Chef Benjamin Get's Nostalgic About His Mother’s Culinary Treat
Image Credit: Chef Benjamin of Zega

Benjamin Lalhmangaiha is the Chef De Cuisine at the award-winning specialty Pan-Asian restaurant ZEGA at the Sheraton Hyderabad Hotel. He is a dynamic epicurean who likes to explore quirky and unusual ingredients to offer guests an extraordinary Pan-Asian dining experience. His forte is crafting innovative creations and infusing unique flavours in conventional dishes. This has led to him curating special menus for the different offerings at the restaurant. The restaurant is perfect for socializing over dining or evening cocktail experience.

Chef Benjamin holds a Master’s degree in International Hospitality Management from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, UK and a Bachelor's degree from International Institute of Hotel Management, Kolkata. In his leisure time off, he loves to play the guitar, explore the latest culinary trends and spend quality time with family.

What food takes you back to your childhood?

Growing up in a Mizo household, I have quite a few local favourites. Like my mom’s Momos filled with Chayote Squash and pork, the Chow Satui Leih (Soupy noodle with pork or beef broth), and Sanpiau (Rice porridge/Rice Congee) accompanied with some spicy dips made from grounded bird eye chilli, fresh garlic and shallots. These bring back fond memories of my childhood when I consumed it as a snack or lunch. Today even though I have cooked and tasted some lip-smacking dishes over the years, these remain my favourites. One bite is enough to take me back to my carefree days of cheerful family gatherings.                            

What is the most popular dish on the current menu of Zega?

Our menu has an exquisite selection of the best Pan Asian offerings. Among these, the Zega Chicken (Chicken Wok stirred in secret Zega sauce) is the top seller and most popular Chicken Dish. I’ve created the secret sauce with the right spice blend to suit the Indian Palate and produce a unique flavour. A few other star dishes are Lamb Chops, Cheese Asparagus dumplings, Edamame and Water Chestnuts, and Crispy Thai Lotus stem stands out from the rest. One must also try the latest additions to our Cocktail menu like The Smokey Old Fashion, The Emerald Muse and The Clear Skies. 

What has been your food philosophy?

As a kid, I was fascinated by my mom’s cooking. Her passion to infuse rich flavours in every dish cooked is what drew me towards this profession. My first role as an Assistant Chef to her from the early age of 8 and the learning through the years has helped mould my philosophy that the best dish is when the food is “authentic, simple, tasty and consistent”.   

Have you noticed any changing trends in your Indian patrons over the years? Please elaborate.

As more Indians now travel across the globe and work abroad, they are open to exploring different cuisines. Their palate has become acceptable to newer flavours with eagerness to discover more. It should be noted that there has been a growing demand for Thai Cuisine, owing to its close flavour profile to Indian cuisine. Fortunately, I’ve attained a good amount of experience in it, as that was one of the first South East cuisines I learned under the mentorship of a Thai Chef during my brief stint in Bangkok. It’s also one of my favourites due to its familiar taste in Mizo cuisine. A lot of the spices used are similar to the ones we use in our Mizo dishes.

Do you use any special ingredients that you get specifically from any South East Asian country?

When cooking authentic food, it is crucial to have the right ingredients available to get the best flavours. Over the years, I’ve got to work with some of the top ex-pat chefs from Malaysia, Singapore, China and Thailand. They helped me connect with the best vendors who import high-quality ingredients and exotic vegetables like Thai lotus stem, mushrooms, tuna, salmon, lamb chops etc. from South East Asia. At Zega, the quality and freshness of ingredients are a top priority to ensure our dishes have a delicious taste.

How easy or difficult it is to understand the Indian palate and flavours?

Since my roots belong to the country and I’ve worked here, I understand all about the Indian Palate. During my studies in Kolkata, I understood this closely, as I was in the birthplace of Indian Chinese. We Indians can be the harshest critics or the easiest people to win over, its all about balancing those flavours. While a few cuisines like Korean needs to be tone down on spice and pungent flavours, others like the Chinese need to be tweaked up on the spice level to cater to the Asian Cuisine cravings of our population. So when I create my recipe, I know that the recipe needs to satisfy every inch of the Indian Taste Buds.

What does it take to sustain the competition?

The restaurant business has cutthroat competition, with newbies entering the market frequently, which means we need to find new ways to raise the bar. I try to up my game by following a lot of International chefs, seeking inspiration from their work and browsing over food-related content on Social Media, which has become the new age encyclopedia for many of us. 

As a restaurant, I believe to thrive in this competitive landscape it’s key to adopt innovative strategies, maintain consistency, know the competition, price it right, update the menu offerings as per market trends, and navigate along with the changing style. For example, the rise of K-pop and K-Drama fans across town has led to the fan following of Korean food. Keeping this in mind, we at Zega are soon launching something exciting for all the K-Fans in Hyderabad.

What is that one food memory that really makes you nostalgic?

The time when my wife cooks up my all-time favourites – the bamboo shoot and pork, the Chow Satui Leih (Soupy noodles with pork or beef broth), and Sanpiau (Rice porridge/Rice Congee) accompanied with some spicy dips made from grounded bird eye chilli, fresh garlic and shallots. It evokes nostalgia and makes me want to go back in time to relieve the sweet memories of me devouring these while my mom freshly prepared and served them to us with all her love.