China at your doorstep22 min read . Updated: 26 Sep 2008, 05:28 PM IST
China at your doorstep
China at your doorstep
FOOD TRAIL: KITCHEN SECRETS FROM SWATOW AND KWANTUNG
Besides serving authentic Cantonese or Hakka fare, these restaurants continue the legacy of a few families that introduced Indians to Chinese cuisine
LING’S PAVILION, MUMBAI
(Click below to watch the best Chinese joints and the men running them)
ccf84e9c-589a-11dd-8a71-000b5dabf613.flvSem Mon Ling or Nini, as he’s called, has his roots firmly in the restaurant business. His father, a trader from Swatow in China who migrated to India in 1937, started one of the earliest Chinese restaurants in Colaba, Mumbai. It was called Nanking, and along with Kamling in Churchgate, it was the only surviving Chinese restaurant of its time till 1995, when it had to be shut down because of rising rents in south Mumbai. Nanking served simple, home-style Cantonese food. “Our parents struggled against all odds to set up our legacy," says Nini. At that time, Nini was studying in North America, where he later worked as an electronics design engineer. But the family business beckoned, and in 1986, he left his job to join his father and brother, Baba Ling, at the restaurant.
The brothers wanted to raise the bar and have a bigger place that would cater to a clientele different from that which Nanking had had for years. Ling’s Pavilion opened in 1991. “Although it’s more spacious now, we have maintained the homely atmosphere," says Nini. The restaurant staff is friendly, the ambience warm, and the food delicious. According to its owners, 80% of the clientele consists of regulars who have been coming here for years. “The credit goes to my entire family, my brother Baba and our wives, who are active participants in the running of the business," he adds. Baba went on to open a branch of Nanking in New Delhi a few years back and another in Bangalore recently.
“This restaurant has become my life. I spend all my time here but that’s the only way I know how to work," says Nini. As far as his sons are concerned, the choice of joining the business was left to them. They decided they didn’t want to. There are no plans for expansion because Nini believes that it’s not possible to maintain the same standards everywhere. One mistake could spoil the family name: “Family reputation is important. Our regulars expect a lot from us and we can’t let them down."
When Ling’s Pavilion opened, clay-pot rice and bamboo rice were innovative dishes on an Indian-Chinese menu. They continue to be favourites among loyal customers. The spare ribs, available in three flavours, and the Chimney Soup are legendary in the city. The huge pot in which the Chimney Soup is served has underwater delicacies boiling in a delicious broth. Vegetarians will love Ling’s Buddha’s Delight, with chunky cut vegetables, such as broccoli, asparagus, water chestnuts, mushrooms and carrots, in a mild sauce.
Meal for two: Rs800
HENRY THAM, MUMBAI
As is the case for many Chinese families now settled in Mumbai, this family’s story doesn’t begin in China. Tham Mon Yiu, who was born in Kolkata to a family of hairdressers in 1931, moved to Mumbai about 60 years ago, and started a hair salon with his wife. But his business acumen told him to turn to the restaurant business and he bought an existing Chinese restaurant near the Gateway of India, Colaba. Mandarin opened in 1968 and went on to become a popular Chinese eatery. Tham was also one of the partners at Kamling, a Chinese restaurant that was was set up in 1969 to cater to Chinese sailors who visited Mumbai for trade. Kamling continues to attract many Mumbaiites too.
Three years ago, the new generation of Thams, which included Tham Mon Yiu’s son Henry and grandsons Ryan and Keenen, decided it was time to give things a new spin. Henry Tham, then a partner at Olive, decided to concentrate on renovating Mandarin. His sons, who were studying restaurant management in Australia, returned in time to join in. The change had to begin with the name.
Mandarin was a Chinese food joint open to everyone; Henry Tham was planned as a fine-dining restaurant and lounge. They also decided to do away with the accoutrements of Chinese kitsch decor—dragons, red tassels, lanterns and lots of gold—for a classic, elegant look. “I wanted to change the positioning, and so creating the right impression was essential," says Henry. His sons were instrumental in envisioning the trendy bar and lounge.
