In the morning, the suburb of Kalina is a quiet place. A few shop shutters go up, a straggle of people return from daily Mass, and stray dogs start riffling through the piles of garbage being swept from the street.
Near the St Roque Grotto, a small two storey space starts to come to life. As part of his morning ritual, Yaomi Awungshi, 36 is having tea and breakfast with his family. In some time, the plates and cups are cleared and the place is open for business.
The business being Thotrin Café, the suburb’s newest, and what they call the city’s only, North Eastern restaurant. “We serve food from typically cooked in our homes, and from other states,” says Awungshi.
“This area has a lot of families from the North East. We wanted to offer them the tastes of home,” chimes in his cousin Worsem Zimik, 34. Awungshi and Zimik both belong to the Tangkhul tribe – they identify as Nagas but geographically, their home is in Manipur. The menu features Naga tribal dishes and some from other North Eastern states too.
The restaurant launched three months back. It is a small space with just four tables. There’s a blue ceiling, few potted plants, and a full length motivational poster covering the door to the kitchen.
“You can call us and request any dish and we will make it,” says Awungshi proudly, adding that recipes are sourced from family and friends. On the menu are dishes like the Manipuri salad shingju, oxtail soup, thukpa, mayang pai manak – a meaty potato mash made with King Chilli and fermented river fish; steamed chicken with bamboo shot and shiitake mushrooms; thesui – fermented soyabean, ngari – fermented river fish with King Chilli, and even escargot. They also serve pork and beef items but that’s off the menu – they don’t want to alienate customers. Dishes are of substantial portions, cheap (the most expensive dish is Rs 220) and meant for sharing.
The diners streaming in and out of the place include family and friends from nearby, Catholics from all across Kalina and Vakola, and members of the community who come from as far as Mira Road and Borivli. “We get a lot of students too. They come to study at the Kalina University and so, settle down here. They often don’t have the time to cook or look for specific ingredients. This was our way of helping them,” says Zimik. When he first came to the city to study law 15 years back, there was no place to buy homemade food or ingredients so he started cooking himself. “We have airhostesses who are regulars who always gush about the food and say it tastes like home.”
Zimik, who had to abandon his dream of becoming a lawyer due to financial reason, has worked in the hotel industry for over a decade. He is currently an operations manager at AB Celestial, Mahim. He believes the time is ripe for the city’s diners to ‘indulge in their love for regional food by trying out our food’. He would know. One of his work stints was at King Chilli, the Chindian fusion restaurant down the street from Thotrin. There, customers could order off-the-menu Manipuri food items like Khaiko Kasathei (a dry fish salad) and Harsa Kasathei (chicken salad with onion, lime juice and King chilli) and Alangsa, a beef offal stew-like dish. The dishes, once only eaten by members of the community, are no popular with anyone looking for a taste of the North Eastern cuisine.
The right ingredients
The popularity of the King chilli (or bhut jolokia as its popularly called) these days means it is easier to source. For other ingredients specific to the region, people turn to small community stores that source their wares from the North East. The Kalina Masjid lane has two such stores selling foodstuff, vegetables, breads and sweets specific to the Manipuri and Naga community. Think fermented fish and bamboo shoots.
Thotrin gets its produce from the store sharing its name, which Awungshi started three years back. He gets his produce from home, thrice a week, and the pickles, fried items and bread all made by the family. The small space is packed with clear packets of fresh vegetables – mustard leaves, Indian bean root, white pepper, aiyang thei (Naga eggplant), fermented bamboo shoots, and dried King chilli.
The fish comes in pickled form or a dried version (usually done over heated charcoal) and packed within small woven bamboo baskets. There’s a rack from which hang pickled sweet red plums, packets of meat masala, and tins of fish and meat pickle. Two small refrigerators nearby hold vegetable salads and pork pickle. The dry food stack has strips of dried beef intestines, fried beef and pork, chewy doughnuts sprinkled with coconut, crispy rice cakes and a sweet puri-like bread made from black rice. “When we opened, on the first day itself we had 100 customers!” laughs Awungshi. “That’s when we knew we were right in starting the place. It was that time we had the idea to open the restaurant too.”
Both places are open through the week. Sunday afternoon is the only time you will find them shut – it’s because the family goes to church. People from the Tangkhul tribe are largely Protestant and go to a small hall within the Air India complex at Kalina for afternoon (and English) services. And after church, they are usually joined by a small group of people who come to get a bite to eat at the restaurant.
The brothers look at Thotrin as a space that brings the community together, a social hangout spot. “We want to take this food and the restaurant all across Mumbai,” says Zimik with a smile. “We want to make it famous.”
Thotrin Café is situated opposite St Roque Grotto, Kalina Kurla Cross Road, Santacruz East; open from 9.30 pm to 11 pm; call 077382 30296