Manu Unni stands in the kitchen of his new restaurant, Unni’s Kitchen. (Rachel Rosen / Whidbey News-Times)

Manu Unni stands in the kitchen of his new restaurant, Unni’s Kitchen. (Rachel Rosen / Whidbey News-Times)

Navy vet strives for authenticity at new Indian eatery in Oak Harbor

Manu Unni recently opened Unni’s Kitchen as a way to share his native food and culture.

OAK HARBOR — The owner of Oak Harbor’s newest restaurant loves to share the culture of his native South India, including cuisine known for bold flavors and fresh ingredients of the region.

Navy veteran Manu Unni opened Unni’s Kitchen on Highway 20 Friday. The takeout-only establishment is located in the same building as Frank’s Place Family Dining.

Unni is from the Kerala region on the southern tip of India, known for its beaches, temperate weather and, of course, distinctive food. He has lived in Oak Harbor since about 2017. His Navy career as a jet mechanic brought him to the area; he said the landscape and madrona trees of the Pacific Northwest made him stay.

Before joining the Navy, he worked in IT for 15 years. Now in the reserves, he decided to take a different path and follow his passion for cooking. He describes it as an art and said he feels it’s a way for God to speak through him.

Unni thought Oak Harbor was an untapped market for South Indian food.

“That’s where I saw my opportunity,” he said.

The restaurant’s tagline is “Everyone’s Indian Food” and with plenty of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, that seems to be an accurate statement. Unni said that the food he cooks in the restaurant is the same food he makes for his 4- and 5-year-old children, so the heat is mild. However, if someone wants more spice, he can also do that.

“I’m basically catering to the sweet tooth of the American,” he said with a laugh.

Unni’s Kitchen focuses on authenticity, so the menu might be a little different than people expect from an Indian restaurant. Unni pointed out the most famous “Indian” dish, chicken tikka masala, actually originated in Great Britain and therefore won’t be on his menu.

He described the cuisine as well-cooked vegetables and meat in a blend of spices. South Indian food of the Kerala region is rice-based. Unni uses parboiled rice, meaning it has been partially boiled in the husk which makes it more nutritious.

Chicken, pork and beef will be on the menu, as well as fish. While not usually associated with Indian food, fish is part of the coastal state of Kerala’s cuisine. The menu will feature lentil, yogurt and squash curries, and mixed rice and veggies, which he said is his favorite way to trick his kids into eating their veggies.

Southern Indian food uses coconut oil instead of Northern India’s butter, which makes it more vegan and health friendly.

“That’s how we do it in South India,” he said.

As time goes on, he will add more items to the menu, such as rice crepes, rice cakes and egg curries.

Unni said the restaurant is opening “old school” because he does not yet have a website or phone number. As an IT guy, he wants to make sure the site is perfect before it goes live. For at least the first week, Unni recommends people stop by in person to order and pick up food.

Unni’s Kitchen is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 5-8 p.m. on Mondays.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling publication to The Herald.

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