The Thams plan to open restaurants in various parts of the country, starting with Pune. The brothers, firmly into the restaurant business, plan to soon start restaurants in Mumbai’s suburbs, too.
Popular with the swish set from the very beginning, Henry Tham’s bar is known for its cocktails, such as Pomegranate Martini, Asian Infusion and Cuban Island, and is packed on weekends when live bands play. A few dishes have been retained from the Mandarin menu but the food now is “contemporary Chinese", as Henry likes to call it. Sample their Shredded Lamb in Garlic Foam, served in a martini glass, or the Prawns in Wasabi Mayo, and you’ll know what he means. The restaurant is most popular for its set lunch menus, priced between Rs490 and Rs750.
Meal for two: Rs1,500
BIG BOSS, KOLKATA
Xie Ying Xing came to India from China in 1956 as an eight-year-old to join his father, who worked in the tanneries of Tangra. “In those days there was a direct steamer service between Kwantung and Calcutta," says Xing, 60. Though his family, being Hakka, were tanners, Xing dabbled in the restaurant business as a youngster, working for Park Street big names such as Bar-B-Q and Waldorf. From 1986 to 2003, Xing was busy with his tannery. It was only when the tanneries of Tangra were required to shift to a new leather complex far away that Xing, like many other local tanners, decided to take up the restaurant business. “I was always interested in food so the shift wasn’t too difficult," he says.
Big Boss, so named because Xing and his sons Edward and Edwin want it to be the biggest and best of the Tangra restaurants, can comfortably seat 300 people on its two floors—the ground floor being set aside exclusively for men. It has a well-stocked bar, but the decor is a little cavernous and assembly-line, perhaps owing to its tannery lineage. There is also a surfeit of plastic and chrome but overall, the ambience is warm and clean. The restaurant’s staff is friendly, and here’s an authentic Chinese menu, apart from the standard Indian-Chinese fare. “That is meant for Chinese visitors as locals find it rather bland," says Xing. “I go to the market myself to buy supplies so that only the best enters our kitchen," adds Xing, whose family lives on the floor above the restaurant.
Big Boss is clean and the staff, though a little clueless at times, is friendly and eager to help. However, the biggest plus is the restaurant’s multi-level parking, which comes in handy during weekends and festivals, when the serpentine lanes and bylanes of Tangra are chock-a-block with cars.
“I am 60 and I have done enough," says Xing, adding, “now, it’s up to Edward and Edwin to decide what they want." And his sons aren’t in a hurry to branch out. “Our priority is to consolidate and become the best in the city," says Edwin, who has just finished his BCom from Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College. Moreover, the trio keeps a close watch on the kitchen and all other aspects of running Big Boss, and is apprehensive that a roll-out could lead to a dilution of standards.
Their best includes the Eggdrop Tomato Soup, Whole Steamed Bhetki, Zap Kim, Prawn Wat Dan and Ma Po Tofu.
Meal for two: Rs700
EAU CHEW, KOLKATA
The Huang family—Joseph, Josephine, Joel and Jennifer—claim that theirs is the oldest Chinese-owned restaurant in the country. Set up by Achumpa Huang in 1927, Eau Chew has been going strong despite its unusual location on Mission Row in the central business district, and rather dour demeanour. “The pots we use in our signature Chimney Soup are the ones he (Achumpa) got from China," says Joseph, who has never hired a cook, and mans the kitchen himself with help from wife Josephine and son Joel. “My sister wasn’t too keen on the restaurant business," says Joel, who says he loves messing around with pots and pans.
Eau Chew is located on the first-floor of a derelict building behind a petrol pump which houses mostly offices. One has to scale a steep flight of stairs to reach the restaurant whose décor is spartan at best, with mica-topped tables sans tablecloths and a bare floor. The menu card is a four-page laminated affair. However, the delicacies that stagger out of the kitchen more than make up for this. The food is served by family members, generally Joel—he can be a bit brusque at times, but compensates by adding a personal touch to all he does. Most of Eau Chew’s clients are regulars who know exactly what they want, and it’s not unusual to spot one of the Huangs parked with a diner, chatting like old friends.
