Back in the days when authentic Chinese food was still an alien concept in India, Baba Ling came up with a way to coerce customers to try it at his Ling’s Pavilion in Mumbai. He offered them steamed fish or spare ribs (which are now best-sellers at his restaurants) with the assurance that they didn’t have to pay for it if they didn’t like it. “But most of them did try it. They thought, ‘If this fellow is willing to lose a full fish, it must be good’,” laughs Ling, also owner of the three-storeyed Nanking in New Delhi.
No one needs coercion at Ling’s eateries or any other Chinese restaurant now. Chinese food has had a long run in India but has found new life today. Top hotels are realizing its omnipotence, new chic stand-alone restaurants are specializing in it and existing chains are expanding. The red-and-gold Laughing Buddha eateries of the 1980s have given way to minimal interiors and, of course, better food. Dim sums and duck are now standard fare and meats which used to go untouched, such as beef and pork, now even make it to best-seller lists.
At the ITC Maurya, New Delhi, the resident star, Bukhara, is seeing some competition. Not enough to dethrone it, but competition nonetheless. And it’s in-house. The hotel’s new Chinese restaurant, My Humble House—in collaboration with the Tung Lok Group that owns the chain in Tokyo, Beijing and Singapore—is currently the most talked-about restaurant in the Capital. It’s a large, minimalist space where the design leans towards straight lines; it has an outside dining area and al fresco lounge. The menu is designed to mimic the rhythm and patterns of haiku. Consider Light Rains Fall on The Prairie, Gently and Softly—that’s romantic for honey baked pork ribs with cigar man tao.
Deepak Haksar, vice-president ITC Hotels and general manager ITC Maurya, says the hotel decided to open one because there’s always demand for a Chinese restaurant. Even though the ITC-Welcomgroup is at the top of the pile when it comes to Indian cuisine, a Chinese restaurant is the cherry on their already popular cake.
It’s the same scene on the west coast, at Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt. The hotel already has Indian and Italian restaurants, a chic grill and a cafe. “We had a large place and wanted to utilize it to create something that we were sure would be popular,” says Ilan Weill, general manager of the hotel. Chinese cuisine’s status in India made it the obvious choice. Even though China House opened a few months ago, it’s already close to becoming a “signature” restaurant. Getting a weekday lunch table at the 12,000 sq ft restaurant, lounge and bar (which has five interactive kitchens and a wood-fired Peking Duck oven) means booking 48 hours in advance.
Food consultant, author and restaurant owner Marut Sikka thinks our love for the cuisine has a lot to do with what he calls a childhood memory. “Ever since Chinese migrants came to India, Indians were exposed to Chinese food in some form.”
Restaurant owner Aashiyana Shroff has fond childhood memories of Chinese food. She grew up in London with a best friend who was Chinese, but loved the “Indianized stir-fry that my mom made”. She moved to India in 2004 to set up a restaurant and didn’t think twice about what to serve. “My family always ends up at a Chinese restaurant when we go out, so there was never any doubt,” she says. VongWong opened earlier this year in South Mumbai and serves both Chinese and Thai.
Shroff thinks Chinese has many takers because it shares staples with Indian food, such as rice and gravy-based dishes. “For family dining, it’s a safer option than pasta,” she says. Another reason is Chinese food’s emphasis on community eating instead of individual, pre-plated meals. “People want to share and Chinese food lets them pick out whatever they want from the dishes on the table,” Shroff says. Sikka has figured out a deeper reason. “In India, we have a traditional concept of shadrasa or the six rasas or flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent and astringent. European food comprises mainly of the first four, while Chinese food utilizes all six,” he explains.
Whatever the rationale, there has never been a better time for the cuisine in India. As new restaurants are being set up, established chains are moving on. Indian Chinese’s best known face, Nelson Wang, is taking his two-decade-old China Garden chain to Chandigarh and Pune; he’s already in Kathmandu and is also setting up more in Mumbai and New Delhi. His 20,000 sq ft, five-floor China Garden at GK II in the Capital is the largest Chinese restaurant in the country. Wang says he has decided to expand now, after having only one flagship Mumbai restaurant for over a decade, because his children are now old enough to pitch in. His eldest son Edward has been US-trained to manage a restaurant chain, Henry has studied fine dining in Europe and daughter Elena has majored in food and nutrition. “Each of them specializes in one area now, so I’m confident of opening more branches,” Wang says.
Anjan Chatterjee, whose Mainland China, a popular chain, is already in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune, Chennai and New Delhi, is one step ahead. He plans to sell Chinese cuisine to the Chinese. Mainland China, with its first restaurant in Mumbai’s crowded suburb of Andheri, is known for tasty, reasonably authentic Chinese food. That is, if you’re evaluating it with a yardstick that’s used to measure Indian Chinese food. One can’t really predict the reactions when Crackling Spinach is offered to someone on the mainland. “Every successful restaurant has had to tweak the cuisine’s spice levels,” he says. Despite this, Chatterjee, who’s also expanding to the US, UK and Canada in a few months, is confident that locals will participate.
The four-year-old Royal China (affiliated to the London chain) started out as a South Mumbai craze, opened up in suburban Mumbai last year, and now plans to expand to Pune and New Delhi. Ling, the third-generation owner of Nanking and Ling’s Pavilion, opened a branch of Nanking in Bangalore a few months ago.
