The Missing Menu

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Pan Asian food is the latest culinary craze in India. But cuisines from many countries have simply been ignored

Pan Asian food is the latest culinary craze in India. But cuisines from many countries have simply been ignored

DANGEROUSLY RED hot dishes, coated with cornflour and heaped with garlic and mounds of shredded spring onions—isn’t this what you get at most restaurants that call themselves Pan Asian? Oh yeah, the clichéd Thai curries, the crispy rolls and the satays, they’re all there in their cosy little slots on almost every menu. It’s tedium writ large. In stylised print.

If only they’d take the trouble to go treasure hunting through culinary Asia, our taste buds would be ready to surrender to these restaurant menu cards again. Their laze is evident; for a food trail that extends from China, snakes its way across Laos and Thailand with stopovers in Myanmar (Burma) and island-hops between Indonesia and Japan, you’d think Pan Asian menus would be weighty tomes, impossible to lift, leave alone choose from.

Alas, they’re not. They’re skinny and skimpy on choices and geography. Korean food means crunching on kimchi, Burmese means khao suey with sprinkled toppings for variety, Vietnamese is a quick rice roll, Sri Lankan is a stop-stare-and-order-sour-fish-curry affair and Laotian is… er, wait, hold on. Waiter… Waiter! Who ate up the rest of the menu?

Pan Asian restaurants had better get their act together. To ease their challenge, Open has hewn its way across the continent to discover such treasures as Korean bulgogi, a juicy mix of tender meats, crispy fresh vegetables and delicate sauces, and Burmese mohinga, a slurp-i-licious combination of rice vermicelli and fish soup. And there’s more to come.

Sure, not too many foodies might deign to order Vietnamese bun oc, vermicelli with snails, leave alone swallow Malaysian rojak, a fruit salad topped with thick, dark prawn paste. But connoisseurs are, well, connoisseurs. They won’t be ignored. And they’re fed up with all the excuses for mediocrity.

PLOY 1 Too bland, too pungent for us

Dishes from countries like Burma, Laos and Cambodia have a soupy texture TRUE

They are somewhat bland TRUE

They can’t be adapted to Indian taste buds FALSE

Indian adaptability is a historical fact. Early forms of Pan Asian food can be traced to the time when traders plied the Silk Route with their fares, and ended up trading gastronomic traditions as well. Varied flavours, diverse ingredients, cooking systems and styles found harmony in the composite cauldron of socio-economic unity. Over time, the sea routes threw their own spices and other coastal ingredients into the mix. As cuisines fused, ingredients like lemongrass, ginger, tamarind and coconut became essentials in every kitchen across Asia.

Food sensibilities in India have long been shaped by whiffs of delicacies from Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Burma, even as Indian kitchens cast their spell far and wide.

“India has been the most dominant culinary influence in this region,” says Chef Samir Muloakar of the chic restaurant Hip Asia at Taj Connamera in Chennai. Tamil settlers in Malaysia, for example, took their unique aromas with them, and this is the origin of the mussaman curry packages that now sell in Kuala Lumpur’s supermarkets.

Though the cosmopolitan, modern Indian diner may still be slightly icky about snails and seaweed, to suggest that he or she resists cuisines from other parts of Asia is just an excuse for laziness. In fact, chefs like Nachiket Shetye of East, a standalone eatery at Kemp’s Corner in Mumbai, believe that all cuisines share a common base, and once you understand this, working the variety is that much easier.

For instance, Vietnamese cuisine makes use of a lot of tamarind and cilantro while ingredients like turmeric, ginger and chillies dominate the Malaysian fare. Even Korean preparations make use of the familiar fresh vegetables, which are pickled in spices.

PLOY 2 Blame it on the customer

Lazy restaurants like to hide behind the excuse of diners and their hang-ups. “They don’t like to experiment with new flavours,” you hear. “Indian diners like their food spicy, so we have little other choice,” goes the typical chorus.

How is it, then, that these very diners are to be found happily munching away on Chinese pepper, buttery roti canai or mapadubu deopbap, a scrumptious (if relatively bland) mix of rice with tofu? You can see this for yourself at restaurants like Pan Asian in Delhi and Busaba and India Jones in Mumbai.

Sohrab Sitaram, who runs Chi near Delhi IIT, serves a reality check. “Indians are now travelling to various parts of the world and are getting exposed to a lot of different cuisines,” he says, “There is no way they won’t be ready to experiment with food.”

Too many restaurateurs are too risk-averse, observes Manisha Bhasin, senior executive chef with ITC Maurya, who has Pan Asian restaurant to her credit at the Sheraton in Saket, Delhi. “The fear of failure makes most people put safe dishes on the menu,” she says, “But I would like to urge restaurant owners to take risks and experiment more.” Where there’s risk, there are rewards.

