Whose food city? ─ The Northeastern Restaurants of Humayunpur, Delhi

Words by Sharanya Deepak; Photos by Seonath Wakrambam

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I have been as guilty as anyone else of using the term “food city” thoughtlessly and with abandon. Hong Kong is a great food city. Singapore is a great food city. Tokyo? Maybe the greatest food city. New York and Los Angeles the pre-eminent diaspora food cities; a slight distinction. London is not a great food city, or at least it isn’t in the way people believe it is. I think all these things have probably come out of my mouth at some point ─ all it means is simply that these cities contain a certain number of quality and diverse restaurants. It says nothing about how prevalent food poverty or scarcity is in these cities, whether these restaurants are sustainable or how many people have access to these restaurants or what type of people have access to these restaurants, or whether the cities green spaces are pregnant with fresh produce, or indeed, much of worth at all.

Ironically the article by Sharanya Deepak I’ve read the most is a food city list that she wrote on New Delhi; as far as lists go a brilliant, hungry-making one that does its job in making you want to book the next flight to Indira Gandhi airport. But as Sharanya says, do these lists ever really capture the complexity of the truth of these cities, that they are “layered, temperamental, and riddled with unfairness at each bend”. In today’s newsletter Sharanya asks us to look at food cities again, this time through the pandemic experiences of North Eastern Indian economic migrants in Humayunpur in Delhi who have shaped a neighbourhood yet are often disregarded by the lists and guidebooks. In a week that I’ve been thinking about the worth of restaurant writing, I think it proves that whose food and experiences you choose to write about, or who you give the opportunity to write them, does actually matter. Of course Delhi and London are great food cities, but you should be asking: “whose food cities?”.

Whose food city? ─ The Northeastern Restaurants of Humayunpur, Delhi, by Sharanya Deepak

In a brightly lit restaurant in Humayunpur, a neighbourhood in South Delhi, Ashok Mutum drinks sour, pink-hued Roselle tea from Manipur, amusedly listening to me rant about the idea of “food cities”. Mutum’s restaurant Categorical Eat Pham has been closed for four months, since the lockdown in March following the Covid-19 outbreak in India. But he is open for delivery, and walks around taking orders and assembling mounds of sticky Manipuri rice and pickles to send out to customers.

I have never really thought of Delhi, as a “food city” I tell Mutum, a foreign concept that I came across only when I began writing for magazines with a white, Western readership, codifying food cultures in my city for readers in New York. “You’re lucky to have grown up in a food-city,” people would tell me — editors would take a step forward and add “Eastern”: “a great Eastern food-city”. But whenever Delhi was heralded as a food city, it was in tubular linearity that presented glossy, predictable versions of it, instead of what it was actually like — layered, temperamental, and riddled with unfairness at each bend. Why do the owners of iconic beef kebab shops now hide from brigades of Hindu nationalists?  Is this good “food city” discourse? Or people elbowing one another to get ahead for a plate of momos, shouting for more sour chilli chutney; and lines of angry locals standing in scorching heat to get the last samosa? Did the chai shops where young protestors would gather to drink and make sense of India’s increasing authoritarianism make the lists that decoded the city’s food experiences? “Food city” seems cut from the same cloth as phrases like “must-have condiments'', one that isn’t entirely familiar to me, one that ranks establishments, dishes, cultures against one another as if in a competitive sport. 

“That’s true,” Mutum says, looking out to the neighbourhood that holds his restaurant alongside many other small-food businesses serving cuisines from India’s Northeastern states. “But there’s another thing, when you look at Delhi like this – it also advocates the idea of nativity, that Delhi belongs only to North Indians or the people that traditionally own land here, no?” He gives the example of the neighbourhood we sit in —  Humayunpur ─ which is owned by Jats (upper-caste landowning Hindus) but is today home to young people from India’s Northeast, like Mutum himself. “It is Northeastern businesses that bring revenue here, but even then, I, or a restaurant owner from Nagaland cannot actually claim any real ownership to the neighbourhood.” he says. We talk about the great Indian double standard – on one hand talking about uniting the nation and claiming diversity but on the other exoticising and vilifying the people that don’t fit into its ruling caste and class model.  “These models need to be more expansive.” he says. “Yes, I am Meitei, I am from Manipur, that is my background. But I don’t want to be treated, nor does anybody else from the Northeast, like we are foreigners.”

