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Delhi's Dumpling Divide

Tibetan “momos” are all over the Indian city, but the immigrants who make them still struggle for acceptance.

Tanvi Misra/CityLab

For a lazy Thursday afternoon, Majnu-ka-tilla—the Tibetan refugee enclave in North Delhi—was busy. Buddhist monks sipped chai on makeshift benches outside ramshackle travel agencies advertising Himalayan destinations. College students, presumably from the nearby Delhi University, strolled through the maze-like streets in twos and threes. Pop-up vendors oversaw their merchandize—“Free Tibet” scarves, Himalayan curios, and handicrafts—and hummed along to the music on their transistor radios.

I walked passed them, the Buddhist temple, the tea shops with peeling posters of the Dalai Lama, and swanky cafés. I was there to eat.

Restaurant signs boasted of cuisine from India’s Northeastern states, its Himalayan neighbors—Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan—and even from as far as Korea. I stopped in front of the Drepung Loseling House, a decades-old monastery with an adjoining guest house and restaurant. Inside, I ordered momos, Tibetan dumplings with thin doughy skin slick with steam or fried to a crisp and stuffed with meat or vegetables.

Dilli wale momos, sprinkled liberally with chaat masala and a spicy oregano mix and served with hot sauce and mayonnaise on the side. . . . . . . #momos #delhigram #foodofdelhi #delhistreetfood #trellfood #trelltaledelhi #feedfeed #sodelhi #delhifood #streetfood #foodtalkindia #yahoofood #candiddelhi #delhimomos #dfim #feedfeed #foodporn #l4l #food #love

A photo posted by SPOONFUL OF SPICE (@spoonfulofspice) on

Majnu-ka-tilla saw an influx of thousands of Tibetan refugees around the time the Dalai Lama went into exile—in 1959-1960, after a revolt against Chinese occupation of the country failed. At the time, it was more a refugee camp than a neighborhood. Today, members of this community continue to fight for the homes they left behind. But they’ve also had to fight for their new homes. Over the years, residents of this neighborhood have faced threats of eviction because the buildings were illegal, as slums often are. Only relatively recently, in 2012, did the local government officially recognize this neighborhood, spurring new development.

A stall and restaurant sign in Delhi’s Majnu-ka-tilla neighborhood. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

Members of the Tibetan diaspora throughout Delhi still suffer from legal troubles, political exclusion, and—like migrants from Bhutan, Nepal, and India’s northeastern states—often encounter economic and racial discrimination. They work jobs that help the city run, send their kids to school, and contribute to the economy and culture. Yet they’re not truly accepted.

Only their cuisine has spread like wildfire. Momo-wallahs (“momo-selling guy,” in local parlance) are everywhere, and everyone has their favorite. Mine still stands outside the office where I had my first journalism job. Back when I worked there, I’d step out around six in the evening for a momo fix and a chai. Our guy expected us. As the orders piled up, he’d lift the lid off his aluminum steamer, scoop half-a dozen momos into paper plates, douse them with sauces from large steel troughs, and hand them out one by one for 50 cents a pop.

This time, I ordered ones filled with minced buffalo meat and topped with a spicy sauce. When I bit into my first momo, it squelched, splattering drops of meaty juice onto my plate. The sauce was garlicky orange with an intense kick. The caliber of this sauce separates a good plate of momos from a great one—and this was a great plate of momos.

Momos, which have spread out and cross-pollinated with dishes from regions around Tibet, have whet Delhi’s appetite for pan-Himalayan cuisine. Restaurants serving Tibetan specialties are no longer restricted to the refugee enclaves: They’ve mushroomed across South Delhi’s swankier neighborhoods. Small, kitschy, fast-casual momo joints are also common around town, and many add their own twists—chaat masala, mayo on the side, a tandoori chicken stuffing—to distinguish their fare from the rest.

Momos have undoubtedly done Delhi a service. They’re delicious and relatively healthier than other fried and potato-heavy cheap eats found in the city. And like any good street food, they bring together folks from all walks of life. In sprawling and unequal Delhi, they’re tongue-tingling equalizers. The city, however, can do better to accept the communities that have brought its residents this treat.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.