All Too Much: The Absurdity of the Tandoori Momo
"Bakchodi vaala khaana". Words by Sharanya Deepak, Illustration by Samia Singh
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You can tell a lot about a city from the most absurd thing it is collectively prepared to put in its mouth. Paris may be the gastronomic capital of the world, but it is only as prestigious as its worst French Tacos store. The less said about Tokyo, the better. As for London, it is a remarkably coy city when it comes to creating foods that flit across boundary lines of propriety and good taste. Yes it has things like Oregano Leaf pizza, with its frazzled, oil sodden base, the kind of sweet, fluffy dough that is part of a city-wide lexicon. But generally its most hedonistic foods are functional and utilitarian: the chicken shop, the doner kebab, the falafel wrap.
I was thinking about this when I was up in Wakefield in Yorkshire last week, rounding off a day of serious cultural activities by trying to work out what the most ridiculous food item I could buy near the station would be. The Pie Shop, a Wakefield institution serving meat pies, chips, mint sauce and raw onions, wasn’t open yet, so I walked up and down the high street looking for a replacement. Walking into Rafikee’s, an unassuming South Asian kebab shop, I knew I had struck gold. On one single menu there were more transgressive abominations than you would find in a whole borough of London: a Screaming Nachos Burger, a parmo made with chicken doner, chicken tandoori and pineapple, a doner calzone (!), a chicken kiev calzone (!!). Without a group of stout men with me to order everything, I limited myself to the doner calzone, which arrived looking exactly as I expected it to ─ like a 4:1 scaled pasty filled with ribbons of doner meat and melted cheese, topped with chilli and garlic sauce. It was completely disgusting and I was ecstatic.
Today’s newsletter by Sharanya Deepak are about these type of items, the kind of food Deepak calls “senseless conjectures” and her friend ‘Bakchodi vaala khaana’. For Delhi, where Deepak lives, this senseless conjecture is indisputably the tandoori momo, a hyperregional fast food born out of an unlikely confluence in a student neighbourhood that has gone on to conquer the city. Both Deepak and Wakefield got me ruminating on where the unconscious of London’s food desires can be found. Though ‘the North’ is portrayed in stereotypes of traditional, unchanging, carb-heavy food, there is actually a remarkable appetite for experimentation and transgression in its fast food that is absent from London, a knowledge that this is where pleasure taken in the moment lies, a pleasure with no regard for how you’ll feel the next day.
I am searching for it still: perhaps we lost it some time ago when we decided we wanted to be a serious food city and it remains only in fragments; perhaps someone right now is trying to work out how to fuse a pizza and a chapli kebab. Either way, it’s probably in Ilford, and I’m going to find it.
All Too Much: The Absurdity of the Tandoori Momo, by Sharanya Deepak
There is nothing about a tandoori momo that is not unnecessary. It is a dish that takes the momo, a perfectly good steamed dumpling, rolls it in a marinade of bright orange tandoori masala, and pokes it inside a flaming tandoor. When the tandoori momo emerges from its kiln, it is charred, and bright red — a kind of dense, carb-heavy chicken tikka with a crunchy casing. The baked momo is then topped with fresh cream, chaat masala and served with mint chutney; or sometimes add-ons of hung yoghurt (Afghani tandoori momo), achar (tandoori achari momos) or mayonnaise (so far, unnamed). When eaten hot from the tandoor, the momo’s spicy outer layer cracks and spills its meat filling into an orange pool of cream. Much of its appeal lies in this showmanship, that includes spice, liquid, fire, and heat. It is a dish that unsettles Delhi's aspirational food culture ─ one of eating mild-tempered Western foods ─ with its id of flaming grills and "masalaydaar" dishes flooded with spice.
To someone that hasn’t encountered it before, or if you are not from Delhi, this can seem entirely ridiculous. “Why?” many have simply asked. One friend compares the vibe of eating a tandoori momo to the senseless adrenaline high you might get from racing someone on the main road, or downing cheap whisky. Another friend, having returned to Delhi after two years abroad, dared to dwell on the question one afternoon on her trip back home. As we waited for our plates of tandoori momos on a cold February evening, she observed the new brand of packaged sauce-bottles at the shop, and coddled her question before she posed it, anxious about the consequences. “When you think about it, why would anyone eat this? Isn’t it...too much?”
She knew immediately that she had blundered. My friend was taunted to be “too good for the rest of us”, was teased for being too posh, more Westerner, less Dilliwaala. She retreated as soon as she had formulated the thought. “Accha, pata hai yaar!” she said, agonized but amused, entirely aware that what she had just said was about to provoke the usual, useless circle of chaffing and bickering. “I get it! It’s not too much.” It is in this kind of atmosphere that the tandoori momo exists. In a city where drama is constant and tempers are always fresh, it makes sense that one of its most essential street foods is a dish flushed with excess. .
I ate my first tandoori momo in 2010, when I was at university. I skipped class and took a bus to a small restaurant near Delhi University’s South campus called QDs, the unofficial inventor of the dish. QD’s was very much a restaurant of its time, specializing in “fusion continental foods”— electric, affordable dishes that could hold the attention of teenagers.
