It’s a dangerous business, going out your front door...especially if Mumbai is the city that lies beyond. When all that awaits is traffic, smog and sadness sometimes it hardly seems worth it at all, but crossing over into the damn near mystical serenity of Madh Island erases all memory of the horrors that lie behind. A 50-minute music-fuelled rickshaw ride from Malad station through impeccable cantonment lanes fringed with trees, and going out doesn’t seem like quite such a bad idea.
Towards the Southern end of this undersized islet lies my ultimate destination, a hidden workshop of Naga delights that resides under the banner of Aal’s Kitchen. Headed by Alistair Lethorn - a chef by all rights, even though he disregards the title - this little pop-up operating from his kitchen in Madh Island showed up early this year and has been amassing fans at lightning speed. Together with Atika Chohan and Ankit Mehrotra - the dream team of creative strategy and photography expertise - they’ve created a fringe sensation where Mumbai’s food enthusiasts can grasp the rare opportunity to sample authentic Naga cuisine.
Alistair’s affinity for the cuisine dates back to his childhood in Dimapur, and those integral flavour memories have stayed with him over the years. True Naga cuisine is the epitome of minimalism, stripping away the unnecessary additions to let the core flavours shine through. Alistair’s skill is a partially inherited trait from his father who was in the hotel business. He may have been introduced to the culinary world at an early age but that doesn’t do justice to his experimental nature. His creations may be inspired by Nagaland, but he loves innovating new recipes and each week brings a special surprise. Most of the time, they’re derived from whatever he happens to come across at the morning markets. A few weeks ago it was apple stewed pork, this week he’s caramelising pineapples, I don’t think even he knows what might happen next.
Every dish that makes it to the final table comes direct from his home kitchen and on a two-burner gas stove, he creates a feast. No standardised pre-made masalas taint any of Aal’s dishes with ginger, garlic and fresh herbs like mustard leaves being the only additions to the mix. Most of these ingredients are locally sourced, either from specialty North-Eastern markets in Mumbai and a dash of whatever happens to be in season, the true delicacies however, are shipped in from Nagaland and adorn each creation with traditional flavours.
Though each dish that passes through has a new spin, one of the mainstays is the deadly bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) chilli, famed for its intense heat. Alistair incorporates this uniquely Naga ingredient in subtle ways through the menu and whether you find it in a fiery pickle or as a subtle undertone in his pineapple pork, it serves as a stamp of authenticity.
Unlike many of the metro pop-ups, Aal’s kitchen has maintained a focus on the food. They understand the value of the experience they’ve created and want to maintain its integrity. The affair is casual, strangers and friends alike crowd the room with conversation flowing over the smoked pork and garlic chicken. Grab a drink (you’re welcome to bring your own alcohol) and after a while - even for a stammering socially-awkward ostrich like myself - it’s hard not to feel at home. Aal’s has managed to do something truly original, they’ve brought the heart back to food. They’re stripping away the embellishments of the restaurant experience and bringing Mumbai a taste of unpretentious perfection.
To know more about upcoming events at Aal’s Kitchen, follow them on Instagram.
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