A slice of Naga in Chennai

Sneha Kanchan

Chennai, March 4: Thursday afternoons can be lazy for restaurants with the mid-week lull hitting them. But not for Ramayon Keishing’s North East Kitchen. The restaurant, a blink-and-miss restaurant tucked in a nondescript lane in Egmore, is abuzz with activity. With customers flocking in, the kitchen hustles to dish out the next plate of authentic north eastern flavours.

North East Kitchen in Egmore is one of the few restaurants in the city that has authentic north eastern dishes on its menu. Picture Credits: Sneha Kanchan

“I didn’t want to complicate the name. The name reflects why I started the restaurant 4 years ago,” said 50-year-old Keishing, a Manipuri Naga. Having embraced Chennai as his home for 25 years, he said he wanted to bring down a piece of his home for Chennaiites to taste. The restaurant specializes in north eastern cuisine, with specific emphasis on dishes from Manipur and Nagaland. It also serves Japanese and Korean dishes.  

Keishing came to Chennai with a post graduate degree in commerce from the Delhi University and a will to study for the civil services exam. After dropping that plan, he worked at an NGO for about 7 years and later at Hyundai before wanting to start something of his own. The Korean and Japanese connect goes back to his 10-year stint with Hyundai as the gathering department’s general manager in the outskirts of Chennai. “My colleagues would make me try dishes from their countries and I really loved them. I knew the flavours but I didn’t know how to cook those dishes. That’s when Youtube and Google helped me,” he said. From ramen to sushi to dishes accompanied with radish and cabbage kimchi, the menu boasts an interesting miscellany of Japanese and Korean dishes today.

Hailing from Sorathen, an obscure village in Manipur just a few kilometers from the Myanmar border, he wanted the dishes from that area and the traditional values attached to them to be the heroes of his menu. For instance, the menu has a traditional Naga dish called Sarao- a preparation using the neck portion of the cow or pork which is served at meetings when significant deals are being brokered and signed between two tribes or villages.

Another dish that he’s planning to include in the menu was Yala Ain, which again, has a strong traditional Naga connect. Different parts of meat, he said, were saved for different family members. The belly, beef or pork, which is one of the best parts, is reserved for the sister. “Mainly because she gets married and leaves the house. Whenever she is in the house, the best part is reserved for her. I want to include preparations like that in the menu,” said Keishing.

The prices of the dishes are slightly on the higher end with a bowl of Korean vegetable Ramyun noodles costing Rs. 330. Keishing has an explanation for that. “A lot of ingredients that go into these recipes are imported from Korea and Japan as they aren’t readily available. The sausages, fish oil, sesame oil, wasabi, some types of noodles like Ramyun are all imported,” he said.

North East Kitchen has built itself a solid fan base. Most of his customers have been his promoters, he said.   

Nilo, a history post-graduate student from Loyola College who has been in Chennai since the past two years, mentioned how he came to the joint whenever he missed home food.  He, who’ll be going back home in April, said the restaurant was a good find in Chennai. “There is Naga Reju in Choolaimedu that serves cheap food and bigger quantities but there are certain dishes that this place cooks better than that one,” said Nilo.

 Washi, a native of Nagaland who is currently studying in Chennai, quipped about the high price. “The food is authentic which is why we keep coming back. The beef fried rice and the beef with bamboo shoot is very close to what we get at home,” she said.

Keishing runs the place as a family business with his family chipping in in whatever ways they can. His sister, a school teacher in the same area, helps him with the orders after her work hours. His wife helps with the cooking sometimes. He has also brought down five more people from his village to help him out, some of whom study at nearby colleges and help him part-time. 

He laments the ignorance of some people tagging natives from the north east as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Korean.’ An ardent south Indian food enthusiast who loves eating idli and sambhar at Saravana Bhanvan and Krishan Bhavan, Keishing hopes that someday that his food joint will bridge the gap someday. 60% of his customer base, he said, were locals. “My main aim is get our food to mainland India and capture the heart of Chennai,” he added.

What we had

Vegetable Rumyun Noodles and Pork Fried Rice. The side dishes – groundnuts fried with sugar, Banana stem (ironba), radish kimchi, spinach, green squash with beans (chow chow), sprouts salad and clear vegetable soup (kung soi)

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