Carving a legacy and establishing one’s indigenous cuisine in another land is no mean feat. Some of the city’s Chinese restaurateurs have managed to do this with aplomb, while keeping their tradition intact. Along the way, they have also had to battle misconceptions and hybrid, sometimes, unrecognisable
versions of their cuisine.
Some of Mumbai’s prominent eateries that have served the city authentic Chinese cuisine for decades include Ling’s Pavilion, China Garden and Kamling.
Ling’s Pavilion at Colaba was started back in 1945 and is one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in the city. Presently run by 63-year-old Baba Ling and his 66-year-old brother Nini Ling, they are the third generation owners of the restaurant.
Baba Ling admits that it has been word-of-mouth publicity, which has ensured their survival over the years and the fact that they don’t compromise on the quality of their fare. “We serve authentic Chinese food and while many eateries serve a mishmash of Pudina-Mirchi infused Chinese food, we have stuck to the original preparations,” he reminds us.
Baba reveals that Ling’s Pavilion remains a huge draw mainly because they are familiar with their customers inside out. “Ultimately, it boils down to customer psychology. One needs to understand the market and what the customer wants. With sky-high rentals, it’s not marketing gimmicks that ensure sales and repeat footfalls for a restaurant,” he maintains.
Some of the core lessons that Ling has learned include being self-sufficient. “We do everything ourselves. We open and close the eatery, handle the sales and marketing. In the process, we wake up as early as 6 am to go to the market for fresh produce, open the eatery by 8 am and end the day only by 1 am. Ling’s Pavilion is akin to a religion for us, we are passionate about it. We don’t leave it for the marketing staff or anyone else. After all, they don’t have the same passion or dedication and it’s our name at stake,” observes Ling.
He also adds that they are hands-on in the kitchen as well and know the subject of cooking: “I am a good cook. My father taught me a lot about cooking. While I was playing, he would teach me the basics of cooking. When I was eight, he would take me to the market. People want value-for-money offerings and good quality. Instead of changing our dishes, we try to educate customers about authentic Chinese fare. In fact, we even man the desk and do reservations personally; we are here 365 days a year. My son Jason mans the Delhi outlet of Ling’s Pavilion.”
While they import a lot of their ingredients from Thailand and China or source it from Sikkim and Darjeeling, they also use produce available in Indian markets, such as bitter gourd, winter melon, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, ladyfingers, and aubergine.
Personalities including Ratan Tata and Chinese delegations have dined at their eatery. Ling’s also has Oriental customers who come all the way from Navi Mumbai to sample their fare.
Some of their most popular dishes are seafood delights including Steamed Fish and Slice Fish with Ginger Chilli and Garlic Fry.
“Often, customers leave it up to me to decide their menu, which reflects the confidence they have in us,” he shares, adding that the raw materials are the backbone of preparations. “Almost 90% of the task is achieved if you get fresh ingredients. There must also be constant innovation; that’s why we go abroad to keep abreast of the latest trends. We are big foodies ourselves.” We’ll believe.
Nelson Wang, the owner of China Garden, a Chinese restaurant with two outlets in the city, believes that the consistency of food and innovation are what marks a successful eatery. At the same time, the man credited for creating Chicken Manchurian, admits that there is no such thing as authenticity. “Just as there are different versions of the curry, each dish can have regional variations and several versions,” he explains.
Wang also adds that they have made their Chinese food spicier to appeal to the Indian palate — “We use all kinds of Indian vegetables and plenty of spices. Nowadays, a lot of Chinese vegetables are available in the Indian market but our spices are specially imported from China, Hong Kong and Singapore.” China Garden’s crowd favourites include the Hakka Chilli and Garlic Chilli.