As I noted in one of my write-ups of meals from our last trip to Delhi a couple of years ago, perhaps the major shift in the food scene in Delhi over the last decade and more is the proliferation of restaurants serving a larger range of regional Indian cuisines. It’s a different world now than when I was at university in the late 1980s and then working in advertising in the early 1990s. Then the options were largely south Indian vegetarian and, starting in the early 1990s, a few places offering food from Kerala. (I am not, of course, counting Indian Chinese here as that stopped being a regional Indian cuisine a long time ago—it’s now a pan-Indian thing much like “Mughlai” food.) Now, there’s a lot available: a lot of Malayali restaurants, Parsi/Irani restaurants, Goan restaurants, Rajasthani restaurants, Bengali restaurants, even Bihari and Oriya restaurants. The most pleasing development though in many ways may be the growing number of restaurants serving food from the states of the North East.
I call this a pleasing development because communities of people from the North East have been in Delhi for a long time and have largely been marginalized completely for much of that time. This is due largely to the fact that racially, geographically, linguistically and culturally most of the disparate peoples of the North East—especially from states such as Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh—are very distinct from the peoples of mainstream India, far more so than those peoples are distinct from each other: the southern states may also be quite distinct linguistically from most of the north but religion (be it majority Hinduism or minority Islam) is a major common thread. Many of the peoples of the North East, on the other hand, are more closely related to other speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages to the east. But these kinds of distinctions can at least in theory be overcome by the forces of nationalism. However, while there’s always been great traffic between the rest of India, the North East has remained relatively isolated and, yes, under-developed: it has also been, and continues to be, home to a number of violent separatist movements.
There have always been visible communities of people from the North East in Delhi. This is partly because as the national capital Delhi is home to the various state bhavans (think state “embassies” which represent all the states in the capital and serve as home bases for visiting politicians) and partly because Delhi university has always attracted large numbers of students from all over India. Alas, outside Delhi University (and even within it, though to a lesser extent) the visible racial difference of most people from the North East has resulted in a lot of racist harassment, stereotyping and even violence: in 2014 a young man was beaten to death in a prominent public market in south Delhi; this is only the most extreme example. (It is not only people from the North East who suffer racism in other parts of India, of course: Africans have it pretty bad too; it pains me to say it but India is a far more casually racist society than the US, largely because there has never really been any sort of public discourse around racism, and probably also because the very notion of hierarchical distinctions between communities is so entrenched in mainstream Indian society.)
Anyway, it is for this reason that I say that the growing number of restaurants in Delhi serving food from the states of the North East is such a pleasing development. It suggests, at the very least, a greater presence in the cultural life of the city; and the restaurants, popular and even trendy, seem to serve both as visible, public places for young people from the North East to connect and as introductions to the region for other Delhi-ites. I don’t mean to suggest that these restaurants are the cure for the marginalization of North Easterners in Delhi but they are a sign of progress. On our last trip we’d planned to eat at what was perhaps of the first of these restaurants to get attention: Nagaland’s Kitchen in Green Park, but it didn’t work out; I still hope to get there on this trip, but when close friends picked another Naga restaurant, Dzükou in Hauz Khas, for dinner last night, we jumped at it. And a very nice meal it turned out to be.
Please keep in mind that I know zilch about Naga food. I had Naga friends at boarding school in Darjeeling and ate some of the things they would bring back from home (I particularly remember dried and powdered venison with crushed chillies that would rip right through us) but that’s about it. So I am no guide to whether the things we ate at Dzükou were traditionally prepared and tasted as they would back in Nagaland. I can tell you that it all tasted good and none of it made any concessions to North Indian palates and expectations—and not just because it’s a cuisine heavy on pork and beef (buffalo, at least in Delhi). I can also tell you that the restaurant itself, named for the Dzükou valley between Nagaland and Manipur, is a very nice space, employing a design aesthetic that you might call “ethnic chic” and that the service was friendly without being overbearing as it too often is at Delhi restaurants.
What did we (over)eat? Click on an image to launch a slideshow with names of dishes and more detail.
So, a very good meal: there was not one thing we did not like a lot. And the prices are quite reasonable too. All of the above plus a couple of beers and three rums came to just below Rs. 5000 inclusive of all taxes and service charges. So about Rs. 1000 or $15/head. You can pay a lot more in Delhi these days. As I said, I cannot speak to how representative Dükzou’s food is of classic Naga cuisine; but I can tell you that it is very good, very different from the Indian food that most people outside (and inside) India are familiar with. I recommend it highly. And not that I think this is likely to happen any time soon but I think if a restaurant like this were to open in Los Angeles or New York it would kill.