At first glance, Thotrin Café looks like any old Chindian takeout place. It has all of three tables, worn linoleum flooring, and a menu that advertises Manchow Soup, Chicken Sez and Paneer in Choice of Gravy. Pay closer attention however, and you’ll notice the faint scent of fermented bamboo shoot in the air, framed photographs of a pretty pink flower, a suspiciously large bean, and an angry red chilli hanging on the wall: The Shirui Lily, Manipuri Yongchaak bean, and the infamous Bhut Jalokia—familiar to Kalina’s Northeastern community, and a clue about the kind of food that the kitchen actually serves.
Thotrin has been around for a while. The restaurant, in higgledy-piggledy Kolivery Village, opened in August last year, and has quickly become popular with residents for its inexpensive Naga and Manipuri cuisine. As Ashim, our charming server-cum-cook, explained, the family that runs the place is Naga but lives in Manipur, so it’s a little bit of both. Wedged between the menu’s Chinese offerings are dishes like Khorpungla (rice paddy snails), Mayangpai Manak (potato mashed with king chilli and a dash of fermented fish), and Shingju salad (raw veggies and veggie fritters tossed with sesame seeds). But much of the kitchen’s meatier offerings, like their superb pork belly and buff, aren’t listed.
Here’s what we recommend: Ditch the menu entirely, and let Ashim (or whoever else is around) do the ordering for you. We got snails, pork belly with fermented bamboo shoot, long beans and buff salad, and a chutney made from Yongchaak, also known as the stink bean. If the food sounds a bit funky, that’s because it is. Both Manipuri and Naga cuisines are inspired in their use of ferments, from soy bean (vaguely miso-ish) to ngari, which is made by fermenting river fish over six months in a terracotta pot that’s buried underground. Affectionately called stinky gold, ngari is a complex brown paste that is frequently used in Manipuri cuisine, but always with restraint, so it accentuates, rather than overpowers the other ingredients in the dish.
Both cultures are also known for their love of meat, though Naga and Manipuri kitchens use an astonishing variety of greens too, as well as foraged herbs and mushrooms—testament to the diversity that still thrives in their forests, and the intimate relationship indigenous communities in the region have with their habitat. And contrary to popular belief, not all of the food has searing spice levels.
Khorpungla for instance, is a delicate stew made from rice paddy snails (a menace in the field, a delight on the plate) stewed with garlic, Manipuri mint, and arbi (yep, good old arbi). It has no chilli or oil, so the subtle flavour of the snail shines. Handle carefully though. The covering is egg-shell delicate, and crumbles with force; best to use a toothpick to extract the tender morsels of meat within. Our salad was a toss-up of tender beans (served raw, like in a Thai Som Tam salad) with sliced cucumber, tomatoes, and strips of fried buff, with an aromatic lemongrass dressing. The flavours were light and the play on texture was delightful—crunchy beans, crispy beef—but the meat is a bit toothsome, like jerky, and might not be for everyone.
The unanimous winner—and the reason you should make the trek to Thotrin, wherever in the city you are—is pork and bamboo shoot. Big on flavour, this heavy-bodied curry is cooked Naga-style, so the meat still has bite, but the fermented bamboo melts in the mouth. We ladled many a spoonful over sticky rice, and lapped it up with the Yongchaak chutney, an incendiary and addictive mix of stink beans pounded with chilli and ngari.
Despite stuffing our faces with the pork and eating at least a dozen snails each, our table of two still had enough food left for dinner. (Fair warning: snails do not reheat well.) And all this, for the princely sum of Rs 900.
Thotrin Café is a rare Mumbai treasure: a little place with big flavours and big heart. It is a revelation for those who haven’t sampled Manipuri and Naga cuisine, and a delight for those who have, who find themselves yearning for a hit of ngari and have nowhere to get it. But perhaps, most significantly, it is a reminder of the many communities that call this city home, and the ways in which they make our lives a more vibrant, flavourful place.
Getting there: Thotrin Café, Shop No. 2, Opposite St. Roque Grotto, Kolivery Village, Kalina, Santacruz East. Open for lunch and dinner. Meal for two from Rs 500-Rs 1,000.
This review was conducted by Neha Sumitran.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
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