Expansion plans are not on the horizon. “Our USP is our personal touch, which we can never maintain if we increase the number of tables, let alone branch out," says Joseph.
The Chimney Soup, to do justice to which at least six very famished people need to be roped in. All sorts of vegetables, meat and seafood are dunked in the soup, which is kept on the boil by the burning coal placed under the container, while a chimney allows the steam to escape. There’s also Chicken Satay (strips of chicken marinated and skewered), Stuffed Sugarcane (chicken pieces stuck to sugarcane), Roast Chilli Pork and the most unique item—off the menu and available only on request—Josephine noodles, named after the lady of the house. It’s a complete meal by itself.
Meal for two: Rs700
JERRY WONG’S NOODLE HOUSE, NEW DELHI
“My grandfather belonged to the Hakka community, who are nomadic," says Peter Lu, managing partner of Jerry Wong’s Noodle House, and a third-generation Indian of Chinese descent. “He was a carpenter from Muian, which is near Hong Kong, and he was attracted to India." Starting out in Kolkata, Lu’s grandfather took up the shoe trade before moving north. “We had shoe shops in Lucknow, Kanpur, Dehradun, Mussoorie, Ludhiana and Delhi," he says, with a touch of pride. “My father was born in Lucknow, and studied only till class VII, but he was fluent in Hindi and Urdu."
Lu, who grew up in Dehradun, speaks better Hindi than most Delhiites. “Unka uchcharan theek nahin tha (their pronunciation wasn’t correct)," he says when speaking of the hardships his grandfather’s generation of Chinese had to face in India. His restaurant can be best described as modest, and is located in Connaught Circus. “We don’t serve authentic Chinese food here," says Lu, who has spent the greater part of his working life in the employ of different luxury hotel groups.
He opened the Noodle House three years ago after his career plateaued. Lu is refreshingly candid about the good and bad of being “Chinese" in India. “My Chinese face has worked for me—the hotels, when they would open these Chinese restaurants, wanted me there and I got promoted steadily. In 1996, I was recognized (as) food and beverage director of the year. But when my turn came to become the general manager, being of Chinese origin didn’t help."
“The next generation is interested in IT and computers, not restaurants," says Lu. “Which is understandable; they have received the kind of education we didn’t." He went to China a couple of years ago, and was amazed by the progress he saw. “The younger generation is so modern," he says. And he finds them quite attractive too. “They have big eyes and sharp features."
The Crispy Shredded Lamb, Chilli Chicken with Black Bean Sauce for non-vegetarians and Vegetable Teppanyaki are good choices. The entrées are supplemented by vegetarian Hakka noodles and vegetarian fried rice. The meal is hearty and completely along expected lines. The vegetables in the Teppanyaki are lightly cooked and therefore a bit crunchy, and retain their natural flavours. They could be a bit bland for Indian tastebuds, but make for a refreshing change.
Meal for two: Rs700
—Rachana Nakra in Mumbai, Rajdeep Datta Roy in Kolkata and Himanshu Bhagat in New Delhi
SHOEMAKERS: A FEW STEPS BACK
They were once a benchmark of quality and style, but today Chinese shoe shops are struggling to stay relevant
D Minsen & Co, New Delhi
Violet was born and brought up in Kolkata, as was her father. Her grandfather came from southern China, so that makes her son Edward a fourth generation Indian of Chinese descent on his mother’s side.
Violet says that there weren’t many shoemakers in the 1940s in Delhi, as demand was limited. Their customers were mainly the English, some well-off Indians, Russians (who ordered fur boots with sheepskin lining to protect against the cold) and Americans who were over here because of the war.