The Northeastern states are a misunderstood part of the world, both internationally and within India. The eight states —Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Sikkim, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh comprise of varied landscapes — large riverine deltas, the Himalayas, and hills that are home to the hottest chillies in the world. They form a  salient that has been unified within India, sharing borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet in the north, Bangladesh to their west, and Myanmar in the east. They are home to more than 200 tribes, border skirmishes, and a daunting number of political and identity quests which can in no way be homogenized and stereotyped ─ but this doesn’t stop people from doing so. After the economic liberalisation of India, young people from the Northeast started moving to the capital in the early 2000s as students and professionals, with the emergence of call-centres and corporate jobs that led to the demand for a workforce. At the same time, Northeastern states like Manipur and Nagaland were reeling from civil unrest and conflict, along with negligence by the central government that uses the region for natural resources but seldom creates within it infrastructure for development. While Humayunpur is often characterised as a cultural mix or “blend” ─a sort of diversity dreamscape — the concentration of young migrants from the Northeast into the neighbourhood is mostly transactional: these tenants pay high rents to the Jat landlords in return for a sense of safety. But the congregation of a community of young people belonging to the Northeastern tribes in Humayunpur has enabled a solidarity and collective claim to space in the capital.

Mutum opened Eat Pham with his business partner Poerei Yambem in 2015, and mixes affordable home-cooked Meitei meals with a weekend buffet for the restaurant’s regulars. A thali at the restaurant comes with Manipuri rice, utti (a Meitei tradition of making dal), singju (a salad made from wild herbs and chickpeas), and curries of pork or fish.  The neighbourhood is a bustling mix of regional cooking – there is Hornbill, an Angami Naga restaurant that dishes out pork ribs cooked with raja mircha and nutty rice beer called Zutho; Mizo Diner whose dishes from Mizoram like sachek (beef innards) and vawklu bawl (roasted pig head) have gathered a steady following; and Yo! Tibet, a restaurant run by Tibetan refugees into Delhi, a group that has typically found safe spaces with communities from the Northeast. 

Aside from the restaurants, the neighbourhood is full of stores that source ingredients from their home-states to sell: indigenous herbs, fermented fish pastes, smoked beef pickles, dried mushrooms, roasted meats and chillies so hot they were used as gunpowder against invading British armies. The assumed palette of Indian-ness — yoghurt, spices, ghee — is not common in Northeastern cultures. “We don’t eat all this masala masala masala always,” my Naga friends used to scold me in university many years ago, balking at my habit of eating seekh kebab rolls every day. 

After the nationwide lockdown in March, more than 70 of the 130 small food establishments in Humayunpur had to shut shop. “People were not able to match rent that the landlords demanded,” says Mutum. “These are small businesses, we can’t sustain this damage.” Mutum’s staff is from Nepal and the Churachandpur district in Manipur, and after the first month, he had to send all his Nepalese staff home. “The Indian government was being unclear on protocol, and I didn’t want them to be stuck,” he says, referring to the backlash on people from the Northeast and Nepal after the pandemic, in which they were accused of being “carriers”, which may have impacted Nepalese workers unfairly. Soon after the Covid-19 virus started to spread in the country, some Indians scapegoated vulnerable and minority communities, inciting hate and surveillance. The targets of these attacks were predominantly Muslims, the poor, and Indians from the Northeastern regions, who are often the victims of racism.  

“This pandemic has only made people more intolerant, and to people from the Northeast this is dangerous,” says Devraj Gurung as he packs Dalle chilli peppers and pounds them into a hot sauce. Gurung’s restaurant, KPG Express, was one of the first restaurants in the neighbourhood that served Tibet-influenced foods from his hometown Kalimpong in West Bengal — like shabalay, and buff shapta, and also Nepali thalis from the Gorkha community to which Gurung belongs. Alongside the restaurant, he runs The Himalayan Food Store, where he sells mountain salt, chhurpi (dried yak cheese), chilli powders and other products sourced from the state of Sikkim. 

