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Finding northeast India in Chennai

  • The array of dishes at North East Kitchen PHOTOS: SHONALI MUTHALALY
    The array of dishes at North East Kitchen PHOTOS: SHONALI MUTHALALY
  • The array of dishes at North East Kitchen PHOTOS: SHONALI MUTHALALY
    The array of dishes at North East Kitchen PHOTOS: SHONALI MUTHALALY

Experiment with authentic Doenjang Jjigae, smoky pork and Erongba in this quick, practical and endearingly home-style restaurant

I’m torn. I don’t know which I find more fascinating. The momos or our waiter. Wrapped in an almost translucent, steamed casing, the plump momos are served with a feisty red chilly paste. Our waiter, on the other hand, is more endearingly chirpy than feisty. “So, what’s Doenjang Jjigae,” we ask, studying the menu. Short pause. “Oh no,” he exclaims, clutching his meticulously gelled spiky hair. “I forgot.” It’s impossible to be exasperated. He’s so earnest. So endearingly intent on making us feel at home at this bare, but homely, restaurant, obviously built more on cheery enthusiasm than wily business acumen.
Despite North East Kitchen’s unprepossessing setting, in a ramshackle building right beside a chaotic bike parking lot, the interiors are restful — if rather randomly decorated. With artificial flowers and faux wooden floors, the tiny two-level restaurant aims more at being functional than plush: sensible tables, topped with plastic sauce bottles, wooden toothpicks and containers crammed with forks, spoons and metal chopsticks.
We’re the only customers at lunch, and we’re determined to eat our way through the exotic menu, replete with unfamiliar foods. “Just a minute. I’ll ask and come back,” our waiter grins, before bounding away to the kitchen. He returns with answers, and a plate of those momos. And we fall upon them with sighs of satisfaction, he settles down quietly with a book. “What’s he reading?” my friend whispers. I squint at it subtly. “It looks like the title is Questions young people ask,” I say. We all coo in unison. “Aw.”
The momos come with a clear and surprisingly tasty chicken soup, served in well-worn plastic bowls. It’s followed by fairly standard batter-wrapped chicken fry and an saucy tumble of Korean pork stir-fried with crunchy carrots, cabbage and kimchi. A word of caution for conservative eaters, this does taste quite unfamiliar thanks to the generous lashings of powerful soybean paste.
It comes with a slew of ‘side dishes’: Erongba, which is a chutney of sorts with well-mashed brinjal and potatoes, liberally spiked with green chilly. There’s a bowl of wilted emerald green spinach and a spicy salad of sprouts served with minced onions and chillies.
This Korean–North East theme is admittedly eccentric. However, it makes sense when we meet the restaurant owner- cook, Ramayon Keishing. “I’m from Manipur and I worked with Hyundai for ten years,” he says, “So I know what kind of food the Korean executives like to eat.” Realising that there was no north-eastern restaurant in the city, despite its large north-eastern population, he decided to create a space that brought together the two cuisines.
For the main course, we try smoked pork, served in a curry-thickened with tomato pulp and interspersed with snappy green beans. The only glitch is the overcooked capsicum. Continuing the pork theme, there’s a dish of the fatty, buttery meat served in a thin oily curry with tender bamboo shoots. Then there’s a beef curry in rich, sticky gravy.
The food in general is skilfully cooked, but strictly home- style. No fancy bells and whistles here. It’s also unapologetically authentic, so be prepared for unfamiliar ingredients and flavours. This city is full of restaurants frantically trying to offer ‘something for everyone.’ North East Kitchen just offers Ramayon’s cooking. Just like in anyone’s home, some days will be better than others. And some dishes will be better than others. So it’s necessarily niche. Which, honestly, is its biggest strength.
North East Kitchen is at No. 24, Wellingdon Estate, Ethiraj Salai. Call 9003542066 or 8608653055 for details. A meal for two is around Rs 600.