By Vishal Menon | Source: The Hindu
It may have been education that brought Maongnungsang Jamir and his family to Chennai, but it’s food that has made him stay
“I miss idlis too much to stay on longer,” says Maongnungsang Jamir, describing the summer months when he returns to his hometown in Dimapur, Nagaland. “I prefer the rains back home to Chennai’s heat but I guess I’m too used to living in a metro to go back,” he reasons.
Jamir first moved to Chennai back in 1998 to join high school. He has since completed his graduation and Masters, all in the city. “Back in the 80s and 90s, a majority of our school teachers in the Northeast were from South India. My brother first moved to Chennai in 1993 because of a teacher who was from Andhra Pradesh. I followed him and so did all my younger brothers. Everyone from my family has been in Chennai at some point in their lives.”
A second home
He calls Choolaimedu his second home, a place where he knows every nook and corner. Also the convener of The Naga Students’ Union, he says at least as many as 2,000 people from the Northeast live around the area, in Shenoy Nagar, Basha Street and Namachivaya Puram.
“We don’t usually get hostel admission in Loyola College, so we prefer to stay nearby. The community here might have started with Loyola students but Choolaimedu is now home to a lot more. Even if you don’t stay here, you still have to frequent the area because the Northeast restaurants are all here and so are the stores.”
Given the population, it’s not surprising that Jamir and his brother wrestled with the idea of starting a restaurant here. Jamir now runs Naga Reju (The house of The Nagas) on Nelson Manickam Road.
“The need for a place like ours was two-fold. People from the Northeast come to Chennai for treatment. Doctors would advise them to eat idlis during this time, which might not be possible for a lot of them. Even hospital attenders now come from the Northeast, so we wanted to give them simple home-like food.”
And then there were the students. “Kids from the Northeast come here and they live in a lot of discomfort, with many of them sharing a crammed space. It was the least we could do, given we too were students here.”
Comfort and food
Food could give them the comfort they missed. “They can always come to me for a full meal. We’ve kept prices low just for them.”
Students being students they still complain, he jokes. “They compare my food to what they’re used to back home. They take us for granted. It’s only when they start cooking themselves they realise how difficult it is to recreate that taste. Even the water here is different; we’re used to mountain water that’s rich in iron. What we get here is groundwater with high salt content. Of course it will taste different.”
He isn’t joking. He explains the massive effort that goes behind bringing ingredients such as king chillies, momong (Szechuan pepper), dried bamboo shoot and anishi (smashed yam leaf) to Chennai.
“It takes three days to get here and we’re always worried someone will throw them off the train because of their pungent smell. A few years ago, a parcel of king chillies and bamboo shoot was just tossed at the platform of the Egmore station after it had arrived from Dimapur. I went around looking for it for three days before I found it lying unclaimed. Thankfully, no one stole it because of its smell.”
His restaurant features ‘popular items’ like fried rice and momos, which he admits is not authentic Naga food. “When South Indians order something authentic, we tell them that it might not suit their taste but we’re only glad when they try it.”
Yet ironically, Jamir talks about a time when he had another idea for a restaurant.
“When I got married in 2011, I returned to Dimapur with an intention of starting a restaurant there. In fact, I thought I’d start a South Indian restaurant where I could serve idlis and dosa, albeit with chicken and meat curry. That’s when I realised how difficult it was to start a business there. People don’t like to eat out much and it’s tough to find a place on rent. There’s no wholesale market for meat either. I had to return to Chennai.”
And the city welcomed him with open arms, again. “I got so much help from friends here to set up my restaurant. From finding a place to helping me out with the paperwork, it was all Tamils from Choolaimedu who pitched in. I’ve not had a single bitter experience here in these two decades,” he pauses, interrupted by a Swiggy delivery boy, to whom he explains his address in Choolaimedu in flawless Tamil.