Today, D. Minsen’s is a brightly lit mid-size store with no-nonsense interiors comprising shoe racks and mirrors that are a throwback to the pre-Nike and Reebok era. As with any other shoe store, footwear in current styles—be it men’s shoes or ladies’ sandals—takes up most of the shelf space. However, Edward says that the accent is on footwear with classic designs that they make themselves. “The designs of our Jodhpur boots and of our Oxford brogues have remained unaltered for 70 years," adds his mother.
The English taught the Chinese immigrants how to make shoes and Violet points out that the sizing and patterns of D. Minsen’s shoes are still as per English standards. Customers from England still come to them for handmade shoes, as do many Indian office-goers and army-men. “When people ask me why they should opt for our handmade shoes over branded ones," says Violet, “I tell them it’s their choice. Chinese shoes represent a way of life."
John Brothers, New Delhi
Except for his Chinese features, Jude Yep, 57, is just like any other proprietor of a small store in the Capital. This is only natural, given that he was born in India and grew up in the house right above the shoe store in Connaught Place that he now runs. His father established John Brothers in 1938. “As a teenager, my father came to India with his uncle from the city of Canton with just a shirt on his back," he says. “He didn’t know English or Hindi, but worked hard, and was intelligent enough to pick up the leather trade."
Back in the 1940s, their customers were mostly “the English and the brown sahibs". Today, Yep says, they have been replaced by diplomats and industrialists, as well as musicians; he has also collaborated with designers such as Rohit Bal and Tarun Tahiliani. However, the starting price of Rs950 for a pair indicates that his clientele must also include the regular CP shopper.
The designs on offer vary from stylish boots with metal buckles and fashionable knee-high boots to regular ladies’ sandals and men’s footwear. There are the classic brogues and polo boots as well.
Prices of bespoke shoes at John Brothers start at Rs5,000. “Making good shoes requires skilled workers, and now they are hard to come by and train," says Yep. “They find it easier to do the mechanical work that large-scale shoe manufacturing requires." This has made it harder to meet the demand for handmade shoes and maintain the quality.
He recalls a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when a lot of French and American designers descended on India. Once, he had a pair of shoes on display that had been designed for him by a Frenchwoman. An American designer happened to come by, like them and pick them up. “Later, they (the two designers) ran into each other at a garment meet in Paris, and the Frenchwoman was amazed to see the American wearing her shoes," Yep says. “She asked her where she got them and they realized that it was from my store in Delhi. Imagine!"
Ting Son, Kolkata
Like all Chinese shoe stores here, Ting Son, too, is veering away from the traditional, handmade Chinese shoes that had drawn generations of Kolkatans to Bentinck Street. “Barely 20-25% of the shoes you see here are made by us," says Lim, citing rising costs, labour problems and lack of patronage as the main reasons for increasingly going the outsourcing way.
As a result, garish, corn-inducing creations from Agra and Kanpur that won’t be wearable after six months adorn the shelves. “They are made of rexine and micro, cost less and last less, but then, these are what sell," says Lim, resigned.
However, a small cabinet marked “own manufacture" gets the old man animated. “We use only the best quality leather, and every bit is hand-sewn," says Lim. “I have grown too old and can’t see very well, but these shoes are just like the ones I used to make," he says.
The dull glow of the soft, black leather moccasins and brogues bear out his words. Soft, but extremely durable, if Lim is to be believed, the shoes in the range of Rs700-900 are true value for money. “Something similar from the big brands would cost at least twice as much, if not more," he says.
Like hundreds of his ilk, Lim knows that the days of the craft that made them famous are numbered. “Apart from some old customers, most people come in for the cheap shoes nowadays," he says, adding, “We are on our way out and we know that."
—Himanshu Bhagat in New Delhi and Rajdeep Datta Roy in Kolkata
GADGETS: COUNTERFEIT CHINA
When you must have that gadget but can’t afford the price tag, head to these shops
The dreaded invasion of cheap Chinese goods shutting down our factories never really materialized. But there are still plenty of innovative, cheap, and often downright useless Chinese fakes to be found in our markets.