PLOY 3 Recipe books to the rescue

That ‘Pan Asian’ cuisine is the ‘in’ thing is not entirely lost on restaurants. Sadly, most of them seem to think that recipe books and Internet swipes are good substitutes for actual research or exploration of flavours.

If so many eateries serve such mediocre versions of dishes originating overseas, it’s precisely because of this. Shetye is indignant about this trend. “How can you recreate dishes when you have absolutely no idea what they are supposed to taste like?” he asks. A Sri Lankan pineapple curry could end up being disastrously sweet or vehemently tangy if blindly copied from a book. Only someone who has sampled the original would know how to maintain the fragile balance of this beautifully spiced curry.

That’s why when Shetye started his own restaurant two years back, he relied on the knowledge of Asian cuisine that he had gained during vacations in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea. The fascinating play of sweet and sour, tangy and spicy flavours at East restaurant just shows that Shetye’s research has paid off.

Yet another restaurant where painstaking research is evident on the menu is Malaka Spice (Koregaon Park, Pune). Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Java, Thailand, China, Singapore—you name an Asian country and this eatery is bound to have its signature dishes. “This exhaustive menu wasn’t just magically whipped up sitting here in Pune. My wife, Cheeru, and I hotfooted to various countries in Asia to experience the subcultures in each region,” says the owner Praful Chandawarkar.

PLOY 4 Get help from overseas

When restaurant owners are unable to recreate the subtle flavours of Asia on their own, they invite foreign chefs. However, there are many like Sudha Kukreja of Chilli Seasons (a value-for-money restaurant in Defence Colony, South Delhi) who oppose this. “Say, you get a chef from Vietnam. Would he know what would be suitable for the Indian palate?” Having lived in various parts of Southeast Asia for the last 15 years, Kukreja claims a thorough understanding of the region’s flavours and the manner of their appeal to Indian palates.

For a sustainable menu, there’s no getting away from kitchen training. The kitchen staff is an integral part of the constant reinvention of the menu. “It makes good business sense to send the kitchen staff to various Asian countries to get a better feel of local cuisines,” says Chandawarkar. The street cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam can’t just be dished out offhand.

PLOY 5 No options for veggies

Vegetarian diners need’t cringe at the sight of Pan Asian menus. They no longer need to make do with only fried rice or vegetable manchurians. While it is true that most dishes from Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam make liberal use of dry shrimp paste and fish sauce, if you choose well, you can avoid seafood and still eat well. “We now get a vegetarian shrimp paste [which, unlike what the name suggests, only tastes like the real thing],” says Kukreja. “And the fish sauce in Thai preparations can be substituted with a light soy sauce.”

The adaptation works brilliantly, as the vegetarian shrimp paste smells less pungent and still delivers the requisite flavours just about as well as the real thing. So, common Indian diet restrictions are hardly an excuse either.

PLOY 6 Scarcity of ingredients

Looking for nuoc cham fish sauce to go with your satay was quite an ordeal until some three years ago. No longer, though. Chefs such as Chandawarkar grew many of the herbs and spices on their own farms, while others like Shetye and Muloakar imported ingredients from abroad. Today, such condiments and exotics are easily available in supermarkets. So, dishing out an authentic Indonesian nasi goreng, replete with sambal ulek (a spicy chilli paste) and kecap manis (a type of thick, sweet soy sauce) is no longer impossible.

However, some chefs continue to carp about the high price of certain ingredients. Truth be told, their claims are not exactly baseless. For instance, ingredients such as soba noodles (a thin Japanese noodle made of buckwheat flour, which does not grow in India) do cost way more than the menu prices of dishes that use it. Nevertheless, menu integrity does demand that some dishes subsidise others.

Shetye maintains: “Though it is true that most of these ingredients have a short shelf life and that may be expensive in the long run, one can’t compromise on authentic flavours by using cheap alternatives.”

PLOY 7 Overkill

Subtle, delicate, fragrant. These words aptly describe Asian food. Yet, the balance between robust tastes and soft aromatic undertones can easily be wrecked by novices. There are umpteen eateries where you will balk at the wasabi overkill with sushi. Or, take the cases of rendang curry, Indonesian kelia curry, Vietnamese topaz curry and Malaysian prawn curry, which all taste the same, doused in coconut milk.

Joy Bhattacharya, executive chef, India Jones (Oberoi, Mumbai) offers a word of caution: “While there may be commonality of ingredients, there are different preparation styles that distinguish one cuisine from the other,” he says.

For a restaurant to call itself truly Pan Asian and make a mark with it, the menu must open up a world of true flavours. It ought to bring out the best of the region and give the diner an authentic experience. Indian foodies would be more than willing to yield.