exacting standards of Indian political protests, there was something surreal about this demonstration. It is the first time in Indian history that a humble dumpling has been granted its own effigy. And though Mr. Arora got his 50 seconds of airtime on TV bulletins that evening, the general response was one of incredulity, if not outright hilarity.


   Things did not get better when Mr. Arora declared that he wanted a ban on Chinese cuisine in general because it causes cancer of the intestine. (It is a miracle that there are any healthy Chinese people left in the world!)


   Mr. Arora tried to find a pseudo-scientific justification for his views, referring to the alleged ill-effects of monosodium glutamate, an old Indian obsession that led the government of India to halt the sale of Maggi noodles some years ago. But obviously, nobody had told him that many Indian restaurants and locally made packaged foods also use Monosodium Glutamate. And perhaps it would not have mattered because the real target of his protest was China and its cuisine.


   One problem with Mr. Arora’s anti-Chinese protest is that not only is the momo not really Chinese, most Chinese people, I suspect, have never even heard of it. So it seems like an odd choice of target for an anti-Chinese demonstration. (Even the second target of the protest, Ajinomoto, a popular brand of Monosodium Glutamate flavour-enhancers, is not Chinese. It is a Japanese company.)


   But the story of the momo and its journey to near ubiquity in India (now including political protests!) tells us something about how the country’s cuisine has developed. So many of the dishes that the world regards as Indian are either recent inventions or are adaptations of dishes from elsewhere.


   Sometimes the dishes came from abroad with traders. The sambusak of the Middle East, originally a baked turnover, became the deep fried Indian samosa that is popular the world over. The pilaffs of Turkey were Indianised by court cooks and evolved into the biryani. Even the chilli, regarded internationally as the building block of Indian cuisine, was introduced to India (from the New World) by the Portuguese. It was so adroitly incorporated into Indian dishes by local chefs that most Indians now regard it as an ancient Indian vegetable/condiment.


   But some of the greatest dishes came from refugees, from those forced to flee their homes because of some upheaval. The best example is modern tandoori cooking (tandoori chicken, butter chicken, and all tandoori kababs, including the chicken tikka). It was only popularised as late as the second half of the Twentieth Century by refugees.


   In 1947, when the British announced that they would leave their former colony of India, they also declared that they would hand over power to two nations. There would be India, of course. But they would create a new country called Pakistan as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims.


   Initially, people on both sides of the border believed (and were assured) that Hindus and Muslims could continue to live happily in either country. But as the British rushed through the Partition of India, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out and millions of people, on both sides of the border, feared for their lives. Muslims left India for Pakistan and terrified Hindus fled to find new homes in India.


   Hindus and Muslims had lived in peace, side by side, for centuries in such Punjabi cities as Lahore. But Partition divided Punjab between India and Pakistan and once the riots began, many Hindus left the Pakistani part of Punjab and headed first to Indian Punjab and then, to Delhi, a larger city with more opportunities.


   The refugees fled with not much more than the clothes on their backs. When they arrived in Delhi, the government set up refugee camps for them and they struggled to find work. Some drifted into the food business.


   Among them was a man called Kundanlal Gujral who had worked at a restaurant in Peshawar (now in Pakistan). Gujral had learned how to make innovative use of the tandoor, a clay oven that has traditionally been used in Punjab to bake breads (of which the naan is the most famous).


   In Peshawar, Gujral had seen cooks at his restaurant put whole chickens on skewers into the tandoor. He was determined to replicate the idea in India. Not only was the chicken delicious, it was a cost-effective way of cooking. You could put three whole chickens onto a single skewer and cook them simultaneously in the tandoor.


   Gujral opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Delhi and built a large tandoor. He cooked naans and chickens in their dozens at the same time in his massive tandoor. And his business flourished because it required no elaborate menus, few cooking vessels and virtually no cutlery. As Moti Mahal’s fame spread, the menu expanded. Pieces of cut chicken went into the tandoor and were called Chicken Tikka, lamb chops cooked the same way became Burrah Kababs and so on.


  "By the early 1970s, the Tibetan momo had taken over the East. Nearly everywhere the Tibetans went, the momo followed." 

   Then, Gujral hit on his second good idea. He needed a way to use up the leftover tandoori chicken and chicken tikka. So, he created a tomato and butter sauce and began to rehydrate the dried-out left-over chicken in the gravy. That dish became Butter Chicken. Later he added the same gravy to homestyle Punjabi dal and created the buttery black dal that most Indian restaurants now serve.


   This was Indian-cuisine-in-a-hurry, based on one tandoor and one sauce, a far cry from the haute cuisine of Delhi or North India’s food capital of Lucknow. So, the great chefs sneered at it. But the public lapped it up.


   Hundreds of Punjabi refuges decided to follow Gujral’s example and set up tandoori restaurants. To help them along, the government allotted them land near New Delhi’s central Pandara Road to open stalls. (That market still exists as a tandoori-lovers paradise though the stalls have now become full-fledged restaurants.)


