Tibetan Refugees Are the Masterminds Behind Delhi’s Favorite Dumplings

When Tibetans fled their homeland and settled in India, they brought their momos—thin-skinned dumplings stuffed with meat, vegetables, or cheese—along with them.

by Natalie B. Compton
Jan 16 2017, 9:00pm

The streets echoed with a mosque's call to prayer as my rickshaw rumbled through the New Delhi traffic. While many of the city's residents were dutifully fasting for Ramadan, I was dipping my hand into a takeaway bag for another momo, a dumpling originally from Tibet that now rivals the samosa as Delhi's most popular snack.

That's right: a dumpling. As a Westerner, I was surprised to learn that a dumpling was going toe-to-toe with the samosa for the title of Most Popular. I had no idea what a momo even was before I got to India, but was now on a mission to find out how they came to power.

Darjeeling Momo at INA market. All photos by the author.

For starters, the momo is not to be confused with the Chinese baozi dumpling. On his blog Shadow Tibet, Jamyang Norbu explained that the two are "very different" and not directly related. "First of all the momo wrap is thinner and made of unleavened dough, not sourdough," Norbu wrote in his post "Biting into a Juicy Momo Mystery."

Fried momo at Zakhang. All photos by the author.

Fried momo at Zakhang.

In the back of my horn-blaring rickshaw, I examined the moist bulb I had just purchased from a stall at the bustling food bazaar, INA Market. It looked a hell of a lot like a baozi, but Norbu was right the wrap was much thinner. I bit into it and instantly liked its garlicky, gingery mix of cabbage, carrot, and onion. To continue my gluttonous research, I got dropped off in the monsoon rain at Monastery Market, a Tibetan refugee colony.

Tibet Colony majnu ka tilla

Momo Guys in Majnu Ta Killa Momo makers in Majnu Ka Tilla.

"The Tibetan community is one of the modern world's oldest and largest refugee groups," Carole McGranahan, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado and historian of Tibet, told me. "Since the 1980s, thousands of Tibetans have escaped from Tibet on foot over the Himalayas. Currently, Tibetans are settled around India and Nepal, from Arunachal Pradesh to Orissa, Bylakuppe to Darjeeling, and Delhi to Kathmandu."

After His Holiness the Dalai Lama escaped from Chinese communist rule in Tibet in 1959, Delhi became home to a handful of refugee enclaves like Monastery Market. Through restaurants and street food carts, the Tibetan refugees introduced the momo to India, although other groups are claiming that responsibility.

Veg Momo Mix

Vegetable momo stuffing.

"Momo evangelism has spread in the last decade or so, especially in Nepal and thus via Nepalis to India," McGranahan said. "There are possibly more Nepali momo shops in Delhi these days than Tibetan ones! However, Tibetan momos are the original: juicy, hot, delicious, and served with homemade hot sauce."

At Monastery Market, I walked around a defunct metal detector and into an alley filled with clothing stalls. I followed signs to a restaurant, a second-floor space called Zakhang decorated with posters of Ladakh, a northern region of India that borders Tibet. Unfamiliar with the serving sizes, I ended up ordering enough momos to feed the family of five sitting at a table across from me.

I paired the "veg. butter steam momo," "veg. cheese fried momo," and "veg. fried momo" with a fiery chili sauce and savored the feast. Around the restaurant, every other customer had at least one plate of momos for the table.

Momo Sign

Momos are available everywhere.

After Tibetan refugees began setting up shop in India, momos gained special attention for a number of reasons. For one, the dumplings were a foreign new dish.

"Indians from the plains and the peninsula probably did not know how to make momos, so these would seem exotic and therefore worth paying for," said Charmaine O'brien, who has penned multiple books on Indian food history, including The Penguin Food Guide to India in 2013.

Street Mos

Street momos.

Unlike exotic dishes like Nordic lutefisk or Vietnamese baut, the Tibetan momo had a flavor Indians could get behind.

"It is a healthy snack compared to the usual fried snacks of India," said Indian food historian and founder of Detours India Jonty Rajagopalan, "and the umami taste with its spicy chili chutney/sauce appeals to the Indian palate."

Momo vendors by Khan Market

Momo vendors by Khan Market.

At a momo cart near Khan Market, a vendor told me that MSG is responsible for the momo's popularity with the Indian public. "People are addicted," he said simply.

The momo was able to spread like wildfire through Delhi thanks to its low price point, and it remains a choice budget food today, whether eaten on the street or at a restaurant. My generously packed bag from INA had set me back just 50 US cents, and my excessive lunch at Zakhang was about $5.

The momo has continued to evolve, and Indian cooks have put their own spin on the dish. Vendors around Delhi now offer varieties like aloo (potato) and paneer in addition to traditional staples like beef, mutton, vegetarian, and chicken.

Naturally, a high-end momo has emerged as well. When asked about the city's best momo spot, most of the people I spoke to in the Delhi food world pointed to Yeti: The Himalayan Kitchen. Located in Hauz Khas Village, an area that draws Delhi's young and affluent, Yeti offers food from Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and Northeast India.

"We really missed the food from our hometowns and felt the need to introduce the people of Delhi to some authentic Himalayan cuisine," Yeti co-owner Ardahun Passah told me.

Passah, who hails from Northeast India, and her partner Tenzing Sonamwho is half-Tibetan, half-Nepaleseopened Yeti four and a half years ago, and the restaurant has been racking up respect for their most popular menu item, the momo.

majnu ka tilla

Majnu Ka Tilla.

After an afternoon checking out the labyrinthine Tibetan refugee camp Majnu Ka Tilla, where I slurped down momo soup and homemade pineapple beer, I trudged up three flights of stairs to Yeti. The restaurant was by far the most mainstream cool of all my momo destinations, but there was nothing try-hard about it. It was a simple, rustic space decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and brass artwork. A pan flute whistled in the background.

I took a seat at one of the wooden tables and poured over the leather-bound menu. The offerings were divided by region. There were intriguing Tibetan snacks like twice-cooked goat maw, but I was there for the mo business.

I predicted the momos would be on par with the dozens I had consumed in the previous days. But as soon as the dumplings hit the table, I saw why people waxed poetic about Yeti.

Yeti's Prized Momos

Yeti's prized momos.

The fresh and radiant sauces were served in rough, golden chalices. The dewy momos were beautifully folded and juices oozed out of them pornographically. After dripping some crimson Sichuan chili sauce over them, the dumplings looked like plump, fresh kill. My inaugural bite was juicy beyond belief. These pillowy delights—not to mention the pan flute—definitely justified the bump in price. I still only dropped $3.71 for the plate of Yeti momos, a more than fair price for the best in town.

"Momos are incredibly popular for all classes," said Smriti Goyal, Delhi restaurateur had told me on my first day in India. "You can find them in every neighborhood."

Free Tibet at majnu ka tilla

The longer I stayed in Delhi, the more I learned that Goyal was very right. There were signs and stalls devoted to the dumpling in every neighborhood. You could even get them at movie theater concession stands and highway rest stops. In an age when flashy hybrid foods like Cruffins usually have all the fun, it's nice to see a delicious facet of a culture not only survive decades of turmoil, but thrive despite the odds.