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Aroma to identity: The migrant way of life

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Range of North-Eastern packed and fermented food. Picture by Dr Tejeswar Karkora, taken during his project fieldwork in North-East region, India.

The transformation of Delhi into a global city has created new spaces and new opportunities for different groups. One such group consists of migrants from the easternmost region of India. It consists of seven sister states: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura, and a brother state, Sikkim. North-Eastern migrants in Delhi are consumers, service providers, and students in different universities and academic institutes. Migration from the North-East to Delhi has taken place since India’s Independence in 1947, but the data has not been recorded accurately. The North-East Support Centre and Helpline found the number of North-Eastern migrants in Delhi to be approximately 200,000 people, accounting for 48.21% of the total population of North-Eastern migrants in Indian cities. 


Migration from the North-East region to Humayunpur is a socio-sensory process in which migrants carry not only their language and religion but also their food habits. While moving from source to destination, they pack a minimum for survival. For local supply, they explore the markets at the destination and maintain the ties with their local counterparts. In doing so, they do not face a shortage of their traditional food and empathy. Humayunpur is definitely one of the places which North-Eastern people first visit the moment they land in Delhi. Located in South-Central Delhi, this place provides a sense of cultural familiarity amidst the social alienation of the national capital. The highest number of migrants from the North-East region can be seen shopping at grocery stores and having local traditional cuisine at various food joints. Humanyupur gives them a resemblance of home with familiar faces, different North-Eastern languages floating in the air, and every corner filled by the smell of the very unusual but soft and pleasant aroma of North-Eastern food.


The phenomenon of food is ‘embedded in ethnic and tribal identities’ (as Duncan McDuie-Ra writes in his 2012 book Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail, p.154), and is ‘integral to relationships within ethnic groups’ (according to Dolly Kikon’s 2015 research). ‘Eating the Other’ also bridges the gap between host society and migrants. Millions of North-Eastern migrants introduce their traditional cuisine to mainlanders and it makes them assimilate more in the city. The North-Eastern traditional foods include fermented fish (Ngari), dry pork and beef (Sagop), bamboo shoots (Gotoi), Yam (Baal) and escargot (Tuilung). While meat such as pork, beef, chicken and mutton are found in the city so easily, some foodstuffs which are not available are occasionally brought from home states. These migrants show their keen desire and preference for ethnic food and try to obtain those foodstuffs as regularly as they can. The consumption of ethnic food gives them a sense of satisfaction and joy as they feel at home. This feeling of contentment they get at Humayunpur, which houses a variety of restaurants serving authentic cuisines – whether it is the spicy Assamese food or Tripura's masalas, Manipur's fish or Nagaland's tender meat, Sikkim's noodles or Arunachal Pradesh's momos. Anything and everything is available for the convenience of the migrants. Here, a few grocery shops sell different kinds of spices from the eight states along with dry fish, raja mirchi or bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), Anishi (leaf of taro root), locally prepared and customised pickles, and many other items for day to day needs. In short, this place is a blessing for all North-Eastern households and students who crave for their roots in an alien city. The music also binds these migrants together and tunes with fellow Highlanders. They come together in this area to jam and sing along. 


Along with food and music, this place has quite a few shops selling hot pants, funky shoes, smart dresses, trendy tops, cool caps, bags, and other accessories for fashionista highlanders. What was once an urban village populated by Jats (an Indian caste) is now home away from home for most of the highlanders inside the heartland. Therefore, local culture looks, smells and tastes very different from that which appears in many accounts of the interaction between migrant and host communities. Delhi couples who love to try new cuisine often visit Humayunpur to experience different cuisines of the North-East region of India and to make the mosaic of love and affection through this sensory turn.

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Shahana Purveen

Shahana Purveen, researcher at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She is specialised in the field of internal migration in India. She has also published various articles on the same area.

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