Amidst the flood of kit-kat shakes and pizza-done-the-same-way that is Delhi University’s eating-hub – the countless cafes on the spread between Vijay Nagar and Hudson Lane – we find a new outlier long after the tandoori momo. A dining hall with 25 seats dedicated to the most evocative edible-sentiment: ghar ka khaana from Assam. Gharua Exaj, the new restaurant on the block, means literally that.
If you have to ask, the staff will explain in gracious detail the difference between sour-variety (tenga) rohu curry bilahitenga (with tomato), outenga (apple-like fruit), and thekeratenga (a tangy dried fruit). For the uninitiated, they even modulate how much bamboo shoot will land in your soup. Said soup warms us, but it’s only after we empty our bowl that we realise that it’s also heated things up. Our first lesson: the spice-worth of Assamese food is in its aftertaste.
The all-red couches at Gharua Exaj seem like a warning in hindsight.
We get our recommendations from the staff, and also from two Delhi-University students seated in the booth behind. “It is especially for North-East students that we opened this branch, and also for locals so that they try a new cuisine,” says manager Tenzing Lama.
The above-mentioned students, like many DU students from Assam, have come far from their Dibrugarh home; In Delhi, they’ve seen it all – PG curfews and food with overwhelming north-Indian spices. “We mostly make do with continental dishes,” offers one. By the time our platter with four chutneys – a prelude to dinner in mustard, mint, lentil, and raja mirch (or bhut jalokia) - arrives, we’ve been invited to join their table.
They suggest we skip spoons, and together we go the Assamese way into aloo pitika, plain dal, steamed rice, and pork curry. There’s also a helpful tip with regards to raja-mirchi chutney – a dab on a blob of aloo pitika, blended with the steamed rice to shape into little cutlets as we eat.
In between bites, the friends sway to Gharua’s Assamese playlist.
Soon, we are introduced to kaji nemu. We hadn’t cared to pick the distinctly long and thin strip of this lemon from the chutney platter until the students asked the staff for another helping of it. “Whenever we go home, we bring stock back,” they say, pausing to squeeze some into a bowl of dal. Every flavour at Gharua has a surprising freshness to it, and over-eating is a natural consequence.
Soon, we fall into a quiet telepathy, commiserating together when we overestimate our tolerance for the subcontinent’s hottest chilly, which pulses across tongues and fingertips. Traditional wisdom comes to the rescue: kaji nemu is the antidote to this raja-mirch’s doing, we learn. There’s also paan on a pretty holder, an Assamese bota made of brass (all our plates and bowls are in brass too), with sprightly betel leaves and dried areca nuts. We skip this very-Assamese post-meal offering for black tea, which offers its own spice content in black pepper.
All through our meal, friends and fellow DU students stop by to say hello. Through the millennial magic trick of one-handed texting while we eat, a friend learns about our secret spot and zooms in. “You can call me Zo,” she says as she lands, giddy: she’s almost broken out of her PG past its curfew time to be here. We hear of cutting classes, secret Goa trips, and a probable autumnal trip back to their town. Amidst these students far from where they live, we realise, we have begun to feel at home.
Getting there: F 17A, Hudson Lane, Delhi Universtiy-GTB Nagar, call +91 9667591317.
Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia-journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets at @AkshitaNagpal
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