Here are three of the country’s top shopping destinations for the discerning consumer who wants his gadgets cheap, uncomplicated and only mildly functional:
Heera Panna, Haji Ali, Mumbai
Regulars believe that great value for money is to be had in the warren of narrow, dimly lit corridors of shops in this Mumbai institution. Newbies, however, will be scalped without mercy. Heera Panna, located across the terribly busy traffic junction of Haji Ali, is probably the first Indian port of call for any hot new gadget launch—they had the iPhone and Nintendo Wii within days of the launches abroad.
“If I am not mistaken, there should be 144 shops in here. I’ve been running my outlet for almost 25 years now, since the very beginning," says Shivam, whose gaming store is stocked with Sony and Nintendo machines. Yes, he has the Wii Fit too, and at a price that is cheaper than in Dubai’s swank malls.
But the real Chinese deal is to be made deep within the bowels of the complex, where the little stores sell Chinese no-name mobile phones. Fancy a Tokyo or NKTEL phone that looks just like the latest Nokia but costs peanuts? Fall in line.
Our favourite find, however, was a near-ditto copy, from a reasonable distance, of the popular Nokia XpressMusic 5310 handset. The same red embellishments, the same buttons on the side and the same slim form factor. Of course, not one of the extra buttons works. “Bas phone ka kaam karta hain! (it works only as a phone)," the shopkeeper mumbles while catering to other serious customers.
And if the shopping gets exhausting, grab a bag of popcorn and some fizzy drinks at the snack bars deep inside.
Palika Bazaar, Connaught Place, New Delhi
Everything from deodorants (it’s mostly soap water), clothing (good stuff!), leather goods to watches, pirated movies and music can be found at a bargain price in the 287 shops here.
Palika Bazaar goes back nearly three decades. It started as an underground flea market, with shopkeepers calling out to you from all corners. Today, it records an average of 5,000 visitors a day. But be prepared to find your shopping spree rudely interrupted by the piercing sound of police whistles and the clatter of shutters downed with an urgency befitting an anti-piracy police raid.
A good deal we hunted down was on the Apple iPod Nano: the Chinese “interpretation" is available for Rs750-1,400— around 15% less than the original’s price. It’s a much shinier version of the model too. The popular Chinese companies seem to be JLT and Nickel, both of which produce a knock-off version within three months of any launch, says a shopkeeper, on condition of anonymity. Their share of the loot is a “meagre 10%", he says.
Although traders claim that the Chinese version has all the features of the original iPod, they make it clear that its durability is highly questionable. There’s no warranty whatsoever, and only a hesitant reassurance that the buyer may bring the product back for repair should “something happen". What they do offer, though, is a free onboard copy of Smile.dk’s song, Butterfly—something missing in the original.
But no matter how awesome a deal one chances upon, you can’t help but leave Palika Bazaar feeling at least a little short-changed.
Burma Bazaar, Parry’s Corner, Chennai
An array of 960 small shops selling imported goods stretch from near the Chennai harbour to the regional headquarters of the Reserve Bank of India. As you park your vehicle and look around, half a dozen shopkeepers surround you, urging you to visit their shops.
Our pick of the merchandise was a DVD player by Cosonic. The Chinese imitation is just slightly larger than a similar Sony player, and comes with a price tag of Rs1,800—the Sony product is priced at Rs3,200.
The shopkeeper, who does not wish to be named, explains that the two machines pack similar features, except that the Cosonic comes with an added USB connection facility. But what about quality? “Both are the same," he asserts. Not surprisingly, Cosonic’s DVD players sell more than Sony’s, he tells us.
