Eating Out | The new Asian
After decades of fiery, kitschy-kitschy Chindian fare, Mumbai is beginning to embrace food from South-East Asia and beyond
When first-time restaurateur Arjun Dhinsa approached Mitesh Rangras, a partner at SID Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, the company that owns the popular South-East Asian eatery Lemongrass and Japanese restaurant Aoi in Bandra, Mumbai, to consult him on a “pure vegetarian” pan-Asian restaurant, Rangras asked, “Am I being punked?”
“I kept thinking about how I was going to cook Thai, Malaysian or Vietnamese dishes without the fish sauce, without the prawns and without the pork,” says Rangras, whose association with Asian cuisine in Mumbai dates back to 1999, when he first took up a job at the authentic Oriental restaurant Sampan, formerly at the Holiday Inn, Juhu. “But what struck me about Arjun’s plan was the location of the new restaurant.”
Asian Street Kitchen, which opened in March in place of a Café Coffee Day outlet opposite the Girgaum Chowpatty beach, a stretch known for its “pure veg” eateries, claims to be the first restaurant in Mumbai to serve vegetarian versions of popular Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese dishes like nasi goreng, ramen and pho—all unimaginable without egg, seafood and meat. “This is an area where all the restaurants have been serving the exact same dishes for donkey’s years—everybody is doing sizzlers, nachos, pasta and pizza or you’ll find the Udipi guys,” says Rangras.
He is among the tribe of young, first-time entrepreneurs driving the next big change in Oriental dining in Mumbai and, increasingly, in other metros across the country. Yet, Dhinsa and his contemporaries are unlike the granddaddies of Chinese cooking in India, many of whom altered authentic Chinese flavours to suit the fiery Indian palate to such an extent that they created the hybrid Indian-Chinese restaurant. The new lot don’t necessarily boast of an Oriental or South-East Asian culinary heritage like their predecessors, including China Garden founder Nelson Wang and Baba Ling of Ling’s Pavilion. And they certainly want the menus to steer clear of the stereotype of “Chindian” food.
When Royal China opened in Fort in 2003, it was one of the first few stand-alone restaurants in the city to boast of an authentic menu prepared by chefs flown in from the mainland or Hong Kong. Until a few years ago, however, authentic Asian fare and pan-Asian delicacies were still largely in the domain of five-star hotels and upscale restaurants. While those with deep pockets are no strangers to delicately prepared dim sums, succulent Peking duck and fiery Thai curries, the high-street chains, mid-range stand-alone restaurants and quick-service eateries are only just beginning to go beyond Indian-Chinese. They may still be forced to focus on the more popular exports of a cuisine or adapt it to Indian tastes, but the willingness to experiment is visible.
“Growing up in Mumbai in the 1990s, I still remember that going to China Garden was the coolest outing of the year,” says Mamagoto co-founder Rahul Khanna, a partner at Azure hospitality that runs the pan-Asian chain. Indian and Chinese restaurants were the first casualties of the multi-cuisine, Italian and modern-European café influx over the past decade, he adds.
“You know there’s a big change taking place when places like Mainland China do serious dim- sum festivals and popular Asian food is not necessarily recalled as Manchurian and triple Schezwan,” adds Rangras.
While some, like Dhinsa, have been inspired by living and working in South-East Asia, others have worked their way up from stand-alone Asian restaurants or five-star hotels. All of them are working with ideas that are bold—like Dhinsa’s “pure vegetarian” Asian Street Kitchen—or trendy—like Khanna and Kabir Suri’s Mamagoto and Pallav Ojha’s quick-service chain, Asia On My Plate, in Bandra and Lower Parel—or simply game-changing— like Ankit Gupta’s single-cuisine restaurant Burma Burma, scheduled to launch in the first week of May in Fort.
