Make way for regional Chinese food

Restaurant trends indicate a rising interest in sub-cuisines—and not just for desi fare. This year could well see regional Chinese food take off in India, led by new openings and pop-ups.

This was evident at Tao-Fu, a Chinese restaurant at the JW Marriott Pune, which offers dishes from Sichuan, Beijing and Hong Kong, among other regions. The restaurant opens this weekend.

Its kitchen is helmed by chef Fu Lei, who hails from Sichuan. He has brought a dozen kilograms of Sichuan peppers, his mother’s recipes and his favourite 18-inch iron wok from China. On the menu, there’s a comforting crabmeat soup, a satisfying home-style steamed Australian sea bass and an astounding barbecued Peking duck. The crispy duck skin marinated with five spices was served with a sprinkling of caster sugar. Strips of duck meat go into soft pancake rolls with crunchy cucumber, spring onion, held together with a sweetish broad bean sauce.

At Tao- Fu, no dish is doused in soy sauce and there isn’t an overload of garlic. Perhaps this is the restaurant that shows what one can expect from Chinese food here on. It’s going to be balanced, nuanced and regional fare filled with brand new discoveries.

Indians are not unfamiliar with Chinese food, or, rather, its desi interpretations, with crowd-pleasers like chilli chicken, gobi Manchurian and Schezwan fried rice. The word Schezwan is an Indian hybrid for Sichuan. A Quartz story, published in 2018, reports that India’s first Sichuan cuisine restaurant opened at the The Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai in the 1970s, with “fiery hot” food. Then it trickled down to stand-alone restaurants and even street vendors began serving Schezwan bhelpuri with a chutney of red chilli powder, ginger and garlic.

This chutney, or sauce, doesn’t exist in China, or perhaps anywhere else in the world. It’s a story similar to the curry masala sold in Indian grocery stores in the West or Ching’s Secrets’ ready-to-eat Chinese available in India. These are merely simplified and often misinterpreted versions of a vast cuisine distilled to meet high demand in a foreign country. The cornflour-loaded Manchurian and chilli paneer are a departure from food cooked in Chinese homes or what one can expect from Chinese restaurants in the near future.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead eating gobi Manchurian,” Keenan Tham says with a chuckle. Tham’s grandfather set up two of of Mumbai’s most popular Chinese restaurants, Kamling and Mandarin, in the 1960s. Keenan and his brother Ryan, who own the eight-year-old company Pebble Street Hospitality, run several modern Asian restaurants in Mumbai, including Koko and Foo. These serve pan-Asian crowd-favourites like sushi, dumplings and baos. Earlier, they used to offer Cantonese-style food, which is known for the use of light soy sauce, fermented ingredients, rice wine and Shanghai bean curd. “We didn’t change the recipes but changed the menu to include vegetarian and Jain options. A large part of our revenue comes from the vegetarian section,” explains Ryan.

Ryan and Keenan Tham.
Ryan and Keenan Tham.

The Thams believe there is growing interest in regional Chinese food, with diners gaining more exposure through travel, TV shows like MasterChef and the internet; what they see on screen is what they now desire from their city’s restaurants.

Away from big restaurants, home chefs and pop-ups offer an accessible format to experience different cuisines. Kolkata-based home chef Katherine Chung belongs to the Hakka community that settled in the city before 1947. Chung has organised pop-ups in Kolkata, Jaipur, Mumbai and Pune, in collaboration with restaurants like Masque and food experience curators such as Gormei and The Hedonist. She makes the traditional Hakka pork sausages—lap cheong—and brews rice wine at home. The wine, she explains, is believed to be nourishing and goes into several dishes that are cooked for new mothers in their community. The extract from the rice wine, called lees, is used to stir-fry bok choy.

At pop-ups, she serves a one-pot dish, moon fan, that is similar to clay-pot rice, with chicken, mushrooms and lap cheong sausages. Often, she gets requests to create modern interpretations of Hakka food. While rice cakes is a Hakka special, for Masque she made them with gobindobhog rice.

Storytelling is an integral part of this budding interest in regional Chinese food. The Hakka community, Chung says, has always been on the move, for reasons ranging from famine to war. While the provenance of foods from Sichuan can be traced, Hakka food imbibed ingredients from the many places the community passed through. Chung’s grandfather, for instance, made Amritsar his home and they adopted sarson ka saag in their cooking as a substitute for the broad-leaved Chinese mustard greens.

Chung has not Indianised her food by turning it into Manchurian but elevated ingredients with Chinese techniques. With the onset of winter in Kolkata, she will start preparing traditional rice wine and sausages. Her aim is to conserve the practices of her community through food—and she has an audience with a growing appetite for her dishes.