Ever since Nelson Wang, founder of China Garden introduced his famed chicken Manchurian to the city, Mumbaiittes couldn’t have enough of this incredibly spicy, red and tasty cuisine. That was in the 80s. Today the popularity of Chinese cuisine is shared by Thai, Malaysian, Japanese and Vietnamese. And in no time the Manchurian came to sit next to the sushi and the satay.
As Indians continue to travel and exercise their taste buds the last decade has seen a mushrooming of relatively authentic Asian restaurants in the city. It is now common to see authentic dishes like Mapo tofu from China’s Sichuan province, Korean Beef Bulgogi, Singaporean chilli crab, Pad Thai noodles, Malaysian curry laksa, Burmese Khao Suey, Indonesian Nasi Goreng and more in small individual restaurants not attached to five star chains. But before we delve into the chilli, soy and Szechwan of these dishes let’s dig up the past.
Indians have always loved their ‘noodles.’ How else will you explain the immense popularity of Maggi, a product that Nestlé has not had as much popularity with in markets other than India. From the rustic dhabas to the tea stalls located precariously on the trekking paths in the upper reaches of the Himalayas – Maggi noodles are always at hand. So when you bring in an entire cuisine, or a set of cuisines with noodles as their main stay, the Indian reaction was predictable.
However, the Thai, Japanese, Singaporean and Malaysian cuisines today are all set to steal the thunder from Chinese. Let’s see the reasons.
Ease of Travel
It’s the South East Asian countries are where most Indians are traveling these days, be it the Singapore F1 night race or the shopping escapades to Bangkok. We are everywhere. Malaysia with its Petronas towers and Borneo rain forest is a hit with Indians as also the Indonesian islands along with the Disney in Hong Kong. With so many South Asian influences in our life, their cuisine is bound to filter into our lives. So much so that the globetrotting Indian now knows his Sushi from Sashimi, and his Thai basil from tulsi.
“Indians go more frequently to Malaysia than Borivali,” jokes Dharmesh Karmokar, Director, Vinaigrette Hospitality, the company that owns Nom Nom a Pan Asian restaurant and Silver Beach Café. Incidentally it was his vegetable vendor who germinated the seed of opening a Pan Asian cuisine restaurant. “I personally shop for most ingredients for my restaurants. While doing that my vendor started showing me all the exotic veggies including Thai Brinjal, asparagus, etc. He said “sahab aaj kal tho har koi Singapore Bangkok ghum ke aata hai aur Thai Brinjal mangta hai,” says Karmokar who recently launched his second Nom Nom in Bandra. With its live sushi counter, Sake bomb nights and a steaming dim sum console Nom Nom is packed to the rafters even for lunch on a Wednesday.
And though Chinese and Thai still rules, it’s the Crispy Corn in Plum Sauce, an Indonesian dish and California Rolls that’s marching ahead of the hakka noodles. Anjana Shete a regular at Nom Nom swears by the Bird Chilly Prawns and the Burmese Khao Suey. The Sake Bomb, which is Sake served in a shot glass balancing on chopsticks on a beer glass has many a takers on weekends.
Easy availability of ingredient is adding to the lure. The powerful scents of Thailand waft all over the Pali market in Mumbai. Take a deep breath and inhale the aroma of Thyme, Basil and lemon grass. Even the sauces and pastes are readily available in the supermarkets for the urbanites to rustle up a quick Thai curry or a stir fry.
At the end of the day, the litmus test is the taste. The bold, strong and exotic flavors of the wasabi, chilli oil, Miso, satay, teriyaki, etc are creating new taste sensations. Compared to Indian food that is often dominant with its spicy and salty elements, Asian food often creates a subtle ‘sensory’ experience with its lemon grass, galangal and Kafir lime.
“And though the ubiquitous curries of Thailand, dim sums and wantons of Hong Kong, sushi of Japan, noodles from Singapore, satay from Indonesia and even momos and thupkas from Tibet have invaded our culture and cuisine, it is nice to note that just as an Indian abroad yearns for kaali dal and bhindi amchuri, an Indian in India at times still yearns for that Sino-Ludhianawi concoction of chilli chicken, paneer chilli, golden fried prawns, chicken salt and pepper. Along with daal makhani and butter chicken, these have entered the list of Indian comfort foods,” says Rahul Kogaokar, Director Food & Beverage, Goa Marriott Resort & Spa.
Apart from being comfort food it’s also healthy. “Unlike the pizza or pasta, Asian food is much lighter. Braising, steaming, wok stirring are healthy ways to cook. There isn’t a lot of butter and cream and the fat comes from meat,” explains Mitesh Rangras who has been running the immensely popular chain of Pan Asian restaurants Lemongrass for seven years. His recent launch – Japanese restaurant Aoi sees brisk business of takeaways at lunch.
More recently The Mirador Hotel at Andheri converted its multi-cuisine restaurant Tangerine into House of Asia. “In the 10 years that we ran Tangerine, we realised that while 50 per cent of the crowd stayed with Indian, the other half was experimenting with Asian cuisine. That’s when we took the decision to convert Tangerine into a restaurant serving Pan Asian cuisine, while retaining Indian food on the menu,” explains Rahul Mehra, Director, The Mirador. The Teppanyaki counter at House of Asia is very popular with the regulars as also the delicate din sums and Cantonese chicken. To infuse a level of authenticity in to the dishes Rahul flew his team of chefs to Thailand’s Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. “As a restaurateur we also have the responsibility to educate and introduce people to different cuisines. Till recently the formula in Mumbai was Indian and Chinese. However the Indo-Chinese formula is not going to work anymore. Even within Chinese cuisine, the Hakka noodles and Manchurian is not going to sell,” explains Mehra. That’s one of the reasons why Mumbaikkars lapped welcomed London’s Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant Yauatcha with open arms after Hakkasan.
The TV shows also have a huge role to play. “When you see entire episodes dedicated to making Thai Curries and Satays you instantly want to try that food. So Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for experimentation with the sauces and pastes that we stock up during our monthly grocery shopping,” says Tripti Saha, executive producer for a popular TV Show.
The host of pan Asian restaurants mushrooming in the city affirms the fact that the food is here to stay. Mumbaikkar’s adventurous palate and restaurateurs’ willingness to Indianise will ensure that the Thai curry befriends the tandoori chicken.
By Nivedita Jayaram Pawar
This article was first carried in BTW magazine, Oct 2013