Home / Lounge / Features /  The rise and rise of dim sums

“I am making Thai curry tonight," says Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal on the phone. Mumbai-based Ghildiyal is a food writer, culinary consultant and the curator of Godrej Food Trends Report 2020 which acts as a guide for food businesses in India. One of the trends in this year's report spotlights “deeper exploration of South-East Asian flavours". Ghildiyal’s dinner choice is not a mere coincidence, for it represents the mood of the moment—the need to experiment with cuisines with flavours familiar to our palate; think an inviting bowl of ramen or the comfort of a warm Thai curry.

“In our country, the trend curve for South-East Asian food has started to mimic the curiosity for India’s regional and sub-regional cuisines. We have gone beyond broad terms like Chinese food and are now familiar with Guangzhou dim sums and Hainanese rice," she says. South-East Asian flavours are well placed to suit the Indian palate with their spicy chilli dishes, soupy carb-heavy rice-based items and the heartening coconut curries. Her team predicted an explosion of South-East Asian food driven by restaurants when the report was released in February, but food businesses were struck by the pandemic-induced slowdown. And yet, when restaurants opened for delivery, those offering pan-Asian made a quick comeback, according to her. Ghildiyal points out Seefah, a restaurant in Mumbai specializing in Japanese and Thai, as a case study: “They opened a month after lockdown for delivery and now they are rocking."

Sample some of the offerings at Seefah, named after its co-founder Seefah Ketchaiyo: miso tenderloin sandwich, fluffy Japanese cake, and crispy prawn katsu burger. “I have a weekly changing menu so that customers are not bored. In the future, even if lockdown rules are completely lifted, I am pretty sure of not opening the restaurant for dine-in until a vaccine is released. If one of us gets infected, everything will be gone," says Ketchaiyo. Since they started delivery in mid-April, the income from their takeaway menu has increased 100 percent compared to pre-lockdown.

The challenges of running a restaurant in the pandemic has led to a gradual rise in cloud kitchens and delivery-focused models. They have a set template for flavours and dishes that result in repeat orders. Delhi’s Lite Bite Foods (LBF), the parent company of restaurants like Punjab Grill and the pan-Asian YOÜMEE, launched its cloud kitchen in Delhi last month. “We found Asian dishes are one of the highest selling items in our cloud kitchen," says Armaan Aggarwal, brand manager, YOÜMEE. LBF is investing 25 crore to roll-out 36 kitchens, both cloud and quick delivery, in three years starting August. In Mumbai, LBF opened a delivery kitchen for YOÜMEE this month. Aggarwal believes food experiments will lead the way—“Sticking to a set cuisine can get a little boring for both restauranteurs and clients. We switch things up and sometimes offer dishes which people didn’t know they wanted. Let’s say, I introduce the Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich to a crowd that has had enough of noodles. They will be like, ‘Wow, this is dope! I didn’t know this existed, but now I want more.’"

Sichuan Mala Noodles on a spicy peanut-based sauce by NoodL Madras (Image: Chef Mathangi Kumar)
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Sichuan Mala Noodles on a spicy peanut-based sauce by NoodL Madras (Image: Chef Mathangi Kumar)

Experimental Asian food, such as these, can even be seen in metros like Chennai. The city is no stranger to Asian flavours with the iconic 28-year-old Japanese restaurant Dahlia and Burmese food with deep roots in north Chennai. “In the 1960s, residents from that area traded with Burma (now Myanmar) which led to a proliferation of Burmese cuisine in the city," says chef Mathangi Kumar. In July, she launched Noodl, a delivery kitchen specializing in Malaysian dishes, Filipino cuisine and, of course, ramen bowls. Her food is 95% cooked and upon delivery her clients need to quickly toss all the ingredients in a wok to replicate the experience of a restaurant-style dish. She knows that certain Asian items don’t travel well; vegetables soaked in gravy can become a goopy mess and boiled noodles can turn gluggy. Due to the expat population comprising Japanese and Chinese in large numbers, the city is crowded with restaurants offering these cuisines. She was clear about not including dishes which are readily available, like hakka noodles and sushi. She was, also, driven by the idea of comfort food: “What is considered comforting at a time like this? Everyone is stuck at home with apprehensions of stepping out. Some have young children and elders to look after. Initially, people were cooking with gusto, but their enthusiasm wore off. I wanted to see if Singaporean jasmine rice cooked in chicken broth will taste like comfort, or perhaps a Chiang Mai Coconut Noodle Soup can have an uplifting effect." Her dishes have found favour among Chennaiites. It is a clear indication that food lovers are open to experimenting with the whole gamut of South-east Asian flavours.

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