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A Culinary Journey Through Delhi’s North East Delights

Though it may not be apparent on the surface, because after a while all Dilli-walas people talk and behave similarly, Delhi is probably the most cosmopolitan city in India. In its quest to become a “World City” from a “Walled City”, to borrow the phrase coined by a newspaper, Delhi has created an eclectic culinary culture.

Signs of this were already visible through the last decade, but post the pandemic, it has manifested with the explosion in the home delivery food business. Though “ordering in” has taken off in all cities, in Delhi it has gone to an entirely different level in terms of sheer variety and sophisticated food packaging.

Thus much of this revolution, if one can call it so, has happened in the cloud (cloud kitchens) as it were. But there is a little haven tucked away in Humayunpur, Safdarjung Enclave that some call the little North East India of Delhi. Several gems of the seven sisters of the North East are tucked in this small pocket of South Delhi.

For someone like me, who has not travelled extensively in the North East, a trip to Humayunpur is akin to going on a virtual culinary expedition of the region. Over time, the boundaries have been pushed further into Burma (Myanmar) and further East up to Vietnam and Korea, which have some interesting similarities with North East food.

The restaurants in Humayunpur are unpretentious, value-for-money places. Each has a character of its own — with simple, neat, contemporary decor — not slummy like the old Tibetan eateries in Majnu Ka Tilla that once used to be the haunt of North Campus students. But thankfully, they are not sophisticated enough to catch the attention of the fashionable foodies ( a term I am viscerally allergic to) of the capital.

Naga Food was the first to take Delhi by storm. The fiery Naga Chillies were an instant draw along with a plethora of pork dishes. Then slowly, cuisine from other North Eastern States — like Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal — caught on. But initially they were part of a medley like at the North East Flavours (now closed down), next to the Nagaland Kitchen in Green Park (in the erstwhile Uphaar Cinema Complex).

The North East has the highest per capita pork consumption in the country (with Nagaland being at the top of the charts). There is the Ministry of Pork in Humayunpur that serves pork dishes of the various states including some Korean inspired barbeques.

Assamese food was present in a limited way at the Assam Bhavan and briefly in Utpala Mukherjee’s Mosaic at the YWCA on Parliament Street. But now many more have opened. Other than the new Gam’s Delicacy in Assam Bhavan (which replaced Utpala’s Baankaahi), my personal favourite is Oh Assam in Humayunpur. What I love at both Gam’s and Oh Assam is their Duck — dry fried, more than the curry.

What has contributed to the growth of the Humayunpur North East cuisine ecosystem is the availability of ethnic ingredients. This has become possible due to better air connectivity. Besides, the large number of restaurants and growing diaspora make procurement of these food stuff commercially viable. The imports are not restricted to spices, herbs and greens. Semi-perishable items like dried and fermented fish, bamboo shoots and smoked meats are also flown in. With refrigerated packaging, even exotic fresh products like snails and local varieties of fish that are native to the North East are available. .

The new kid on the block is Manipuri Meitei food. This was my latest adventure. Meitei food is quite distinct from both neighbouring Meghalaya and Nagaland. It is essentially because of a greater reliance on vegetables grown in kitchen gardens and fish from home ponds. It is generally milder in nature with the hot spices reserved for accompanying chutneys and condiments. Boiled vegetables, stews and salads — with rice, which is the staple — form the crux of diet.

The vegetables are largely organic as chemicals fertilisers are hardly used and this helps retail their pristine taste. Though I cannot vouch that all the ingredients that one finds in Delhi are sourced from Manipur — the use of some special herbs and leafy vegetables make the difference though some of it is masked by the smell of Ngari — the fermented fish, which forms the base of most dishes.

My order for the evening from Manipur Sinju Cafe was Meitei Smoked Pork Curry, Sinju Salad, Eromba Chutney and Snails with Bamboo Shoot.

Eromba is more like a Bharta or mashed vegetables but with Chilli and Ngari, while Singju gets its distinct flavour from Perilla seeds, known as Bhanjeera, similar to sesame seeds, in the Northern Hills. The tastes are subtle and may not immediately invoke a Wow effect among the uninitiated. But with time — as we move towards — healthy, non-spicy, organic leafy vegetable based eating, it can emerge as a healthy variant of other Asian dishes like Pho, Ramen or other oriental broths and salad.

The bottomline is North East food has arrived and is here to stay.

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(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)

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