The momo, a dumpling of Tibetan and Nepalese origin, has taken many turns to become a student dish, and eventually a Delhi street- food favorite, slowly conquering the city in its unbound tandoori form. Momos made their way to India when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet along with millions of Tibetans in 1959 to escape the Chinese annexation of their homeland. When they arrived in Delhi, they set up their refugee settlement in Majnu Ka Tila in the city’s North, close to Delhi University’s primary campus. Majnu Ka Tila soon became known for “Tib Dabs” — Tibetan “Dhabas” or restaurants that served momos, among other foods. The Tibetan Resistance movement resounded with certain student groups, forming an informal alliance between the two communities. These connections were forged through and over momos, which, through their low price points and intriguing newness soon became a university staple.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the momo truly folded themselves into Delhi’ street food culture, even replacing samosas and others as the city’s most eaten street-food. This was in part due to the incoming workers from Nepal, who arrived in India as economic migrants in the late 1990s, and then in waves between 1997 and 2006, during the Nepalese civil war. Selling momos became a viable occupation for many migrants that arrived looking for work, but were neither assisted or rehabilitated in fair employment by the Indian governments. Since momo-makers could operate informally, and with little space, momo stalls could be set up on tables with a steel steamer and a gas cylinder, using market-friendly ingredients like refined flour, chillies, cabbage and minced meat, and were viewed as a healthier alternative to many of Delhi’s more oily street snacks.
Although momos are eaten elsewhere in India, in Delhi they are a citywide obsession; every metro station, busy marketplace, and street corner beckons to a stall with the dumplings, cooked in stacked steel steamers and served with spicy chili chutneys in flimsy silver plates. The tandoori version of the dish emerged from this culture around 2009, in the decade that saw an upheaval of tastes in Indian cities after the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. With the arrival of fast food brands in the 2000s, a free-play defined many of the urban foods that emerged, and a grapple to create reckless fusions ensued in the spirit of India’s cultural and economic borders now opening towards the rest of the world. In this atmosphere, it was only inevitable that something like the tandoori momo would happen; it is a conjecture of two of Delhi’s stalwart food cultures – the momo, and the tandoor.
The tandoori momo lies in the valuable genre of food my best friend calls “Bakchodi vaala khaana” which is quite literally, foods that are eaten to simply fuck around. In my neighbourhood in East Delhi, disdained by more lofty cultures of the city for being violent and seedy, the tandoori momo is a roaring success. It is eaten in street corners, and cafes that serve the dish, among flashy ice-cream shakes and flavored sheesha towers.
Even though I have spent a lifetime denying it, I am a hybrid myself. I was born into a family of South-Indian Tamil in Delhi, who many generations ago set up roots in Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan. This trajectory of migration within South-Asian borders is a rare one; one which whenever I am driven to explain, feels eerily like telling a lie. My sister and I have grown up with anxieties of having to prove our affinity to the place we call home. Spread over several languages and temperaments, we latched on to whatever was real in our lives; characteristic Delhi tempers, the street foods of our neighbourhood, my grandfather’s stories of his childhood in Pakistan. Our rootlessness prescribed a certain liberty to eat what we want, and call it part of ourselves.
Delhi is home to many like us, of indeterminate cultures. Foods can often take the same form; somewhat organic, if senseless conjectures. Despite one member of the BJP using anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant rhetoric to call momos ‘the killer dumpling’ and claiming they’re ‘more dangerous than psychotropic drugs’, the tandoori momo remains hugely popular. Still, you won’t find it in elevated narratives of Delhi, or the culinary enclaves of the rich. It is often critiqued to be a cruel appropriator, as if the mere action of putting a momo in a tandoor is not entirely acceptable to elite diners and food critics. Those like Vir Sanghvi may write about the chequered history of the momo, but will still treat the tandoori momo with distance, sidelining it to a position of “derision”.
I cannot hold the same criticisms of the tandoori momo because I grew up eating everything that was an in-between food. For me, it is in the suspension from weighty tradition and caste-based ownership, in the destruction of propriety and prettiness, and to eat simply for fun that much of street food culture in Delhi still thrives. Perceptions of the city’s food and culture still hinge on the city’s historic grandeur, but tandoori momo defies any notions of “real Delhi” — of Persian gardens, and British bookshops, where food is finery and almost anything related to pleasure is connected to a heritage of endowment. Just as my childhood neighbourhood won't make the history books about the city, the tandoori momo isn’t going to be in any wellness-inspired lists of Indian foods to eat anytime soon. But both of these are living, thriving elements of the city where I was raised and live today.
