By David Lalrammawia
When I came to Delhi, I was one of those kids wearing my pants low. I’m Mizo—from Mizoram, North Eastern India, which isn’t really mainstream India, so I was exposed to a lot of different things than the people in Delhi were. Back then, no one understood what the fuck I was wearing, even in school. Pants came in standard sizes, so I asked my mom to widen the waist—and she did!
I think it is important to have representation, a presence in society. I opened Mizo Diner because I wanted that kind of representation.
At the time, there wasn’t a single Mizo restaurant in Delhi. None. Other North Eastern states have restaurants, but even at Dilli Haat, a government-run market with food stalls from all over India, there is not a single Mizo restaurant.
I came to Delhi in 2001, from Shillong. I got into graffiti and started doing commercial work, but I decided I couldn’t sustain it. Graffiti is something I love, and I didn’t only want to do it commercially. I wanted to figure out how to make money regularly, and I did not want to work in an office.
"A lot of people in Delhi, and the rest of India, don’t even know what the North East is."
My original idea was to open a cafe in Mizoram. I went and did my homework, but I realized that there’s no culture of people sitting and having coffee there. So I came back to Delhi and my friends, girlfriend, and I said, “Why don’t we open a restaurant here?”
Then we found this space. It was a restaurant, but it was really bad. It was one of those North-Indian/Chinese restaurants, which are everywhere in Delhi. Initially, the four of us were going to run it, but that was too much, so I took it over. It’s been a year now. Management is tough, though. I call up my mom sometimes and say, “I don’t know what I’m going to do! How did you handle us?”
In addition to doing graffiti, I used to be a part of this all-Indian hip-hop crew called Slum Dogs. The b-boys used to hang out at the restaurant in the beginning, and suddenly Mizo Diner became the spot where we all met. Everything started falling into place. Then GQ India wrote about us, calling us “Delhi’s secret hip-hop hangout.” But I don’t want to keep it just a restaurant-restaurant. We’ve had film screenings and music in the past, and maybe we’ll do stand-up comedy soon.
The interesting part is the people who come to Mizo Diner. We’re catering to so many audiences without really aiming—we just put our food out there. Delhiites also come: the pork-eaters. A lot of them like the food but it isn’t something that they’ve tried before.
In the North East, we eat a lot of pork—a lot of pork. Mizo food is often boiled, fermented, or smoked, so on the menu we have smoked pork, and fermented pork with chili and chutney. We also eat beef, but since you can’t really get or sell beef in Delhi, we serve buff (buffalo meat). Since we don’t have a noodle culture, it’s mostly rice and meat, with some boiled vegetables. We have something called changkha bawl: fresh bitter gourd boiled in shrimp paste.
We also mix in Burmese flavors because our cook is Mizo but he’s from Myanmar. There is a big community there. One of our house favorites is tauh—Burmese cabbage salad with peanuts. Of course we use ginger, onion, and a bit of spice, but Mizo food is generally not spicy. We don’t have spices or masala, but we do use herbs.
A lot of people in Delhi, and the rest of India, don’t even know what the North East is, but this area—Humayunpur in Safdarjung Enclave—is a bit North East-centric, with call center workers and students living here because the rent is affordable. People don’t expect to have a restaurant in an area like this.
Besides Mizo Diner, there’s Majnu-ka-tilla (MT), a Tibetan colony in North Delhi. It’s all Tibetans and basic Tibetan food. It is amazing to go there, for us especially, because we kind of look alike. The momos, or dumplings, are really good—the noodles, too. We also have Wangchuk’s Ladakhi Kitchen in Gurgaon. It serves authentic Ladkhaki food. You can even bring your own booze, at least for now.
We don’t have alcohol at Mizo Diner because we’re in a village area. It’s not officially dry, but you can’t get an alcohol license. You need to pay off the authorities, off the record. Everything is under the table.
But the energy in Delhi is negative in a lot of ways. People are deceptive and they fucking lie to you. You have to haggle, but you deal with it. It’s what you make of it.
"People are so fucking horny in Delhi. They can’t get a grip on their sexuality."
We deal with racism, too. Sometimes we go out to Hauz Khas village, and bars and clubs won’t let us in because of what we look like. The word “chinky” is now outlawed—there’s jail time and a fine. It is a bit much, but we used to hear it a lot, like “look at that chinky guy” when we’d walk down the street.
Delhi is rougher than other Indian cities. In Mumbai, you see girls wearing skirts and people don’t stare. Here, everyone is like, “What is she wearing?” To put it bluntly, people are so fucking horny in Delhi. They can’t get a grip on their sexuality.
In Mizoram, though, we have a tribal community; everyone knows everyone, even today. From way back, our thinking was different. We don’t have a caste system. Everyone is more equal. And now we’re all Christians (87 percent), so we have gospel music. My father grew up listening to rock and roll. Now there’s even rap.
The Guardian wrote about Mizo Diner in January as one of four of “Delhi’s new breed of independent restaurants, bars, and clubs.” I don’t really think that what we’re doing is too much of a change, but it is definitely kind of new.
When more and more North Easterners, or Mizos, come to the rest of India and stake their claim in whatever they’re good at, I think people will become more aware of who we are.
As told to Sasha Gora