Uppa calls it the Mainland. For most people living outside of South Asia, India is nothing more than the mainland. India’s recognizable triangular shape is just a part of the story.
Uppa’s India snakes into the Himalayas, toward the North-East part of the subcontinent. Not only does it touch China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar but it is also home to hundreds of thousands of individuals who despite being ethnically and culturally very diverse from other parts of India, are Indian citizens.
She comes from one of the many tribal communities that fill this northeastern region of India. Not long before the spread of COVID-19, she migrated to the United States and has been living in New York City. When I asked about her transition to the United States, one of the first challenges she brought up was just how difficult it is to get the foods she craves. Her story, her life even, is, like many of ours, defined by her access to and emotions around food.
Despite these challenges, Uppa still takes great pride in her favorite meals and often grows nostalgic for them. Living in the U.S., she particularly misses momos: a quasi-dumpling from Northeast India and Ladakh. Think gently masala-spiced meat and vegetables, delicately rolled into a delectable, far-less processed and certainly less sickly-sweet Hershey kiss package, steamed or flash-fried in jumping, shimmery canola oil over a wood fire or massive gas burner that will surely burn your eyebrows off if you stand within six feet of it! Served on a flimsy piece of tinfoil, these bundles of joy are often viewed as a Delhi-street food staple. Bumble some broken Hindi phrases like bahut accha (very good) or svaadisht (delicious) to the momo-wala (momo seller) like the foreigner you are and he may even slip you an extra one!
But when Uppa spoke of the momo, this simple meal became something far more poetic and perhaps a little less sweat-inducing…
Far from being fast-paced or born on Delhi’s sweltering streets, momos are slow, delicate, and almost like family to Uppa. She describes them as a painter might describe a long-lost piece of art. It is about the family connections and the creative process, not just consumption. Respecting this process is just as important as the bite of momo itself.
“Momos are not a one-person task. It becomes a family thing. Like everyone is doing their bit… One person is making the dough… I tried making them on my own but when my mom makes them, they remind me of happy times.”
While I might try to make dumplings at home merely for the fun of it, Uppa seemed hesitant to try preparing them during her time in the U.S. Why make something when there might be a missing ingredient or spice made by an unfamiliar company? Why make a momo when half of its taste comes from mom’s expertise, the other half from Dehradun’s fresh green chili? For her, the U.S. momo will inevitably be lackluster.
“Momos are a treat, they were a happy occasion food. Okay, you were sick, you just got out of being sick? Let’s make momos.”
Aside from her anxiety about differences in taste, it seems that Uppa’s craving for momos is also connected with her love for her community. The people, the place, the experience: these are the modes through which food shapes who we are.
“I look at food slightly differently than a lot of people. Coming from a tribal community… our food is definitely different from the mainland. Food is best when it is still in its natural essence… not changed at all like the mainland’s cuisine.”
For many people in the U.S. and Europe, India conjures up images of colorful chalk, deep dishes of buttery, oily chicken, elephants, and a flyer asking them to “feed the children.” These sentiments are particularly apparent in the ways people think about food. Food constructs Uppa’s identity as much as her swanky clothing choices, move to New York, or upbringing in the Himalayas.
“India is so much more than just kebab and naan. If people only just opened themselves up to more than what just the stereotype of Indian food is in the west, they would see that Indian cuisine is so diverse, it’s amazing. I definitely think the west needs to open up its mind to Indian food beyond kebab and biryani.”
Uppa, like all of us, identifies with the differences, the nuances of her place, her food, her people. The mainland of India, despite its diversity, feels too homogenous to encompass her preferences. The momo is a journey to Uppa’s world and an understanding of herself. A journey into her upbringing and identity. It captures the essence that makes Uppa.
Dan Soucy currently supports refugee resettlement and advocacy efforts throughout New England as a case manager and employment specialist with the International Institute of New England. He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University where he conducted oral history interviews with South Asian migrants to the United States. Dan has also studied, lived, and worked in various parts of India for 2 years.