I met Nilkamal aka Neil on my trip to Andamans a few weeks ago. He is a middle-aged man, who hails from Neil Island (funny, yeah? Neil from Neil Island), owner of a small cafe and always, almost always holds a cigarette in his hand. He has never left the island, but made some kick-ass pasta, from scratch.
This is his story.
Neil was born and raised in Neil Island, one of the islands in the Andaman archipelago, a 2 hour ride ferry ride from the Island’s capital Port Blair. Neil Island will remind you of a tiny village in South India that inspires writers and poets with its culture, diversity, stories of close family ties, and their blissful lives. There is just one main road, one square where all the “big” shops are and would take 20 mins by bike to reach one end to the other.
On the north is Bharathpur beach, east is Sitapur beach, west Lakshmanpur beach and lush forests in the south. Neil and his family live a minute away from Sitapur beach, which also happens to be the sunrise point. Their small cafe advertises their fresh pasta made from scratch, coconut crab curry, local fish fry and other tropical delicacies. The entrance to the cafe is his small garden with colorful blossoms and a board that screams “do not pluck”. He speaks very little English but can communicate with people from every country with his smile, humility, and hospitality.
I fell in love with the place the minute I stepped in. His attempt to recreate a tropical paradise, a place where travelers can chill, sip some good coffee (or smoke up a rizla) and enjoy the breeze from the sea will not go unnoticed. We went on a slow Tuesday morning and ordered omelet sandwiches, tea and coffee, mushroom omelets, his signature pasta with tomato sauce and cheese sandwiches.
Since he took almost an hour to serve, we gave his kitchen a visit. A small room, with a table in the center, fairly organized and two women operating the kitchen. I got a few minutes to talk to Neil because I was curious to know how a family that has never stepped out of the Island knew how to roll pasta perfectly. Turns out, when he first started his tiny resort/ BnB, he didn’t know what to serve and invited his Israeli guest to the kitchen. The first dish he learned to make is a Shakshuka (Probably why Shakshuka is one of the most popular dishes in places like Hampi and Gokarna too) and then brewed ginger and masala teas the way his guests like it.
Slowly, he learned to speak a few words of English and his smile was so welcoming, guests from across the globe taught him one dish each. Which is why, he serves Israeli, Italian, Vietnamese, English and what is described as “yogi” food.
Because he served us almost an hour after we placed our order, seven of us had to share three plates of pasta that disappeared in less than 2 minutes, thus the bad picture (apologies). I didn’t get to click many pictures as I was wet and covered in sand. But I clicked a mental picture of this man’s kitchen, that will always remind me that food is the universal language!
And here is a collage of this uber cool petty shop owner in Port Blair who made lemon juice like a pro bartender, with bees chilling on his work table.