Text by Yashika Subba
Photos by Yashika Subba and 'Lemon Ice-cream'
“Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are,” Brillat-Savarin says in the Physiology of Taste (1825), one of the remarkable works of culinary tradition, which explains why some foods are closely associated with culture and people. If the food prepared and consumed by any given individual or culture as a whole defines who we are and where we come from, food is also a shared element that, on some level, may bind us all as one.
According to a recent survey* on food culture in Darjeeling hills, 91.8% of respondents chose momo, making it the most popular street food in Darjeeling. Momo is at the heart of Darjeeling's food culture and can be found in practically every restaurant in Darjeeling, as well as street vendors, making it a reliable source of steady income. Everyone eats Momo, but what's the origin of this cherished dumpling?
To understand the exact provenance of momo is probably not an easy task. But it is also interesting to look at the various forms of dumplings consumed in different regions and imagine how some of these may have had cross-cultural influences. Journalist Stephanie Butler explains that dumplings were most likely invented to maximise the use of meat in order to feed a larger number of people, “A pound of pork or beef may not be enough for a family of four, but mix it with some cabbage and onions and wrap it in dough, and it's a perfectly sufficient meal,” she writes. The earliest dumpling recipe appeared in Apicius, a Roman culinary text, said to have been published around A.D. 400. Researchers have discovered evidence of dumplings being eaten in China during the Tang dynasty and in Switzerland as far back as 3,600 B.C. (Vehling 2009).
Different derivatives of dumplings may be found in Southeast Asian nations, such as gyozas in Japan and dim sum in China. Jiaozis, which mean “tender ears” in Mandarin are crescent-shaped dumplings filled with minced meat or veggies and served boiled or fried. Legend has it that jiaozi was devised during the Han Dynasty by a Chinese physician called Zhang Zhongjian. During a particularly harsh winter, Zhang went to his hometown to find many of his friends and relatives suffering from frostbite around their ears. At the time, it is said that Chinese physicians believed that consuming foods resembling bodily parts would heal the portion of the body that the food resembled. So, Zhang prepared some mutton with herbs and wrapped it in pieces of flatbread (Morollo, 2021).
Momo is thought to have arrived in India around the 1960s, during a wave of Tibetan immigration (Pushkarna, 2021). Another claim is that this cuisine was brought to India from Tibet by Kathmandu Newar merchants via the silk route since it also closely resembles the Newari dish momo cha. However, the exact historical journey of momo in India remains elusive.
In Darjeeling, one of the oldest known momo restaurants is run by a Tibetan lady and her family. The shop uses their conventional momo recipe, passed down through generations from the early 1900s. Their recipe and the specific momo-making process has not been modified in all these years. Traditional equipments such as rollpaksey, langpe, and kedang are still used to make the momo.
Nobody knows how a Tibetan lady who started a momo shop in the heart of Darjeeling town came to be known as “Nini-Aji”, a blend of two ethnic words. “Nini” is a term used by Newar, Rai, and Limbu to refer to paternal aunt and “Aji” means elder sister in Tibetan. Since Nini-Aji’s demise in 1988, the restaurant was run by her niece Mingma Lhamu Aji, who is now 74. Mingma’s nephew Tashi Gyalpo has now taken over the place. Aji’s momo is renowned for its particular smoky flavour and their classic tomato aachar. Some of the customers have grown up visiting the restaurant and still remain loyal customers. The shop has no signboard and has never needed one. “We consider this as a heritage shop. We continue to cook food in the firewood. Perhaps, the last few restaurants in Darjeeling to do so,” says Aji (Mingma.L, personal communication, June, 2022).
This photo-essay looks at the everyday space of momo-making and consumption in Nini-Aji’s shop. This essay, while trying to locate the centrality of momo in the spaces of food consumption practices both within and outside the hills, is also revealing of the multiculturality associated with food – the history behind the specific food, its preparation and consumption and acceptance. Through Nini-Aji’s story and how her shop came to be, we get a glimpse on the multiculturality of the place and the space which seamlessly weaves into the larger notion of belonging–food and the shop here being a marker of oneness.
*Survey conducted as a part of Master’s thesis “Food culture in Darjeeling & food associated with rituals and festivals among the Limbu and Sherpa communities of Darjeeling Hills” by Yashika Subba, Sikkim University, 2022
Apicius. Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome. Translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling. Dover Publications Inc, 2009. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29728/29728-h/29728-h.htm.
Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste. Dover Publications, 2019.
Butler, Stephanie. “Delightful, Delicious Dumplings.” History, March 28, 2014. https://www.history.com/news/delightful-delicious-dumplings.
Morollo, Michelle Koh. “A Short History of Dumplings.” Arlene, May 28, 2021. https://www.arlene.world/blog-posts/a-short-history-of-dumplings.
Pushkarna, Kritika. “Momos Origin: The Interesting Story of How Momos Came to India.” The Times of India, November 22, 2021. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/food-news/the-interesting-story-of-how-momos-came-to-india/photostory/87782672.cms.
Yashika is a student of socio-cultural anthropology and an independent researcher. She aspires to engage and broaden interdisciplinary perspectives in the Himalayan region, exploring how people construct relationships between culture, identity, and indigenous knowledge to give meaning in the present. She enjoys opening up to new places, collecting anecdotes, and sometimes expressing it briefly in blogs.