   As the refugees spread out all over India, they took their tandoors with them. By the late 1950s tandoori chicken had arrived in Calcutta and Bombay. By the 1960s, it was a menu staple all over India. By the 1970s, virtually every Indian restaurant in the world had its own tandoor. And today, tandoori chicken is the world's most famous Indian dish.


   Not bad going for a dish created by hardworking refugees in their desperation to make a fresh start!


   Something similar happened to the momo, long before it was turned into an effigy and became the subject of dim-witted political protests.


   The original momo is a Tibetan dish. Given that Tibet has been in China’s sphere of influence for centuries, it seems reasonable to assume that like the gyoza of Japan, it had its roots in the Chinese dim sum tradition.


   But, unlike the fancier dim sums of Cantonese cuisine, this was a peasant dish. It was made of the cheapest, most easily available flour and filled with minced yak meat and flavoured with local spices.


   In 1959, the tense relationship between Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama and Beijing (which had taken effective control of Tibet in 1950/1), finally collapsed. The young Dalai Lama fled to India, eventually making the Northern Indian town of Dharamsala his home.


   Some Tibetans arrived with the Dalai Lama and throughout the early 1960s, Tibetan refugees kept streaming into India. The government, which had some experience of dealing with refugee arrivals after the Partition experience, provided them with housing. Then, recognizing their entrepreneurial skill, it gave them stalls along Janpath, one of New Delhi’s main roads, to sell artefacts, 'antiques', and the like.


   But the Tibetans chose to wander. Many went to India’s North East, to Nepal and to the Indian protectorate of Sikkim (now fully integrated into India) where they looked for business opportunities.


   Like the Punjabis before them, they decided that food offered the quickest route to making some kind of living. Momos were easy to make. Flour was readily available and steamers were not difficult to procure. There were no yaks so they made their momos from minced goat (the dominant meat in Delhi) or minced chicken. As they moved East, first to Calcutta and then to the hills of the North East, they also began using pork which made for a tastier momo.


   By the early 1970s, the Tibetan momo had taken over the East. Nearly everywhere the Tibetans went, the momo followed. As canny business people, the Tibetans refined the recipe for the filling depending on the market they were catering to. In Kathmadu, Nepal, you get momos with a dark filling that are packed with spice. In many North Eastern towns, they incorporated the local flavours of pork and chilli. And so on.


   Around 1980 or so, the Tibetans had done so well as business people that they found the returns from momo-making too small to bother with. So others entered the fray and as Bengali, Khasis, Nepalis and others began making their own kinds of momos, the dish’s Tibetan origins were largely forgotten.


   It wasn’t till the beginning of this century, however, that momos went truly national. A fast food chain (Momobelle) dedicated to momos was launched, the fancy new Four Seasons hotel in Mumbai put momos on the menu, and in every Delhi market, you could find two or three momo-sellers.


   Inevitably, the business became secretly corporatised. In Delhi, there are central kitchens where momos are made in their thousands. Local hawkers buy the dumplings each morning and then take them to their markets. They are steamed at the stalls and naturally, the hawkers claim their mothers or sisters made them at home.


   Nothing in India remains purely regional. So now, momo stalls are mushrooming all over Jammu and Kashmir -- hence the demonstrations and effigies! And two great culinary traditions have merged. All over Punjab, restaurants and stalls that would once have sold only chicken tikka or butter chicken now sell tandoori momos.


   Tandoori momos?


   Well, think about it. What is a momo? It is a steamed dim sum. What’s a tandoor? It is an oven. So haven’t you ever heard of dim sum baked in an oven?


   Put that way, it doesn’t sound that absurd though Indian foodies regard the dish with derision.


   So, is the momo still refugee food? Clearly not. What’s more, it’s not even regarded as a Tibetan dish in most of India. As the BJP’s Jammu leader Mr. Arora (the man who called momos “the silent killer”) put it: “this is a Chinese dish”.




   Well, at least Beijing would approve even if the Dalai Lama would not. With a single effigy, a slow-witted Indian politician has settled the issue of whether Tibet should be considered a part of China or not!


   But his foolishness should not detract from the real story: every refugee who has sought shelter in India has enriched its culture and, especially, its cuisine.


   There is tandoori chicken. There is the momo. And now, there are even tandoori momos!




  • Rajesh 19 Jul 2017

    Add Shawarma to this list. Though it still remains solidly Arab, it has been popularised by people who have lived in the Gulf and like to be reminded of it (hence refugee). Indian's have Indianized it by doing away with the Quboos, the pickles and the large pieces (replaced by roti, cabbage and mince). Like the Sambusak, we Indianized the Shawarma.

  • Shivam 15 Jul 2017

    I am surprised to know about the humble origin of butter chicken. Given its high butter content, I thought it to be a palace dish ;)

Posted On: 10 Jul 2017 12:55 PM
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