The newest resident at the Mathuradas Mills Compound in Lower Parel, home to music venue blueFROG, is a 3,500 sq. ft Thai restaurant called Oh:Cha Kitchen & Bar, launched in March by Sanat Patel, the former CEO of Enterprenante Hospitality Management Pvt. Ltd, which also owns Two One Two Bar & Grill. It faces competition from an outlet of Nikhil Chib’s Busaba, a 14-year-old brand that was amongst the first to introduce a pan-Asian menu made up of bibimbap and khao suey. Despite being part of the first wave of upscale and stand-alone European restaurants in Mumbai, Patel says he now sees more promise in the mid-range market in which diners are more open to trying niche cuisines.
But what’s also common to all these ventures is the broad definition they come under—pan-Asian—a cuisine that’s open to interpretation and hugely popular. In the last couple of years, Mumbai has seen many restaurants open under this category—Hakkasan and Yauatcha in Bandra and the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), Ping Pong in BKC, BusaGo, Mamagoto and Nom Nom at different locations, Auriga in Mahalaxmi, Japanese restaurants Aoi and Kofuku in Bandra, Singkong in Khar, Chao Ban in Kala Ghoda, Trikaya in Andheri, Buddha Belly at Peddar Road and Juhu, and Haibao in Juhu. The Sun-n-Sand hotel in Juhu also recently replaced its decades-old The Sunset Room with an Asian restaurant called Haochi, and The Palladium in Lower Parel has launched a fine-dining pan-Asian restaurant, Mekong.
Zomato claims that in the past year, there has been a 14-21% increase in the number of pan-Asian restaurants listed on the restaurant search engine in cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore.
“If we look back at the last 10 years and also the generation just older than us, we find that the terms largely associated with Chinese food were Hakka noodles, fried rice and sweet corn soup,” says Saurabh Sengupta, the website’s country manager (India). “Now we are observing that merchants are talking about, and people are exclusively looking for, cuisines like Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Korean, Malaysian and Vietnamese. This is the reason we introduced search filters that to go beyond the proverbial Chinese or Oriental.”
Restaurateurs agree that pan-Asian cuisine remains popular for three reasons. First, the cuisine is closest to the Indian palate, says Kritika Nagpal, owner of the 4,000 sq. ft, split-level restaurant and lounge Auriga. “Another reason is that the average middle class goes to Thailand and Indonesia, not really to Europe and the US,” says Khanna. “Sometimes it is even cheaper to travel to South-East Asian countries than to fly domestically. So they are used to eating this food abroad.”
Prashant Issar, vice-president at KA Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which brought Hakkasan and Yauatcha to India, adds that since China is a major manufacturing hub, Indians tend to travel for business and crave authentic fare when they return. The third reason is that it’s still an aspirational cuisine, and anyone who grew up with restaurants like China Garden in Mumbai has a soft corner for it, says Gaurav Goenka, managing director of Mirah Hospitality, which brought the swish London-based dim-sum chain Ping Pong to Mumbai earlier this year.
“Ten years ago, when we started eating pasta, there were only two kinds—one mucky cheese and the other in tomato ketchup,” says Rangras. “Now Italian restaurants brag about their regional authentic Tuscan fare or cuisine from Modena. In the same way, places like Hakkasan and Yauatcha are Cantonese restaurants paving the way for more authentic Asian restaurants.”
Singkong, unlike its competitors nearby, serves hand-rolled sushi, dim sums, and a huge variety of pork, beef, lamb and seafood dishes as authentic Chinese, Thai, Malaysian and Korean preparations. Slightly cautious, Dish Hospitality has begun expanding the Singkong brand by launching a restaurant in Bangalore’s UB City this month, a whole year after its Mumbai launch.
In a bid to stand out from the existing crop of pan-Asian eateries and to compete with the neighbourhood mom-and-pop Chindian joints, restaurateurs these days opt for concept restaurants. So while Mamagoto outlets are designed as hip all-day cafés, forthcoming restaurant Burma Burma will feature a long community table, a tearoom with Japanese sencha, bubble tea and South American mate and a shop that will retail an in-house brand of ready-to-eat khao suey packets.
