News Source: www.hindustantimes.com
Silent culinary revolution brews at south Delhi’s Humayunpur village
News Source/Courtesy: www.hindustantimes.com

Every weekend, software engineer Rakesh Taneja’s love for food would take him from old Delhi to well-known restaurants in Gurugram. On Friday evening, however, he was in Humayunpur, a small village in south Delhi, for dinner with his family – his second culinary excursion to the place in the past month.

“ We love northeastern food, and right now there is no better place than this village to find it,” says Taneja, sitting inside The Categorical Eat-Pham, a restaurant known for Manipuri cuisine. “ What makes this village different is affordability, variety, and authenticity of food its restaurants offer.”

There are many gourmands like Taneja who swear by Humayunpur’s growing reputation as the city’s new food hot spot. The village, near Safdarjung Enclave, has witnessed a slow and silent culinary revolution with over 60 trendy, budget-friendly restaurants and cafes offering Chinese, Korean, Nepalese and North-east Indian cuisine coming up in the last three years, putting Humayunpur on the city’s ever-expanding culinary map.

Deepak Dhunger Chhetri, who last year opened his restaurant, Mila’s Mama Kitchen, in the village, describes the place as a “laboratory of young food entrepreneurs”. “Most of them have no previous experience in food business, and they are the people who have transformed this village into a food destination. A decade back, one could see buffaloes roaming the streets here, ” says Chhetri, who is from West Bengal and has lived in the village since 2011.

In the 1960s, most agricultural land around the village was acquired by DLF and developed into Safdarjung Enclave, but Humayunpur continued to be a nondescript village. In the early 2000s, migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and southern states began making the village home, prompting the villagers to add additional floors to their houses.

By the early 2010s, it began to attract young migrants from North-east India who came to Delhi for jobs and education. By 2015, about 50% of the tenants living in its multi-storey houses were people from the North-east. That is when the first few restaurants opened, catering mostly to the North-eastern community. The big restaurant boom in the village began in 2018 and almost a dozen new restaurants were opened in a few months before the lockdown in the Capital in March 2020.

Several of these restaurants in the village are owned by young women from the North-east. “I came to Delhi in 2010 to study, but I always wanted to open a restaurant in the Capital. When I opened my restaurant here three years back, most of my clients were migrants from North-eastern states, but today, a vast majority of them are north Indians,” says Dickey Bhutia, who hails from Kalimpong, and runs a restaurant called LHA Kitchen, which is known for its Tibetan and Nepalese cuisine.

Bhutia employs 15 people, three of them hired only this year. “ The business is nearing the pre-pandemic levels now. Except for the parking problem, the place has everything going for it. It is centrally located, the rents are reasonable compared to other urban villages and, most importantly, the landlords here are pretty cooperative. Unlike many other urban villages, I feel at home and safe here. ”

Though low compared to other villages, the rents have trebled here in the past five years. On average, the rent for a 700 sq ft commercial space on the ground floor is 85,000 a month, which is a third of the rent for a similar space in Hauz Khas village. Most landlords in the village live on the upper floors and have rented out the ground floor. In fact, Humayunpur is one of the many villages in the Capital that are categorised as ‘Lal Dora abadi’. While Lal Dora villages are exempted from the building bylaws and other regulations of municipal or urban development authority and no permission is required for construction in them, the properties sold in these villages cannot be registered. The restaurant boom has not had any major effect on the property prices so far.

“Local educated youngsters encouraged their elders to start renting out to commercial establishments like restaurants and boutiques. A majority of the restaurants survived the pandemic as these young villagers understood our situation and waived off the rent during the lockdown on their own,” says Ashok Mutum, co-owner, The Catregoral Eat-Pham. “They ensure that our community and businesses face no trouble here.”

Radhika Abrol, a village resident and the local MCD councillor, says that the village attracts not just food lovers but also a lot of filmmakers. “A few short films have been shot here over a couple of years. It is because ours is a tolerant multi-cultural village, a fascinating mix of the urban and the rural. Since the number of restaurants is growing fast, my immediate priority is to set up an Effluent Treatment Plant (ETP) here,” says Abrol.

“Most restaurants owners are migrants who live in the village. They have flourished here; we do not bother about what they eat, whom they invite home, when they return home. No village in Delhi can match us in terms of tolerance, ” says Rakesh Singh, a local resident.

Many like Abu Sarwar Choudhary from Assam, who in 2017 opened Bhansaghar, a restaurant that offers Nepalese cuisine, says that Humayunpur’s culinary journey was disrupted by the pandemic, and about a dozen restaurants shut shop last year. “Many more new restaurants would have opened here if it was not for the pandemic. The footfalls were doubling every year and most restaurants were usually filled to capacity in the evenings”.

Last year in March, Deepak Dhunger Chhetri temporarily shut Mila’s Mama Kitchen three days after inaugurating it as the government imposed the lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease. But despite being forced to close again during the second wave this year, he says he has no regrets. “Business will return soon because our reputation has spread far and wide mostly through word of mouth publicity and our aggressive marketing on Instagram. I still believe Humayunpur is the place to be if you are an aspiring restaurateur without deep pockets ” says Chhetri.

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