The tandoori momo also contradicts the sweeping claims of wholesomeness and domesticity that are considered the foundations of South-Asian cuisine within global food media. Scores of dishes that claim “tradition” are bedrocks of the way the Indian food is presented to the West. I have often been approached by editors that assume that I possess these perspectives. I have been asked to draw out homely scenes of festive cooking and extend praise to practices like women's labor in kitchens that I have tried my whole life to defy. These ideas of domesticity can be tiresome, especially when they extend to the way we are perceived outside them. When I lived abroad, men, mostly white, that would try and court me would often hang their head in disappointment if I got into an argument at the bar; nurtured a bad mood, or god forbid, a hangover. One of them even sent me a message letting me know that “I was not what he expected from an Indian girl”. I realized later that I had broken his dreamscape of a domestically adept, agreeable brown woman on his arm. That it bothered him that I hadn’t jumped out of bed in a sari and proceeded to make a whole meal.
While these packages of wholesomeness may be attractive and easily commodifiable in the West, they are also far from accurate. They skip the moods of smaller, charged places in the subcontinent. They skim foods eaten in pockets that are considered peripheries; the rugged, glorious bits that make up urban Indian lives. Like the tandoori momo, there are other abominations. Take flaming paan, where a betel leaf filled with tobacco among other ingredients is set on fire before it is eaten whole. It always amuses me to read about Indian culture in the mode that is most palatable: neatened and upstanding, while I watch teenagers outside my window size each other up for the last kebab, my friends shout at one another in crowded rooms over political differences and cheap rum.
It is not my intention to defend the tandoori momo. Too much of what constitutes Delhi is indefensible — aggressive moods, constant anger, toxic masculinity, are only some of the things the city is accused of. These are all present, all true. To me, the tandoori momo doesn’t exist despite its widely discussed flaws, but more so because of them. It persists because of the spectacle that involves shit-talking teenagers that converge around it every day; the compulsion to ask for double cream (it is here where I draw the line); and the fact that in Delhi, anything that lives on the brink of being a terrible decision is an integral part of culture, food or otherwise.
For more than a year and a half, Delhi, like the rest of India, has witnessed carnage. Covid-19, and the absence of governance by the Narendra Modi led BJP has the people of the country gasping for breath, and locked in from their lives with no end in sight. In a city like Delhi, going back into life will not mean cool picnics, and calm lunches. I have shuddered thinking of the unbridled chaos that awaits; but the city opening up will also mean the re-emergence of all the street foods that I love. In my time locked in, I have missed the silent camaraderie forged with regulars at my favorite chaat shop. I have practiced by myself the required glaring at other customers in iconic restaurants where the servings run out by noon. I have thought fondly of informal, bad service; ghastly new concoctions that people are drawn to anyway, and the general mayhem of eating on the street.
Before lockdown, the most popular tandoori momo in the city could be found at the problematically named “Hunger Strike”, a shop in a central neighbourhood called Lajpat Nagar, serving hundreds of plates a day at Rs 140 a plate ─ affordable for a treat, but also not cheap. Lajpat Nagar was set up during the country’s partition for refugees who arrived from the other side of the border with West Pakistan. Today it is known for shopping centers; and a residential confluence of working class migrants, students and refugees from Afghanistan and Tibet. It still retains a curious place in the history of the city, labelled relevant but too raucous and peripheral at the same time. While it holds many communities, some much wealthier than others; the neighbourhood’s primary culture is one of fast-paced enterprise, and constant flux.
Alongside the tandoori momos of Hunger Strike you’ll find Chur-Chur naan, in which stuffed naans are sliced into small pieces and eaten with sides, and the popular Ram Ladoos, pakodas made from mung dal and served with grated radish, which are eaten all over Delhi but are institutionalised in the neighbourhood. Newer entrants include “Chinese Chaat”, where Indian Chinese appetizers like fried spring rolls, and honey-chili potatoes are mixed together; and ice-cream rolls, which teenagers are besotted with. Even the first and still most beloved momo-shop in Delhi, “Aunty Momos” run by a Tibetan chef named Dolma Tsering, is here.
The last time I was at Hunger Strike was more than a year ago, when the crowds at the shop had surged so much that they had blocked the main road. Cars honked behind customers that stood in the middle of the street, but nobody cared, and a group of people proceeded to sit down exactly where they stood, in the middle of the street. This led to a sort of trance where others started doing the same, eating the classic Delhi ‘2/3’ portions, of two plates of momos between three people. A sort of tandoori momo festival, except on a Tuesday at seven p.m. When we finally got our plates and sat down on the divider, my friend asked that question again, but rhetorically. “Why do we eat this?” he said, eyes shining, double cream, extra mayonnaise, the whole works. “Pagalpan”, he continued, as we began to eat. “This is madness. We must be mad to think this is good food.”
Sharanya Deepak is a writer from and currently in New Delhi. You can read more of her work on her website: https://www.sharanyadeepak.com/
The illustration is by Samia Singh, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Chandigarh, India. Samia sees the world as fun animated loops with the best music playing in the background and thoughts arranged in quirky typography. Please find more of her work on her website https://samiasingh.com/ or on Instagram.
The animation is by Rishabh Arora whose work you can find on his Instagram.
Many thanks to Meher Varma for the title, additional edits and proof-reading.