Unlike New Delhi, Mumbai has been late to adopt dim sum-only restaurants, but there are now several such eateries in the city, including London-based brands Ping Pong and Yauatcha and the new home-grown chain Buddha Belly. The month-old restaurant Haibao in Juhu specializes in Japanese hot pots called shabu-shabu and other steamboats, and is the latest from the China Gate Restaurants Pvt. Ltd stable, which runs the pan-Asian chain Hometown Café. Quick-service chains like Asia On My Plate and BusaGo are serving up dishes like Thai som tam salad, Korean bulgogi and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches for as little as Rs.500 for a meal for two.
Nearly all the new pan-Asian restaurants eschew the clichéd red-green-gold interiors with Chinese lettering and dragon sculptures for clean, minimal décor. Karmokar says that at Nom Nom, he prefers to play down-tempo electronica as opposed to the stock Oriental sound clips used at most Indian- Chinese restaurants. Chefs are also more willing to drop unnecessary dishes from their menus to produce shorter and sharper menus. So while popular Chinese chains like 5 Spice continue to use 15-to 20-page-long menus, newer restaurants like Aoi in Bandra just feature between two and four pages.
Deepa Jain, co-founder at Gourmet It Up, a website that offers value-for-money, pre-set meals at restaurants like Singkong, Aoi and Busaba, says that the masterclasses hosted by the website too need to be specialized to impart sushi or dim sum rolling skills. “If we were to offer our customers a class on making Hakka noodles and Manchurian, I’m sure they’ll refuse,” she says.
It’s not all smooth sailing though. Even as restaurateurs continue to make bold decisions, opt for authentic flavours and invest in branding, there just aren’t enough success stories, says Zomato’s Sengupta. In the past, South-East Asian restaurants like Nachiket Shetye’s East in Kemps Corner and Japengo Café at CR2 Mall, Nariman Point, by BinHendi Enterprises reported dismal business and suffered the perils of being ahead of their time. Goenka adds that even though Ping Pong was launched in a premium market like BKC, it was forced to add Chinese main courses within months of the opening because diners couldn’t fathom a meal made up of just several varieties of dim sum.
“They would ask, ‘Where is your Kung Pao Potatoes? Where is your Manchurian? Where is your American Chop Suey?’ To top that, our portion sizes are in line with the global trend of small eats,” says Goenka. He admits that since the company is more comfortable with the mid-market, value-for-money restaurants, it will soon roll out a home-grown pan-Asian chain in that space while taking baby steps with Ping Pong’s expansion.
To play it safe, pan-Asian eateries often dumb down authentic flavours and aromas and bank on the popular exports from each of the South-East Asian countries they are willing to feature. For instance, first-time restaurateur Ankit Gupta says that while he will introduce Burmese delicacies like Lahpet Thohk, a pickled tea leaf salad, and Nan Gyi Thoke, a one-bowl meal of rice noodle salad with chickpea flour, at Burma Burma, he will rely largely on the popularity of khao suey to drive diners at his restaurant in Fort.
Many restaurants even divide their menus into two sections—one is a list of the usual Indian- Chinese favourites and the other features the more experimental or fusion or authentic dishes. Restaurateurs also say that they would rather adapt their dishes to suit the diners’ tastes than turn them away. To this end, Karmokar says that even though he personally despises the Chindian condiment trio of soy sauce, chilli vinegar and “Schezwan” sauce, he never refuses it when requested by a customer.
The toughest challenge, however, remains sourcing ingredients, especially since import laws have become a sticky issue. According to Sengupta and Karmokar, the minute ingredients required by pan-Asian cuisine restaurants are grown indigenously, the cuisine will begin to expand rapidly. Karmokar believes that’s exactly how Thai cuisine found its way into our homes when local green-grocers and general stores began stocking produce like galangal and lemongrass and ready-made packaged curry pastes at reasonable prices.
“Only once a cuisine can be offered at a non-premium price, can its popularity truly soar,” says Sengupta. “Over the next two-three years, once producers begin to cultivate the produce required for niche pan-Asian cuisines, we will see more value-for-money chains and perhaps even take-out restaurants. For the moment, I don’t think are enough case studies to encourage restaurateurs to experiment with cuisines like Vietnamese or Korean.”
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