A Wonton Story
This is a collaborative piece.
Text: Meghna Talwar
I am not old enough to know these complex adjectives when I walk down the makeshift tunnel that houses Nainital’s Tibetan Market, my family united in pursuit of Sonam’s Momos, ‘a local attraction’ that we have been told to visit, by friends and friends-of-friends.
It should’ve been difficult to locate it— a joint that had no visible board. But it wasn’t.
In the midst of shops selling bulky fleece jackets and trendy sweaters, a very promising smell draws us in. Before I know it, we’ve come to a stop in front of a cylindrical steel apparatus that rests on a lit stove. From this close, a sinister hum can be heard from the gas source that powers the stove— a sound that brings to mind a vivid image of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud when I hear it again in later years.
“Yuck.” says Papa. He’s not a fan of street food.
We ignore him.
Our family now divided, I wait with my mother and brother and sister, for our plate of mutton momos to be prepared by a middle-aged man (Mr. Sonam we presume) with greying hair.
We are made to sit on a rickety bench from where we hear the ominous gushing of the sewage canal below. Not a fan of sewers, or sitting, or stink, Papa has walked away to a safer zone in the market.
We daredevils however, stay put. From our seats, we see the proprietor lifting the lid of the cylindrical, steel container. Steam hisses out. Through this temporary fog, he picks ten pieces of momos, in a motion so practiced that he probably does it as a bedtime ritual.
Minutes later, a rakish waiter hands us fat, juicy steamed momos in a worn out plastic plate with fat, swimming in a sauce that is the deadliest shade of red.
Did we use forks or our hands? I don’t quite remember. Amnesia is forgivable when it is induced by an immediate burst of flavour— a mouthful of chilli sauce-covered dough that encloses a ball of lightly flavoured meat, garlic, and onion.
My mother judiciously divides the number among us all to minimise any hurtful fights. I find it difficult to decide my momo-eating style. Shall I wolf it down because it tastes heavenly or shall I savour each bite and go slow? Wolfing down it is.
We fight for space till an additional green coloured quarter-plate is presented by the waiter. By the time we children are at the last mouthful, the sniveling of running noses and the slurping of swirling tongues is louder than the hissing and humming of the momo-making machine and stove. Paper napkins, too many for four people ordinarily, are everywhere— a sure sign that we are done.
But that doesn’t stop us from looking wistfully as another plate is prepared for a waiting customer. This time though, Mr. Sonam dunks the soft dumplings into a sizzling wok of oil. Who knew spluttering could sound so tempting?
Before we can talk Ma into ordering fried momos for us to sample, Papa warns us of all of the ills of the oil in the stall, with a certain kind of disdain only a man who grows his own oilseed can display.
In the middle of waiting customers, rising steam and passing shoppers, Ma has cleared the bill of thirty rupees. One is not really expected to tip at such joints. We trudge back to the slop where our old green Gypsy is parked.
It’s been an adventure. I’m still clutching a pink paper napkin.
“Ma, had you heard of momos before we moved to Nainital?”
“Of course. It was 42..maybe 43 years ago. Some of my friends at school in Dehradun would talk about driving to Mussoorie over the weekend and eating momos there. We would always wonder what that was.”
“So you never ate momos before Nainital?”
“No. Not until then. You kids loved to eat momos. We’d pack them and bring them home with extra chilli sauce. You three would eat the sauce with every meal! Now you get momos all over Nainital. All over Delhi even. Right outside your house too.”
“Did Papa ever eat momos?”
“Not at all. You know how he is. I think we fried one or two momos at home once and then he ate some.”
I tell her that Mr. Sonam died of cancer a few years ago. His son runs the joint now.
The place though hasn’t changed too much. It really is wonderful to have some things in your life that stay just the same.