Humayunpur: A Getaway To The Northeast

Humayunpur: A Getaway To The Northeast
A glimpse of Humayunpur in the evening, Photo Credit: Puneet K. Paliwal

Tucked away in a corner of South Delhi, Humayunpur is the city's favorite go-to place to savour delicacies from the northeastern part of the country

Sharmistha Chaudhuri
October 03 , 2018
10 Min Read

I’ve crossed the National Cadet Corps (NCC) sign thousands of times. A big blue sign on the right on the way towards Africa Avenue from Green Park. I can’t miss it. What I’d failed to see many a time—rather ignored—was the other sign close to it pointing towards Humayunpur. As a teenager who’d visit Delhi from Kolkata to spend most of her time at the RK Khanna Tennis Stadium close by, our hub for post-match gatherings used to be Green Park Market for an occasional treat at McDonalds (back then, still a novelty). Then we’d walk back, most probably cut through Humayunpur, to reach our modest accommodation for a night’s sleep, before starting the next day’s cycle.

Even after a quasi-permanent move to the capital close to seven years ago, Green Park remained a nostalgic haunt as I passed by the Humayunpur sign every time I visited. It was about four years ago after a close friend moved to the city from back home that, over mugs of coffee, we were reminiscing how we missed our favourite pocket-friendly eating places. An excited phone call next week fired the soul as she mentioned three magic phrases—delicious food, Humayunpur village, pocket-friendly. The dots connected in my head and finally, I took the right turn that had beckoned for years.

They say Humayunpur was a small settlement during medieval times, but over the following centuries, it came to be a village where the population predominantly comprised families from the Jat community. About 30-odd years ago, this urban hamlet started changing, letting out homes to migrants from other parts of the country, especially from the Northeastern states. Today, the sleepy hamlet has given way to a bourgeoning restaurant scene. To eat food from the Northeastern states, one earlier went to the state house restaurants or Dilli Haat. Today, one would go to Humayunpur instead. Is it Mizo food that you’re craving? Or how about smoked meats from Nagaland? Or is it just plain ol’ momos on your mind? Whatever you crave, you will find it in Humayunpur.

Delicious thalis at Humayunpur's nicest Nepali restaurant - Bhansaghar

Get off the auto at the entrance and walk up towards the urban village. An understated dark blue sign stating Bhansaghar (+91-11-49122404) first comes into the line of sight. There are people milling about from all walks of life—students, families, the old and young, nonchalantly going about their lives. Bhansaghar is located just outside the main gali, outside the crisscrossing dinghy lanes and matchbox houses. It’s a newish establishment that focusses on Nepali food.

The interiors are soothing, heavy on the dark tones and low lighting. “We haven’t really done much to the interiors; instead, we focussed on the food and flavours,” says Sarwar Choudhury. He’s one of the four partners who’ve invested here, Humayunpur’s only restaurant serving Nepali cuisine. There are no professional chefs, the recipes are personal, and the taste reminds one of home. Dig into a thali served on a traditional plate. The rice is perfectly cooked, the meat curry is tender and the alo bhaja (potato wedges) deliciously crispy. I recommend choosing gundruk ko jhol instead of the usual dal because that gives you an authentic taste of Nepal. Gundruk (a fermented leafy green vegetable) is much beloved in the neighbouring country and having rice with its curry is a regular affair there. As I mix the jhol with the piping-hot rice, the first taste takes me back to the many meals I’ve had at my aunt’s place in Kathmandu. Its fermented taste and texture makes the humble jhol a must-order affair. While Bhansaghar is dependent on social media publicity, it has already garnered enough interest among patrons. “We were initially relying on people from nearby areas to visit, but we even get customers coming all the way from Greater Noida just to taste Nepali food,” Choudhury says proudly.

Delving into the pork momo sadeko and chicken choila, I learn that Choudhury came to the city from Assam around the same time I did. Working at a call centre wasn’t really aspirational and that’s when, three years ago, he with five other friends, opened Hornbill in the vicinity. Also, the search for flavours of home played a major role in the decision making. It was an instant success. “Our friend from Dimapur knew authentic Naga recipes and that’s what we served in Hornbill,” he tells us as a plate of jhol momos comes to the table. Jhol or curry is an integral part of food in Nepal and here, incorporated with dumplings, makes it a customer favourite.

Enjoy a dinner at Yo Tibet

Making our way down the main gali we cross two restaurants—Freedom Corner (+91-11-26102058) and Yo Tibet (+91-9990613558)—on the right. Boutiques selling the latest sneakers and sportswear call out, but we don’t pay heed. This trip is only about food; no other distractions.

