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Rolling in dough
Gagan takes a handful of freshly kneaded dough and works it through his fingers till it's a perfect circle. The moist, translucent momo skin rests on his left palm as he tops it with a filling of minced chicken, onions, soya sauce, and various spices. Pleating the skin inwards, Gagan wraps it shut. His creation is nothing less than a potential oral heatstroke. The momo is served fried or steamed, and Delhi is in love with it.
The 21-year-old works at 'Raju's momo factory', as it's known around Chirag Dilli village (CDV). With over a hundred households running their little momo factories in the area, this 'urban village' has taken over the momo supply in the incongruous swankiness of surrounding South Delhi. So, if you've had a light, flavourful momo anywhere in Greater Kailash, Chittaranjan Park, Saket, Alaknanda, Panchsheel Enclave or Malviya Nagar, it was probably prepared at CDV.
"I pay around Rs 200 a month in bribes to the MCD official, which is quite affordable, " says Raju, a 42-year-old factory owner.
"Those who put up stands in big markets pay up to Rs 1, 000-2, 000, depending upon the location. They also have to handle freeloading cops who harass them any chance they get. So, running a factory is steadier work than running a stand. "
Chirag Delhi is among Delhi's densest settlements. Traces of centuries-old caste-based segregation are still quite apparent in the village. Brahmins occupy the large, centrally located buildings. The Kshatriyas and Jats are in the surrounding buildings. And the lower caste Kumars live along the nalla (drain). But these boundaries have started blurring as migrants have been flocking to the village because of low rents.
"Because people are poor here, they keep taking in tenants;" says 63-year-old Shambhu, who has been running a tea stall in the area for 22 years. "They restructure their houses and add rooms to accommodate as many as possible, which is why building collapses are quite commonplace in the village. "
The burgeoning population dwells in high buildings along lanes too narrow for cars. The bulging balconies of facing houses are either inches apart or joined together. There's hardly any space for sunlight. Around five years back, Raju rented a house in one of these lanes to set up his momo factory.
The factory is nothing but a large room in the back of the house. It has no furniture. The paint on the walls is peeling off. Raju's three workers Sanjiv, Gagan, and Rajkumar, prepare momos seated on newspapers. Beside them are large steel dishes filled with ingredients. Gagan's phone, which occupies the middle of the room, breathes out old, melodious Nepali film songs. The three migrants from Nepal have held a number of odd jobs.
"I was 14 when I came to Delhi because I wanted to be rich, " says Gagan, "I worked as domestic help in a posh house in South Extension (a posh Delhi colony) for a year. But my employers would beat me up over trivial things, especially their teenage son, who was a brute. So I ran away and got a dishwasher's job in a restaurant, where I picked up some cooking from Raju, who also worked there. And now at Rs 2, 500 a month, this is the highest paying job I've held. "
According to Raju, his recipe for the Tibetan dumplings is nothing special, but it's the skill and experience of the person making it that counts most. "Things like how thick the skin should be or how moist you want your dough to be, can only be learnt through experience, " he says. "You should know at what temperature to steam the momos. And of course, it's very important to get the chutney right. "
The winter is when Raju's sales peak. It's a time when cold Delhiites flock to the stalls to warm themselves by eating delicious momos that sear the tongue and induce watery eyes and a runny nose.
Ganesh, a momo stand owner in Greater Kailash, testifies to the quality of Chirag Delhi momos. "I've been buying momos from Chirag Delhi for years, " he says, "Momos are popular with both the rich and the poor. Where else can you get a meal in just 20 rupees?"
Thousands come to Delhi every year in search of a better life, and many end up in a bitter struggle to make ends meet. Chirag Delhi momo makers are the ones who have found a means of survival, and a rather scrumptious one at that.
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