What are the two (largely dry) Oriental snack foods that have taken off in India in the last decade or so? The first one, as you probably guessed, is the sushi roll, now served everywhere in an Indian avatar as a way of spitting in the face of the Japanese who think they know what sushi is.

But it is the second one that surprises me more: dim sum. You now get dim sum everywhere: at mall restaurants, at snack bars, at upmarket grocery stores and at take-away places. Here too, the genius of Indian chefs is at play. Chinese people would slash their wrists if they tried some of India’s most popular dim sum.

There are two parts to the dim sum boom. The first is dumplings that are described as dim sum. And the second is the now ubiquitous momo.

You could argue, probably with some historical justification, that momos and dim sum are actually the same dish. The Chinese invented dim sum over a thousand years ago (the Tang dynasty: 618-907 AD) and took them to every corner of their empire. They also exported them: the Japanese gyoza and the Vietnamese banhbot loc are descended from China’s dim sum tradition.



When it comes to momos and dim sum, chef Vikramjit Roy says that the trick is to respect the genre while tweaking the dumpling


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When it comes to momos and dim sum, chef Vikramjit Roy says that the trick is to respect the genre while tweaking the dumpling

Even if you don’t accept that Tibet was a part of the Chinese empire, there is little doubt that the Tibetans got their dumplings from the Chinese. They, in turn, brought their momos with them when they fled to India in the 1960s, after the Chinese takeover. Because Tibetans are an adventurous, entrepreneurial community, they spread out all over India. And everywhere they went, their momos went with them. My guess is that the first people to adopt the momos as their own were the Nepalis, both in Darjeeling district and in Nepal itself. Next, momos spread all over the North East where they are regarded as a local delicacy which, of course, they are not.

Over the last decade, the momo has spread to the rest of the country and you can now buy frozen momos (you steam them yourself at home) at shops and many markets have stalls selling momos. Punjabis gave them the ultimate compliment when they invented tandoori momos.

Dim sum have followed a different trajectory. There was always dim sum on the menus of most upmarket Chinese restaurants. (Taipan at the Delhi Oberoi had a famous dim sum lunch as far back as the 1980s and the Taj Palace opened the Tea House of the August Moon as a dim sum house.) But they never really took off till Yauatcha opened in Mumbai (and later, in Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, etc.)



Many restaurants go beyond the siu mai, baos and har gow we think of as dim sum


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Many restaurants go beyond the siu mai, baos and har gow we think of as dim sum

The original Yauatcha is a London restaurant started by Alan Yau (the restaurant’s name refers to “Yau at tea”), which launched a dim sum boom in the West. Yau sold out, but the new owners opened Yauatchas all over the world. Then Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung began an even greater global expansion, establishing dim sum as an international favourite.

As dim sum became big business, global chains with less lofty standards looked at the concept and were delighted to discover that you could make dim sum in bulk at a central commissary, freeze them and then ship them to restaurants which would steam them as the orders come in.

This led not only to the rise of chains like Ping Pong but to central dim sum suppliers who supplied ready-made dim sum to Chinese restaurants who pretended that they made them from scratch on the premises.



Kaushik Ghosh of MKT where dim sum are the stars


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Kaushik Ghosh of MKT where dim sum are the stars

In India, the same model may account for the rise of the momo. Most of the momos served in India’s cities are not fresh. There is a huge back-up industry. The momo-seller you see in your market probably buys the momos in bulk from a central commissary. The bright side is that this allows people with no access to kitchens and with zero cooking skills to open momo stalls. So, the rise of the frozen bulk-made momo has created new jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

The bad side is that in India too, many so-called multi-cuisine restaurants buy their momos from the same kitchens which make them for roadside vendors and then add huge mark-ups at their restaurants. Even those restaurants who roll their own momos often rely on ready-made momo fillings.



A favourite (non-authentic) dim sum is a dumpling in a light red sauce topped with crispy fried garlic


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A favourite (non-authentic) dim sum is a dumpling in a light red sauce topped with crispy fried garlic

These fillings may explain why momos can be so cheap to make. Because nobody actually sees the meat that goes in momos, the mince mixture often uses those parts of the bird or the animal that customers may not want to buy. (I will not spoil your appetite by listing out exactly which parts they are.) This keeps the cost very low for the basic momo-filling though some filling-makers sell three grades of mince to put into momos. The most expensive filling usually has the more appealing bits of chicken, pork etc.

Dim sum are different and are usually made in-house. Such restaurants as Delhi’s MKT and Cha Shi serve the same delicious dim sum menu though the dumplings are themselves made in the MKT kitchen. Many of the dim sum you will find at restaurants go beyond the siu mai, baos and har gow we think of as dim sum.



Varun Tuli asks his chefs to make dishes that look interesting


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Varun Tuli asks his chefs to make dishes that look interesting

For a long time when Indians innovated with Oriental food, this only consisted of adding masalas and chilli. But now, with both sushi and dim sum, Indian chefs are innovating within the Oriental flavour spectrum itself.

For instance, one of my favourite (non-authentic) dim sum is a dumpling in a light red sauce topped with crispy fried garlic. You get it under different names at such places as MKT, Cha Shi and at many of Varun Tuli’s operations (Noshi, Yum Yum Cha, etc.)

I asked Varun what its origins were. It turned out that the dumpling was actually invented in his kitchen using an unusual process. Varun first asks his chefs to create dishes that look interesting. So the dumpling was created (with red sauce, toppings, etc), using mashed potato as filler. When it looked right, Varun set about working on the taste and created the real thing, working out the exact flavour of the sauce, adding the garlic etc. It has now become so popular that it turns up on menus everywhere.



Vikramjit Roy, the chef-partner at Tangra Connection, serves both momos and dim sum. While dim sum require a delicate touch, momos are fairly basic


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Vikramjit Roy, the chef-partner at Tangra Connection, serves both momos and dim sum. While dim sum require a delicate touch, momos are fairly basic

Vikramjit Roy, the chef-partner at the newly-opened Tangra Connection restaurant in Delhi’s DLF Avenue in Saket, says that the trick is to respect the genre while tweaking the dumpling. Tangra Connection serves both momos and dim sums. While dim sum require a delicate touch, momos are fairly basic. (Made only with maida, simple fillings and just one shape.) But Vikram is paying the same attention to his momos that he pays to his excellent dim sum. And they taste far better than the momos anywhere else in Delhi.

Going ahead, I see three strands to the boom: mass-produced momos, traditional dim sum and innovations created by the likes of Varun and Vikram. Because India has fallen in love with dumplings.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, October 3, 2021

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