—Sidin Vadukut in Mumbai, Shruti Chakraborty in New Delhi and Vidya S. in Chennai
PARTY ACCESSORIES: DANCE LIKE IT’S THE YEAR OF THE RAT
How to dress, dine, decorate and dance for the hottest Chinese party since Hong Kong returned to the mainland
The easiest way to convert your home into the Middle Kingdom? Paper lanterns. Red lanterns, with flickering lights, cast a seductive glow on a backyard party and immediately conjure up images of China. Paper lanterns can be bought at Khan Market, New Delhi, and in Chinatown, Kolkata. For more embellishments, opt for scrolls with painted calligraphy, or statues of lucky cats that preside over gambling matches. Rs50-200 per lantern.
For classical Chinese music (think strings and haunting vocals), hire three women whose husbands work in the embassy in New Delhi. They met through their husbands, but quickly realized their love of music united them. They can be hired for small concerts, or for background music. If you want to opt for a more convenient musical package, the Chinese embassy can provide a CD of traditional music, Chinese opera, or regional songs. Requests should be made to firstname.lastname@example.org
Chinese silks, collars and button knots are the easiest way to Chinese-ify your look. Designers such as Sonam Dubal (who retails out of Ensemble in Mumbai and New Delhi) have given an evolved twist to the look, transforming it from costume to fashion. The Bombay Store outlets in Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi and Pune stock silk kurtas with Chinese collars as well as quilted jackets with Chinese knot-buttons.
—Melissa Bell in New Delhi and Parizaad Khan in Mumbai
FILMS: CELLULOID TRAVELLER
Six movies that will bring China into your living room
(Click below for a slideshow of the six movies)
Lust, Caution (2007): World War II Shanghai is the luscious and ravaged backdrop to this raunchy, but poignant, tale of a young Chinese resistance fighter, who seduces a political collaborator as they attempt to overthrow Japanese occupiers. Despite incensing censor boards with its violent sex scenes (the film never made it to India, though it is available on DVD), the movie garnered rave reviews, and finally redeemed its director Ang Lee from the disaster that was The Hulk.
The Joy Luck Club (1993): Ok, strictly speaking, it’s not really set in China (though several flashbacks do take place there), and it is the ultimate cheese chick fest, but really, was there anyone more magnificent than Tsai Chin’s disapproving mother, who coldly dismisses her daughter’s romantic amours? At the time, immigrant groups protested the racial stereotyping but this sweeping epic of multiple generations of Chinese-American families resonated just as loudly as the Amy Tan novel on which it was based.
Raise the Red Lantern (1991): Where would China be without its share of dissidents? Exploring the intrigue and treachery of concubines in the 1920s, director Zhang Yimou encountered ferocious resistance in China, eventually bypassing censor boards with the help of Taiwanese financing and Hong Kong backing. The movie lost out on its Oscar nomination, but catapulted the career of actor Gong Li, who beguiled audiences and critics with her lithely played fourth mistress. Chinese government officials didn’t hold a grudge for too long, however: Zhang was appointed creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.
Project A (1983): Rush Hour smush hour. The all-time best Jackie Chan movie was undoubtedly Project A, a kooky action farce that starred Chan as a hapless coast guard determined to rid Hong Kong’s waters of its marauding pirates. Despite the hokey dialogues and dated sets, the movie’s action sequences, including a bicycle chase scene and hair-raising clock tower fall, still manage to thrill, and made it one of the highest-grossing movies in Hong Kong at the time.
Seven Years in Tibet (1997): So little has changed. China is the unwelcome and ominous cloud that hangs over this true tale of Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer (played by Brad Pitt, who was banned from China as a result), who came to Lhasa just as the holy city was engaged in brutal political warfare with China. Not a kind portrayal of the communist state, it nonetheless touches on issues that persist today.
The Last Emperor (1987):Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic masterpiece of Pu Yi, the boy who went from emperor at age 3 to a gardener at the time of his death. Bagging nine Oscars and many accolades for its sweeping scenes of the Forbidden City, the movie revealed a weak and, at times, inefficient man who was a pawn for Chinese and Japanese forces fighting for control of the country. Not without its share of tragedy and sadness, Pu Yi’s journey was a reflection of the state’s transition from a feudalist economy to a simmering but stable dictatorship.
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