The changing face of Indian cuisine in Hong Kong – wagyu beef, scallops and deconstructed dosas
- From beef sous-vide, slow-cooked for 48 hours then finished in a tandoor clay oven, to a new take on dosas, it’s all about elevating Indian menus
- Chefs are trying to spice up old recipes
Challenging the existing notion of Indian cuisine as something cheap, cheerful, heavy and spicy, a few additions to the Hong Kong restaurant scene are now setting ambitious standards.
While these restaurants all follow authentic recipes, they each have their own approach to the cuisine, and bring a unique experience to customers.
The newest is Daarukhana, which opened this month in Wan Chai and serves progressive Indian food with an international twist. Executive chef Valice Francis says that his cuisine follows traditional recipes but he adds “a little bit of a global touch”.
The former chef de cuisine of Indian Accent in New Delhi uses Indian and international cooking techniques in his cuisine.
For example, to make his Burra short rib dish soft and tender he cooks the beef sous-vide at about 55 degrees Celsius for 48 hours, then finishes it in a tandoor clay oven. The beef is served with a trio of chutneys.
“Normally what we do in Indian cuisine, with the curry, the meat and with the vegetables, is we just pour it all in one bowl,” Francis says. “[But] I want to make all my dishes look special.”
He also wants his Indian food to be accessible to an international audience.
“We coordinate between our kitchen team and our service team. I always ask, suppose it’s table number 32, what do you see in table number 32, is it an Indian guest, is it a Hong Kong guest? If there’s a Hong Kong guest, I will tell my chefs, please take care of the salt. If they are Indian, make it a bit salty, add more lemons. If there is a French guest, make the food spicy.”
He also tries to make heavier Indian dishes more accessible to his guests.
Take the dosai (also known as dosa). Francis explains that traditionally, the large, thin pancake is stuffed with chopped potatoes and eaten with sambar, a spiced stew.
But in Francis’ modern dosai he mixes the potato with curry leaves and mustard seeds, then uses a siphon so it becomes a light and airy foam. And instead of serving the pancake whole, he breaks it into small pieces and arranges them on top of the potato mixture.
“With curry leaves and podi masala [spices] on the top, it gives you aroma also,” says Francis. “When guests [see it], it doesn’t seem like a dosai. But when they taste it, it has all the flavours of a dosai.”
The New Punjab Club on Wyndham Street in Central pays homage to the cuisine of post-colonial Punjab, a province shared between India and Pakistan.
“Here at New Punjab Club we celebrate the post-liberalisation era from the 1950s when India and Pakistan just got partitioned,” says head chef Palash Mitra, who previously worked at Michelin-starred Gymkhana restaurant in London and before that, the now-closed Veda on Arbuthnot Road in Central. “What recipes were used back then, we do exactly the same here.”
The Punjabi restaurant was inspired by the Punjab Club, the oldest social club in the city of Lahore. It is also the city where Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of the Black Sheep restaurant group which runs New Punjab Club, was born.
The setting of the restaurant goes back to statehouses from the 1950s and ’60s says Hussain. The patterns of the tiles on the walls are inspired by Mughal architecture, and the walls are lined with artworks from Indian-Punjab and Pakistani-Punjab artists.
“Punjabi cuisine is very meat-centric, with a lot of grilling and barbecuing,” says Hussain. “Tandoors are the heart and soul of Punjabi cuisine.”
The two tandoor ovens used in the New Punjab Club were restored from Hussain’s father’s now-closed restaurant, the Mughal Room, which was also on Wyndham Street. The New Punjab Club, which opened last year, named its butter chicken dish after the Mughal Room.
The Mughal Room makhani follows a rustic recipe, according to Mitra – “but we use the best ingredients, like roma tomatoes and local free-range yellow chicken, and we cook it with butter and cream.”
Hussain says: “Our work over here is very elemental. We’re going back to basics, but we’re also allowing ourselves to use the best available proteins and produce.”
They also use wagyu beef in their Lahori seekh kebab. Mitra explains: “We’re using wagyu because it is one of the best beef products. The fantastic marbling of wagyu makes very nice kebabs. We want to bring back a lot of respect for ethnic Punjabi food.”
Mitra says that although the quality of ingredients is better, they aim to preserve the traditional flavours. “My grandfather would have had the same seekh kebab with the same texture, and he would have had the same Mughal Room makhani. The taste would still have been the same,” he says.
Just steps away from the New Punjab Club is Chaiwala, which was launched in August by the Pirata Group. Accessible through the entrance of British salon-style bar Hugger Mugger, Chaiwala serves modern Indian food with a casual approach.
Cheeky signs hand-picked from the streets of India can be found around the restaurant, with playful decor separating the three spaces of the restaurant into the Chai bar, the open kitchen area and the dining room.
“We wanted to make it a more casual eating place where people can relax and eat and have fun along with it. It’s more like a social gathering kind of a place, that is what we aim for,” says culinary director Balaji Balachander, former executive chef of Michelin-starred Benares restaurant in London. “But we’ve also given it a modern twist.”
One of their signature dishes is the Malabar scallops. Balachander said that it’s rare for scallops to be used in Indian cuisine, but noticing that people in Hong Kong love seafood, he decided to include them on the menu as a grilled scallop dish with a mango and ginger flavoured Kerala sauce. It is presented in a scallop shell with fresh mango and mint.
“When you look at Chaiwala’s menu, we have covered India. We have gone into the Bombay street food side, we have gone into the southern Kerala side where coconut and ginger is most used, and we have come into Chennai where the spices and the seafood are common,” Balachander says.
“We keep changing the menu every three months. Chaiwala’s menu consists of only 32 dishes. We want to keep changing the menu quite often to give a new experience to our guests.”
To illustrate this thinking Balachander decided to add a pork dish from the southern Coorg, or Kodagu, region in India to the menu.
“Coorgi pork belly masala is a very spicy dish back in India, but I added a touch of tamarind and coconut milk to it which would mellow down the flavour for Hong Kong clients,” he says.
“Indian food is growing. People are becoming aware that there is something different, but they know the spices as well. Now people are travelling to India so much, they have come to explore a lot of things there.
“This, of course, is a very healthy thing for chefs like us. It encourages us to be bold and to do our best.”
Daarukhana, Tai Yip Building, 141 Thomson Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2771 1112
New Punjab Club, World Wide Commercial Building, 34 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2368 1223
Chaiwala, Basement, 43-55 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2362 8988