Love at first sight
My first taste of it was in Gangtok. It was the summer of 1995, and I was staring at a girl my age deftly rolling out small, round dough balls into neat circles. Another one was putting a small amount of filling in the center of the circles, and then making a small, moon-shaped package, pinching the edges shut expertly. A third was carefully putting the freshly made ones in a steamer basket, and pulling out the perfectly cooked ones from another, serving them with a spoonful of fiery red paste which I later knew was made from a hot pepper called Dalle Khorsani.
Momos were not just food, but a communal activity, hands moving together simultaneously to make something which would be shared and savored. It was the first time I had tasted the Momo, which originated from parts of Tibet, migrating into Nepal, Bhutan, India, and then, subsequently, to the rest of the world. It has become a craze in several countries, including India and Bangladesh, and has reached America, Canada, Australia, and other parts of the world, migrating from one place to another, and making use of whatever ingredients available.
Over the years, I have had momos made with wheat flour, rice flour, buckwheat, gluten-free flour, and stuffed with virtually anything that was available – from barely cooked cabbages and squash to chunks of pork or bits of fresh Yak cheese, the famed chhurpi. I have also had it steamed, fried, pan-fried, in a gravy, and fresh out of the tandoor.
So when BJP Legislator Ramesh Arora made the claim that “Momos have been found to be the root cause of several life-threatening diseases, including cancer of the intestine”, I was more than taken aback, because not only is he stunningly incorrect, but also can be accused of providing alternate facts, a term made popular in recent days.
Let us look at the nutrition quotient first. Mostly, momos are stuffed with a mixture of protein and vegetables.
The protein part comes from several sources, but we can safely say that meat is a primary one. Vegetables can include leafy and crunchy ones, although I have had a stunning aloo momo in a small roadside shack somewhere near Lava in North Bengal. What it doesn’t mostly contain is what Ramesh Arora points out – Monosodium Glutamate, also known as MSG, sold under the brand Ajinamoto primarily, but also known as a “taste enhancer”.
Now, MSG has a bad reputation in general, being linked with cancer and asthma, but did you know, the salt which forms the base of MSG, the sodium salt of glutamic acid, is also one of the most abundantly and naturally found acids, and is also found in several ingredients, including mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, soy, and yeast extracts.
The truth is, it’s found in a huge array of food, and its also used abundantly in restaurants as well as households. However, the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) recently labelled MSG to be safe back in 1995, and although there have been several studies connecting MSG with headaches, cancer, etc., they have all been conclusively proven to be the result of an MSG overdose, which means, a person would have to consume at least 50 gm. of MSG on its own for a period of time in order for it to be carcinogenic in any manner.
Most of the times, the chefs who use MSG in food tend to add a very small amount (roughly a teaspoon in a meal for 10 people), which makes it difficult to be really harmful in any way. In India, MSG is NOT a prohibited additive in any manner.
Furthermore, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), in their report concerning MSG notes, " There is no convincing evidence that MSG is a significant factor in causing systemic reactions resulting in severe illness or mortality.”
What may come as a shock is the fact that most restaurants use MSG, by the by. It is what is added to a huge number of vegetarian recipes to add to the flavors, the elusive umami, and by the way, most of them are Indian dishes. One of the key secrets of vegetarian gravies and biryani is MSG, and it is added into food quite often in a lot of restaurants.
Furthermore, permitted amounts of MSG is available in a huge number of ready-to- eat snacks, from crunchies to chips, and yes, most of them are Indian.
Momo vs other Indian snacks
So why target momos? Is it because it’s a cheaper, healthier option when compared to the deep fried snacks available on the roads? Momos are steamed, so it uses less oil, and 10 momos roughly have 350-500 calories, depending on the stuffing, while the same number of deep fried goods have two or three times its calorific value.
For example, the Puri, which has roughly 105 calories per piece, and needs to be served with a bhaji or sabzi, which is added calories. Plus, generally, momos are served with a soup, and a chutney which is made with chillies (did youknow chillies have a high dose of Vitamin C in them and increases metabolism), which can help keep us fuller for a longer time.
It's all about discrimination
The other part of the argument is even sadder – the prohibition of making these dumplings in the slums of Jammu is robbing people of a livelihood. In India, where there is an existing job shortage, taking away the livelihood of a considerable number of people is not just intolerable, but inhuman.
Our country is a proud amalgamation of a huge number of cultures, where unity is diversity is our motto. Here, discrimination based on an individual’s origins or ancestors is not just deplorable, but demeaning, and goes against the essence of our country, that proudly supports diversity as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.
Momo is also an Indian dish!
The reason why Ramesh Arora is after the humble momo is perhaps more complex – perhaps he is not comfortable about its origins, or not happy with the addition of MSG. Looking at the situation, it can perhaps be said that he doesn’t like the competition that momo provides, or the higher number of takers of the snack, which he considers to be an “alien”, and a symbol of“Chinese cuisine”, which, technically, it isn’t.
The dumpling culture is a strong part of Indian culinary history, ingrained in it through the country’s migrant population. In fact, the momos have a stronger resemblance to the Pieroshki of Eastern Europe or the Pelmeni of Russia, in their forming style and culinary execution. In a way, therefore, momos remind me of my own religion, whose origins can be found in Central Asia and Afghanistan, but it slowly, but steadily, moved far and wide, all the way to the depths of Kalimantan and to the tops of the Hindukush. It didn’t reach there in a day, but its presence slowly strengthened and grew over hundreds of years, and was adapted to suit individual needs.
Poorna Banerjee is a food and travel writer and the owner of www.presentedbyp.com.
All images sourced from Poorna Banerjee