King chilli in Kalina

Joanna Lobo | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on November 10, 2017
Show me the grub: Worsem Zimrik at Thotrin Cafe in Santa Cruz East. Photo: Paul Noronha

Show me the grub: Worsem Zimrik at Thotrin Cafe in Santa Cruz East. Photo: Paul Noronha   -  BusinessLine

Two brothers come together to give Mumbai a chance to relish food from the Northeast

The suburb of Kalina is a quiet place in the morning. A few shop shutters go up, a straggle of people return from daily Mass, and stray dogs start rifling 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 Northeastern restaurant. “We serve food typically cooked in our homes,” says Awungshi. “This area has a lot of families from the Northeast,” chimes in his cousin Worsem Zimik, 34. Awungshi and Zimik 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 States in the region. Launched three months ago, Thotrin Café is small, with just four tables. There’s a blue ceiling, a few potted plants, and a motivational poster covering the door to the kitchen.

“You can call us and request a dish,” says Awungshi proudly, adding that recipes are sourced from family and friends. On the menu are dishes such as the Manipuri salad shingju, oxtail soup, thukpa, mayang pai manak (potato mash made with king chilli and fermented river fish); steamed chicken with bamboo shoots 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 is ₹220) and meant for sharing.

The diners streaming in and out of the place include family and friends from nearby, Catholic residents from Kalina and Vakola, and people from the seven Northeastern States who live as far as Mira Road and Borivli. “We get a lot of students and air hostesses too,” says Zimik.

Zimik, who had to abandon his dream of becoming a lawyer due to financial reasons, has worked in the hotel industry for over a decade. 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 such as 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 right ingredients

The popularity of the king chilli (or bhut jolokia as its popularly called) these days shows that it is easier to source. For other ingredients specific to the region, people turn to small community stores that source their wares from the Northeast. 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 it shares it name with. Awungshi started it three years ago. He gets his produce from home, thrice a week, and the pickles, fried items and bread are made by the family. The small space is packed with 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 pickled or dried (usually done over charcoal) and packed in small 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 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, we had 100 customers on the first day,” says Awungshi. “That’s when we knew we were right in starting the place. It was then we thought of opening 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. Kalina’s Tangkhul population usually goes to a small hall within the local Air India complex for afternoon (and English) services. And after church, a small group comes to get a bite at the restaurant.

The brothers consider Thotrin 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.”

Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

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Published on November 10, 2017
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