One evident change from a few years ago is that these chains are tweaking their formula, even though it has worked well for them. They all say their customers have been exposed to various influences on their travels and want to experience the same at home.
Wang says Chinese cuisine has been through three phases in India. The first was the one that made him and China Garden a household name—Sweet Corn Soup, Manchurian Chicken and Chop Suey. “Then it got more authentic, with influences from different provinces of China and some Thai. Now is the third stage, and it’s almost a fusion of Chinese with Singaporean, Vietnamese and Malaysian cooking,” he says.
At Mainland China, flavours are becoming more subtle—noodles and scallions tossed in olive oil is a simple new entrant that has been well-received. Both Wang and Chatterjee say dim sums are very popular. When Royal China opened, dim sums were scoffed at; the owners were told they were mad to try and sell them in India. But dim sums (as well as Peking Duck) have consistently been the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
At China Garden, Wang has retained space for the dishes that made him a star. “There’s one section on the menu called Forgotten Favourites, which has dishes like Chilli Chicken, Hakka Noodles and Sweet and Sour Pork. People order them quite often,” he says.
Shroff says she sees people experimenting more with pork and beef—both are popular meats in China. When Cantonese Honey Roasted Pork turned out to be a best-seller at VongWong, she was surprised. “I didn’t think many people would appreciate its mix of sweet and spicy,” Shroff says.
The new entrants are serious about one thing—they don’t want to addle their cuisine with local influences. China House is focused on Sichuan, with an emphasis on the cuisine of Beijing. “We’re convinced that Sichuan is adapted to the Indian palate as it is,” says Weill. Shroff says she is repeatedly asked for Manchao Soup. “I have absolutely no idea what that is and I don’t want to find out,” she laughs (shredded vegetables with chicken or prawns in a spicy brown soup, says our local Chinese takeout joint). But she did give in when she was requested to add Corn Curd. Shroff will soon add cold starters and other lesser-known specialities which she doesn’t want to disclose before they’re on the menu.
My Humble House is influenced by Cantonese cuisine, but follows a trend that’s popular abroad—contemporary Chinese. “It’s a new cuisine based on traditional Chinese food from provinces such as Guangdong, Sichuan and Jiangsu. The presentation may be trendy, sometimes outrageous, but the taste remains traditionally Chinese,” says Haksar. My Humble House’s chefs are trained by award-winning celeb chef and author Sam Leong, who specializes in giving Chinese cooking a modern twist, with dishes such as Lamb Shanks served in a martini glass and Crispy Shrimp Dumpling coated with Wasabi jello.
Authentic chefs are another requirement a self-respecting Chinese eatery has to have. For many of them, speaking English is a problem; most have interpreters. Mainland China has two Chinese chefs in Mumbai; on Royal China’s opening night, chef David Pang threw his dithering culinary team out of the kitchen when they couldn’t work fast enough for the 200 demanding guests and cooked the entire meal single-handedly. At China House, master chef Jun Hu leads a team of five Chinese chefs, while Shroff went as far as to name her restaurant after the two head chefs, Kanchit Vong and Sam Wong.
But you don’t come by skilled Chinese chefs easily and poaching has become common practice. The ones with solid reputations are hit the hardest. “Every time a new restaurant opens, our chefs are targeted,” says Neville Vazifdar, director of Royal China; he says the restaurant has lost three chefs and other staff as well this way. Vazifdar says Royal China’s dim sum chef left to join VongWong. Shroff maintains she hired him after he quit the job and was back in Singapore. Restaurants fiercely guard their talent and VongWong declined to give out photographs of its chefs for this story (see sidebar).
But walking this tightrope is more than worth it because, as traditional Chinese food is increasingly well accepted, authentic chefs give a restaurant credibility. “Their years of training and experience give the food a touch most Indian chefs can’t replicate,” says Vazifdar.
Another advantage of having a Chinese chef is that they’re trained to be frugal with oil and spice. Restaurants say their customers are increasingly conscious of their oil intake and that’s a big part of the reason for the popularity of Chinese. “Thankfully, Chinese is a healthy cuisine. It’s made a la minute, you can’t prepare it in advance and keep it for hours,” Chatterjee says. At his restaurants, the chefs use a bottle with a dropper that releases drops of oil, not a stream.
An emphasis on healthy eating is why dim sums are a rage. Chatterjee says weight watchers make a meal of them. They’re one of the most ordered specialities at his restaurants, while the popularity of previous best-sellers, such as Red Chilli Chicken, is declining.
At China Garden, Wang is soon going to introduce some healthy dishes, which will be conceptualized by, and named after, Elena, his nutritionist daughter.
Like Wang, Ling is also always on a quest to learn more. The 57-year-old has been living in India since he was born and eating traditional Chinese food at home. When he visited China a few years ago, he was a little surprised. He noticed that the stews were more watery than the ones he was used to, and the locals didn’t eat as much rice as he did. So Ling did what any self-respecting restaurateur would—he took notes. “I learnt a special spring chicken and roast duck and different types of bean curd,” says Ling. These items were added to the menus of his restaurants. Because if he didn’t, someone else would.