India-China tensions and a place for momos in Kashmir

For Hamid Butt, a Tibetan Muslim, the tensions in eastern Ladakh are personal. His restaurant in Srinagar speaks aloud of an exodus, his identity, and of the dumpling that has caught the imagination of Kashmir’s youth.

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The sangeen darwaza, an arched entrance to an ancient citadel, Hari Parbat Fort, opens to another world enveloped in Srinagar — the colony of Tibetian refugees. The locality has mushroomed with several momo joints in the recent years as the dumpling caught hold of taste buds of a generation pan-India. “Are you looking for Hamid?” a young man asked me. I nodded and walked with him towards the narrow, uneven stairs.

An inattentive view suggests Hamid Butt’s restaurant to be an affordable, street-side joint hoarded by youth in class-breaks or after a game of cricket nearby.

Forty-five-year-old short man with distinctive Tibetan appearance, sporting stubble and baggy-pants, waits nine tables in torn canvas shoes. His smile is as warm as a plate of momos in his hands.

“Hamid bhai, where is Pangong Lake?” a customer in his early twenties asked Mr. Butt in Kashmiri language. His wide smile speaks that he has answered that several times. “Just there… right next to Lal Chowk,” Mr. Butt playfully taunted in the same language.

The long, heated standoff between India and China since May 2020 has made far-off areas of Ladakh like Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley — to name a few — household names in the country. In June, the armies clashed in Stone-Age style with rocks, blades, and spiked clubs in Galwan Valley; at least twenty Indian troopers were killed while Beijing suffered an unknown number of casualties.

Several reports have claimed that China has transgressed the Indian-claimed Line of Actual Control (LAC) and occupied territories, including areas of a famous tourist destination, Pangong Lake.

India has called China’s move a part of its “expansionist nature” while China recently identified New Delhi’s infrastructure development and military deployments along the LAC as a “root cause”. Even after seven rounds of Corps Commanders level talks between the armies, the LAC remains tense.

The young customer in the restaurant hinges to the conversation: “Years after Tibet, China has eaten Pangong Lake, too? It is coming for the rest of India.”

Mr. Butt dodges. For him, it is personal. A larger-than-life photograph of Tibet’s Lhasa city on his restaurant’s wall speaks aloud of an exodus, his identity, and of the dumpling that has caught the imagination of Kashmir’s youth.

In 1959, a failed uprising of Tibet’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population against Chinese rule led thousands to flee the region. Then, their most prominent spiritual leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, also exiled and settled in India. The Tibet chapter has for long shaped the relations between India and China.

Though the crackdown was essentially on the Buddhist population, the Communist Chinese authorities didn’t allow some 3,000 Tibetan Muslims living in Central Tibet to practise their religion either; braving the religious repression, a 22-year-old young man fled for India along with others. And later made Kashmir Valley his home with many others.

He met a woman from the community and got married in Srinagar in 1965. Nearly a decade later, they fathered Mr. Butt. Despite being ghettoed in a strange city, the stateless community made these streets home — cooked Tibetan food, wore the cultural dresses, spoke in local dialects — and moved on.

Momos are synonymous to the culture, said Mr. Butt. A dumpling he has been turning to, in any mood or time of the day, since childhood. “The man who brought momos to Kashmir,” said Mr. Butt, “where I used to eat in childhood, in Eidgah, died a few years ago.”

He grew up watching his mother steaming momos, almost an art, he said. But it was still an alien culture for Kashmir, where he lived now. Then, in 2005, his parents thought that opening a momo joint might mint them some money.

Mr. Butt, along with his younger brother, Adil, arranged tables in the family home’s hall. “My parents put this,” he said of the photograph of his home town of Lhasa, smiling. “These are memories, bhai.”

Initially, he said, the joint struggled for three-to-four years. “Not many people knew about our cultural food then,” said Mr. Butt. “And also because we were outsiders.” Then Mr. Butt learnt the art of making it work: “Kashmiri language”. To internalise the food into habits, he gradually learnt the language to deal with the customers. “That’s how you calm a Kashmiri,” he laughed.

With time, the dumpling took over the fast food habits not only in Kashmir — or India, for that matter — but the world. Chefs, and people, came up with versions and variations of the momo making. From cooking it in a tandoor to its fillings, momo surpassed the regional boundaries to make its place in multicultural India’s street-food much like Idli Dosa, Chatt, Pani Puri, and Chole Bhature. Or Kashmir’s tujj, for instance.

Momos have been accepted by Kashmir — like any other business, Mr. Butt suffers too during a hartal or clampdown. Their popularity rose to such a level that in 2017 a Bharatiya Janata Party leader took out a protest rally — and burnt an effigy — asking to ban “silent killer”.

Mr. Butt said he has no special technique or secret to his method of making momos. Then what makes him the most popular? “The magic is in my tongue. I speak like your friend, not as a waiter or an owner.”

Today, he employs eight people from his community — all his extended relatives — in the restaurant. Two women prepare from all-purpose dough, knead till firm, and then roll small pieces into circles. Two others shape the momos by stuffing — of mutton and beef at Mr. Butt’s place. While the rest place it on steamer plates and cook for about twenty minutes.

Except Fridays, which Mr. Butt reserves for prayers, his restaurant sells nearly 300 plates — containing ten pieces of momos each — in a day. Sundays are a whole other story, he said.

To give more options, he has included thukpa, chowmein but not hardcore Tibetan lunch; Mr. Butt fears that it would be costlier than a plate of momo — and if people would like it. “But I have been wanting to try and serve our original cultural food more,” he told me. “I’ll try that soon.”

That might preserve an endangered culture. Today, nearly 90,000 Tibetan refugees reside in different parts of India. A generation, like Mr. Butt, have grown up imagning from stories what home must feel like. And the hope of a return is dead too in Mr. Butt: “our ancestors had Tibet in mind, but we have moved on.”

Even a prospect of war between India and China doesn’t give him any hope. Instead, it scares him. “Hamid bhai, China voth Ganderbal?” another customer playfully asked. He laughed and moved on. Later, he told me: “Like India is an enemy to a Kashmiri, China is to a Tibetian. … unlike China, India is a democracy that allows practising all religions. If China comes to Kashmir, they will finish my religion.”

Mr. Butt, and the community, has mingled with Kashmir’s culture as they cook rice for dinner and wazwan for weddings. Momos are reserved for special days, said Mr. Butt, “like Eids.” At this speed, he said, his son’s generation will become Kashmiris: “Dresses, food, festivals — everything about us will become Kashmiri.”

And the momos? “Oh, that will remain,” he laughed, taking a drag from his cigarette.

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