But Gurung also serves Indian-Chinese food, of a standard to which many earlier restaurant entrepreneurs from the Northeastern states were asked to perform. “I started more than 12 years ago, I had to do this, North-Indians see me and this is what they expect to eat, so I did it – nahin toh kaun aata?” he says. “Otherwise, who would come?”

This signifies the lack of vocabulary to address and understand the foods of the Northeast among Indians. Restaurants run by young people from the indigenous tribes are often prodded to make momos (a Nepalese and Tibetan dish) and Indian-Chinese dishes like Schezwan chicken and chow mein. Often, young aspiring restaurateurs from the Northeast end up working in Indian-Chinese restaurants, pigeonholed into these jobs because of their ethnicity. Even as the foods (along with languages, customs and histories) of each Northeastern state are distinct and change as quickly as from one village to another, their foods are always blanketed and misunderstood. Most recently, a debate about dog-meat in Nagaland displays the dominant-caste and class morality that often governs ideas of Indian cuisine, one which characterises Northeastern foods as smelly, uncivilised and unfit for consumption. Meanwhile, in discussions of Indian food in its diaspora in the West, Northeastern cuisines remain glaringly absent. Travellers and bloggers who encounter the region’s foods tend to label them as “almost South-East Asian”.  

“You know the jokes – cheeni, chinky, these are not funny! They have real consequences,” says Gurung, exasperated. He readies a serving of steamed momos and Tai-po, a fermented bread bun stuffed with pork, for teenagers that sit outside smoking cigarettes and drinking Fanta as they wait. When the lockdown began, Gurung started a union with some others, including Mutum, to try and persuade their landlords to de-escalate rent. Many were successful, but others, like Gurung, were not. He had to close KPG Express and move to a small shop that fits only two people and can therefore only operate as a takeaway. 

Gurung talks about moving to a different model, in which he would rent a shop in which to operate the Himalayan Food Store. “But that’s not possible either, now,” he says, pointing to how marketplaces across India remain disrupted by erratic supply, with transportation between states still restricted.

For Rinrin Yangya, a Delhi-based Naga translator who runs the one year-old cafe Ministry of Pork, the disruption of supply chains from Manipur and Nagaland has been a problem, too.  “I would get smoked pork from Manipur and Nagaland every week to cook it with axone (fermented soya beans), and also get cured meats from the region,” she says. “Since ingredients haven’t been available for the first few months, I had to shut down. In Delhi too, there was no meat anywhere.” The BJP government of India espouses an all-vegetarian national landscape, and butchers were out of work for the first part of the lockdown, meaning restaurants like Yangya’s suffered. Mutum hasn’t been able to source many of the ingredients he cooks with for his restaurant either. “My otherwise regular shipment of river snails has stopped,” he says. For young restaurant owners like Yangya, things have been especially hard – she has been working the whole time to make rent for her cafe, and took out her savings to keep going. “It’s only a year old,” she says “I don’t want to give up just yet.”

Locals hope that the neighbourhood will maintain its popular spots, and that swarms of students will come back to find their favourite restaurants up and running again. Humayunpur is an integral part of Delhi’s food scape. It is in spots like this where the usual parade of dominant-taste gastronomy is punctured, where food cultures usually kept at the periphery of Indian cuisine stand in the centre, and restaurants are both pillars to a community and affordable to the city’s new and young. If Delhi is a food-city, it is in neighbourhoods like this one. 

As sunset draws closer, more teenagers flock to Gurung’s shop to order fried-rice bowls and he waits for his wife and sister-in-law to bring marinated chicken to him. Because of the small size of his current shop, most kitchen’s operations take place in his home-kitchen, where his wife fills dumplings and slices spring onions to bring to her husband..“I’ve been reduced to this,’' he says, circling around the tiny space, stretching his arms to touch the walls on both sides. “I’m not even making rent, but I just want people to remember I’m still here.”

Sharanya Deepak is a writer from and currently in New Delhi. You can read more of her work on her website: https://www.sharanyadeepak.com/

The photos were taken by Seonath Wakrambam, a cinematographer, photographer and a mix media artist based out of New Delhi, India. He works full time as an in-house cinematographer and art director at a film production company called 'Jamun'. He also works as a freelancer - you can find him on Instagram or can commission him by email at seonathwakrambam@gmail.com

Both Sharanya and Seonath were paid for their work.