During a recent visit to Kolkata, my wife insisted that I accompany her to a small Tibetan restaurant called ‘The Blue Poppy Thakali’. She said that the place would surprise me. And indeed, it did.

Momos by Doma Wang

The place was full of people eating joyously. I ordered a plate of steamed chicken momos. They were delivered steaming hot, in a bamboo basket. I bit into my first momo and as the juices ran into my mouth, I felt like a wow. The momos were incredibly soft and delicious, and the flavours were so perfectly balanced that my heart burst into song.

I learnt that this restaurant had been founded by Doma Wang, who is also famous as the “Momo Queen of Kolkata”. The momos she serves here are exactly what a Tibetan momo should be like — tender and juicy, with a thin delicate cover and incredibly fresh. In short, heaven in a dumpling.

Such a hot favourite

No wonder momos have become a hot favourite across India today. Zomato reported two years ago that more than one crore Indians had ordered momos on its platform in a single year. I was astonished to read recently that momos have ousted chole bhature to become one of the top three snacking dishes in Delhi. Imagine that!

Momo addiction appears to have spread far and wide across our country. The Indian market for momos is now estimated at around $3 billion per year. More than 90 per cent of the market is unorganised, with street-side momo stalls leading the charge. The organised sector is growing quickly too. The fast food chain ‘Wow! Momo’ now has more than 400 outlets in 30 cities.

A brand called ‘Prasuma’ has pioneered the concept of packaged frozen momos, which are fully cooked and ready to heat and serve. I tried their original chicken momos for breakfast and they were simply delicious. In addition, they were as fresh as freshly prepared momos. Clearly, this is a result of the superior ingredients and modern food technology that Prasuma uses to create its products. This is perhaps why Prasuma is already a big success.

Why are momos so popular?

What has led to this amazing popularity of momos in India? There appear to be many underlying reasons.

First, momos are very tasty, which is an essential factor for the popularity of any food. The combo of soft meat or vegetable filling, light dough covering and spicy chutney delivers a taste-high immediately. Second, momos are also generally viewed as a healthy food, particularly because their basic version is a steamed product. Third, they are viewed as nutritious, because they contain meat or paneer, which is a protein. This blend of being delicious and wholesome at the same time appeals hugely to most consumers.

Momos from Doma Wang’s The Blue Poppy Thakali

Momos from Doma Wang’s The Blue Poppy Thakali

Fourth, momos are simple to make and affordably priced, which is the reason so many street stalls thrive. Hence, they are accessible to the large middle-class.

Fifth, momos are relatively small in size and have in-built portion control, because you can decide exactly how many pieces to eat — unlike in the case of biriyani or pasta, where it is difficult to exactly size your portion.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, momos are viewed as a soul food. They have come to be associated in our minds with comfort and warmth. This is perhaps because they are steamed, or because they have a soothing umami flavour.

Opportunities and challenges

With so many fundamental choice drivers in their favour, can momos become as ubiquitous as idlis or samosas across India? This will depend on how the category addresses the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. Here are a few relevant areas for consideration.

While momos are very popular in the North and East of the country, smaller towns in southern states such as Kerala or Tamil Nadu are yet to embrace this food fully. In some of these towns, momos are indeed available, but their quality leaves a lot to be desired.

There may be a perception amongst a segment of vegetarian consumers that momos are primarily a non-vegetarian food, particularly because of their origins as meat dumplings. This is a perception barrier that will need working upon.

There is considerable scope for adapting momos to Indian tastes. For instance, chettinad chicken momos or pindi chole momos can infuse new cultural connect into the category.

Finally, the origin story of momos — their roots in the hills, the beautiful landscapes of Nepal and Tibet — is very romantic in its appeal but needs to be narrated far more powerfully.

So will you consider momos for dinner tonight?

(Harish Bhat is a marketer, author and poet. He has recently retired as Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.)