I’ve eaten at Yo Tibet before; in fact, it was the first restaurant my friend and I had been to in this neighbourhood four years ago. While the interiors have undergone a revamp, from dull shades to bright reddish now, the taste of the pork ribs hasn’t changed. I still remember that afternoon when we stuffed ourselves with succulent, yet spicy ribs, and polished off a plate of fried rice between us. We felt at home. Freedom Corner, on the other hand, is our delivery option at work. One of the oldest establishments in the area, no matter how late, how small or big the order—one plate of chicken taipo (stuffed steamed buns) or five plates of mutton momos and a gazillion others for a late night feast—they deliver to relieve our hungry stomachs.

Move on ahead, mind the puddles during the monsoons and say hello to the dogs roaming about. Come to the first four-point crossing and take a right. Keep walking till you come across a small red door. That’s Oh! Assam (+91-11-40421866). Riju Sharma’s brainchild, this 10-seater, one-room restaurant is in its eighth month. It’s run by a three-member team, who do everything from cooking and cleaning to greeting customers. “It’s difficult to find the right ingredients, but we are managing,” says Sharma as her pug, Jumbo, lies by her feet. He has no intentions of moving on a lazy afternoon. As we dig into the deluxe fish thali served on brassware, I am reminded of a familiar taste. The tenga fish curry is the most popular among customers, as expected. Pieces of delectable flaky fish in a tangy and sour curry is Assam’s most recognisable dish. Pour the sour curry on steaming white rice, and use your hand to eat to maximise the flavours. Eating with cutlery is a no-no when devouring Indian food.

Fresh food at Asha Kitchen

A little further up the main gali, comes The Categorical Eat Pham (+91-11-41812089)—by far a personal favourite. Started in 2015 where Oh! Assam is now situated, they moved to the current location last year. The Manipuri restaurant is a breath of fresh air. The green striped walls and broad wooden tables, red curtains and green door accompany the warm yellow lights as we order a special pork thali. Their eco thalis are also very popular among regulars—a few dishes less than the nine we are served. Manipuri cuisine similar to Southeast Asian flavours. However, there are influences of neighbours and Vaishnavism, brought to the state in the 18th century, in the cuisine.

The food here isn’t served on a thali, but individually in white bone china bowls. The ooti (yellow chickpea dal, almost like ghugni in Bengali cuisine) is simple and wholesome; the boiled vegetables are healthy; the pickles, papad and rice are usual fare; the pork curry, with a hint of heat, is outstanding. Wash the food down with fermented rice beer and then head home to pack in a snooze or two. Light on the stomach, the well-balanced meal will leave you satiated.

A picture of the off-the-scale spicy raja mirch

If it’s pork ribs you’re on the lookout for, you don’t need to go far. Diagonally opposite, on the first floor, is Humayunpur’s latest entrant—Heritage Naga Food (+91-7291979811). The vibe is funky, the walls painted in shades of red and the lighting warm. Dressed in yellow, Rocila Patton gives you a welcoming smile. She’s busy serving customers because her brother, with whom she runs the place, is on vacation. “The response has been all right, but we get more orders for delivery,” she says, as she takes our order sheet. We ask for ribs (but obviously), raja mirchi (chilli) chutney, a side of pork intestines, and smoked pork with axone or fermented soybean. Axone and bamboo shoots are very common ingredients in Naga cuisine, as is their style of smoking meats. “Good choice,” Patton approves. As I hear Adam Levine crooning in the background, I look around to see other customers busy consuming the simple thalis of rice, vegetables, dal and meat. When the freshly made bowls and plates of food come to the table, just the sight makes my mouth water. The ribs are succulent and crispy, the intestines chewy, the smoked meat with axone a must-have. The fermented taste is unique, and though I’ve had it before, it’s a surprise my taste buds need to adjust to every time.

Just as Korean inspiration has found its way to Northeast India, I head to Kori’s (+91-11-40108346), Humayunpur’s Korean restaurant, for some grub. Surprisingly, the interiors are an eclectic mix—Parisian murals, old Hollywood posters, shelves with plants, and of course, there is a large PSY doll ready to burst into Gangnam Style! The menus are cute with animated pictures—try the katsu fish (batter-fried fish with rice and gravy), the bulgogi kimbap (Korean-style sushi), and wash the meal down with the hot-selling Dunggulle cha (a strong herbal tea whose smell reminds me of instant ramen noodles). It’s a very youthful place. Four students come in and order delicious bowls of food, happily posing for our photographer Chirantan, who is experiencing Humayunpur for the first time.

By the time the day comes to an end, the sun has set and Humayunpur is abuzz. The urban village’s lanes are a maze. Various paradoxes flourish side by side—old-style dhobis coexist with new laundromats; dhabas serving north Indian food and stores selling Northeastern ingredients are visible; strains of various languages can be heard, from Punjabi to Meitei; and graffiti on walls are prominent as are posters advertising for food and tuition. Humayunpur is crowded and cramped, but people calling it a ‘home away from home’ will never want to leave. Choudhury puts the feeling into words, that he initially despised the place, but so many years later, he can’t imagine living anywhere else.

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