Just a couple of weeks ago, I had been a part of an informal, yet essential initiation ceremony. Standing outside the back gate of LSR, I joined the gaggle of first years standing awkwardly in front of the thele-wala bhaiyya. We had been spoilt for choice – pasta in two different sauces, chilli chicken, kathi rolls, chilli potatoes, noodles, manchurian. But, the initiation demanded that we make one choice, a choice as old as time itself. ‘Bhaiyya, one plate momos,’ said the girl standing in front of me. And like sheep, we all followed her lead. ‘I don’t want to have it,’ I told my friend mutinously. Being my usual fastidious self, all I could think of was, whether momos could cause typhoid (one attack of the disease had made me averse to all food being sold on streets). My friend (she is my Pallas Athena, I swear) answered me with a simple question – ‘Are you not human?’
After that I made my peace with the fact that I was eating momos, come rain or hail. Finally, our turn came and we were handed that small cardboard and foil plate. And then we saw them- beautifully wrapped, pristine white and stuffed with goodness, sitting atop fiery red sauce. Not one word more was said, the hypnotic pull of the momos caused our hands to simply reach out for them and stuff them in our faces. There was silence. The kind of silence that follows the magic that food has the power to create. I broke it, my fingers still reaching out for the sauce, ‘Does he stuff these with cocaine or something?’ My wise friend looked at me, annoyed – ‘This is art, genius, not drugs.’
And that, my dear readers, made me think (I am the philosophical, ponderous type) – what really are these momos? A symbol, perhaps, of the Tibetan refugees, who have made Delhi their home, or of India’s North East. But what did the eternal momo mean to Delhi? It hit me, when I was having yet another plate of delicious momos – this time from Brown Sugar, no less. The momo symbolises the quintessential Delhiite – like the beautifully pleated, smooth cover, the Delhiite is immaculate when observed from a distance. But when you get a little closer, you are treated with a remarkably tangy and larger than life character, just like the momo filling. One bite into that soft dough cover and your taste buds are assaulted with a plethora of flavours, difficult to comprehend fully, at times. The momo did not emerge in Delhi, just like most Delhi peeps. But like the people of Delhi, it too now calls Delhi home. And of course, the red chutney – or as I like to call it ‘the Wrath of Achilles’ – is present within every single Delhiite. I am pretty sure dear reader, that this hasn’t escaped your notice. That killer glare and very loud ‘Excuse me?!’ you are treated with when you try to snatch away the last pair of Rs. 100 ripped denims in Sarojini, or the fierce bargaining done by your Delhi friend with the autowallah, are all manifestations of that red chutney. All these features of the momo are actually those aspects of Delhi that make it interesting. The glitzy facade, the wholesome interior and bits of plain old wrath combine to produce a frighteningly beguiling vortex that lures in women and men, quite like the ring of Sauron.
My momo mania has transferred onto my whole family now, and come weekends, plates of these beauties adorn our dining table. Steamed options, boiled ones, wonton soup, rice paper dumplings, wontons with egg wrappers and so on are now all tried and tested in my household. But, it is the momo, the true, thela-wala momo that keeps me going. As college proceeds and all of us go from being confused freshers to being simply confused, we can find time only for one thing – running to the outside thela, or any such shady establishment, for a plate of momos, the source of a teensy bit of joy in our swamped lives. Quite like Delhi, it would seem. Her traffic choked lanes make us want to choke the city itself, but a day away from her and we start missing the glib salespeople of Sarojini and Janpath.
So, if you want to do some deep soul searching, then I suggest go grab a plate of momos.
Written by Visakha Chowdhury
Feature Image by Devika