Momos, or Himalayan steamed dumplings, must have a long history, but tracing their origin is akin to solving a culinary mystery of Da Vinci Code complexity. In a very short span, momos have become one of the most sought-after types of street food in India. At the present rate, they may well become to Indians what chicken tikka masala is to Britons: a national dish of thoroughly alien origin.
Authorities on the subject fight shy of discussing the true origin of the momo because of what one leading authority calls the “sensitive nature” of the matter. The expert says Tibetans are reticent about the history of the momo, except when they are stressing that the Chinese have nothing to do with it. Their assertion must be taken at face value. But the similarity of the momo to Chinese baozi or jiaozi is striking. So the notion that the momo originated in China – like gunpowder – is beguiling.
For political reasons, the last thing Tibetans wish to hear about a national cultural treasure such as the momo is that it is just another variation of some Chinese invention. Some Tibetans have gone so far as to acknowledge that the momo is related most closely to the Mongolian buuz and that it is, perhaps, inspired by the buuz. Given the power of the Mongols in the era we are talking about, the idea that food in Tibet was influenced by food in neighboring Mongolia is not entirely implausible.
There are other theories about the origin of the momo that are less palatable to Tibetans. One is that toward the end of the Qing dynasty in China, the Manchu army that marched on Tibet introduced the momo. When the troops retreated in 1911, some stayed behind, having taken Tibetan wives, and their momo recipes remained with them and were passed on to their offspring.
The Nepalese also lay claim the momo, with some justification. They argue that the momo was introduced to Nepal by the Newari merchants of the Kathmandu Valley, who shuttled back and forth between Lhasa and Kathmandu with their merchandise, and in some cases had Tibetan wives. Go to any Nepalese restaurant around the world, be it in Hong Kong or Paris, and you will see momos proudly listed on the menu.
The momo is now a global phenomenon, owing to the migration of Tibetans and Nepalese to the West over the past two decades. Some food trucks in the Jackson Heights immigrant enclave in New York, for instance, serve some of the world’s juiciest and most succulent momos. Their customers include the city mayor, Bill de Blasio, who, after savoring some momos last fall, tweeted a picture of the momo truck where he got them, along with a reminder to the public to register to vote.
The origin of the momo is a touchy subject, and specious arguments are often used in support of the various theories. What is clear is that the popularity of momos in India is due largely to their introduction by Tibetan immigrants who settled in Delhi and Dharamsala. Whatever their true origins, over the years Tibetans have adapted the humble dumpling and refashioned it so many times that they can justly claim to be the inventors – at least of the momo in the form we recognize today.