Home away from home

Published: Jan 25, 2020, 07:00 IST | Karishma Kuenzang | Mumbai

As the Year of the Rat kicks in, four Chinese chefs for whom Mumbai is home, discuss the desi-fication of Chinese fare and celebrating away from home

Chef Xiang Bin Li at By The Mekong, The St Regis Mumbai. Pic/Ashish Raje
Chef Xiang Bin Li at By The Mekong, The St Regis Mumbai. Pic/Ashish Raje

Born and raised in Mumbai, Baba Ling or Sem Tian Ling, a St Xavier's alumnus, is one of the oldest Chinese restaurateurs in Mumbai, taking over the reins from his father, Yick Sen Ling, who opened Nanking in 1945 — seven years after he moved to Mumbai from Swatow (Shantou) in China.

And it's nothing but fate that got him here. For Yick Sen Ling, who was heading the Chinese museum that was being set up in Mumbai along with his uncle, couldn't return home after the Communists came to power in 1949. So, he established his roots here — he married a South Indian, and opened Ling's Pavilion in Colaba. "There were many second-generation Chinese natives in Mumbai, and even a China Town. But after the Sino-Indian War in 1962, a majority moved to the US and Canada. Now, there are about 200 to 300 of us here, mostly married into the Indian community," shares Ling, who lives here with his wife.

Baba Ling at Ling's Pavilion.

GuideThe traditional vessel Ling uses to make a chimney seafood soup. Pics/Karishma Kuenzang

Mumbai calling

But there has been a steady influx of people from the neighbouring country who have made Mumbai their home. They travel here for work, especially as chefs associated with restaurants, like Yuanzhong Jia who works at Shanghai Club at ITC Grand Central in Parel. He's been with the five-star since 2011. "There was a growing curiosity for authentic Chinese food here and they were looking for chefs who could bring a different perspective on Chinese cuisine than what they had been exposed to earlier," Jia, who lives by himself near the hotel, says. "There is a small but vibrant Chinese community in Mumbai now; mostly professionals posted here by MNCs," he observes, as he reveals to us that he's acquired a liking for Bohri fare.

GuideMasterchef Yuanzhong Jia, ITC. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Then there's Chef Xiang Bin Li, the chef de cuisine, By The Mekong, The St Regis Mumbai, who shifted from Sichuan district in China a decade ago, with the aim to introduce authentic cuisine to India. He's also a part of a small group of Chinese chefs in the city who meet up regularly. "Though Mumbai does not have its own China Town, the Kwan Kung Temple is an escape for every Chinese here. The Chinese Consulate too, is a big part of these gatherings," he shares.

GuideChef Zhang Yajunand, The Grand Hyatt. Pic/Anurag Ahire

Most of them have settled in Vashi, Powai, Bandra and South Mumbai, informs Zhang Yajun, the chef at Grand Hyatt who, like Li, moved here from the Sichuan region in 2006 for work. I feel Indian culture resembles Chinese culture. It makes me feel belonged," he confides. He's developed an appetite for chaat, vada pav, and even likes watching Aamir Khan's movies.

The Chindian factor

While they may have settled in, one thing that's not quite palatable for them is the desi-fication of their cuisine. Such that Yajunand has had to tweak some of his dishes by adding green chillies, coriander and chilli sauce. Jia says, "Chinese food in India also makes use of more soy sauce. It's not used in so many dishes back home. There is a greater em­p­hasis on sauces."

Also, the cuisine varies across regions. "Cantonese cuisine is milder and emphasises on the seasonal or fresh ingredients, whereas Sichuan cuisine, that comes from my hometown, is dominated by ingredients like jujube, mountain chilli and Chinese olives, which tend to add a little heat to the dishes. But in the Indianisation of the Chinese cuisine, the focus is on using spices in abundance," points out Li.

Kuai Panda at Kuai Kitchen

But this wasn't the case in the 1960s, when the concept of fusion food didn't exist. "I call it putting mirchi-pudina," laughs Ling, seated at the entrance of the eatery, where he cheerily greets everyone who walks in to eat. "Imagine you make a curry and put cheese in it and say you've mixed Indian and French cuisine? Chindian is for those who cannot gauge the authenticity of Chinese fare. Stew the pork and put tons of chilli; it may remind you of your mummy's curry, but it won't be authentic," he elaborates.

Celebration time

Though each region has its own specialty in China, fish is an important part of the new year feast as it's considered auspicious, which is why Jia will be serving dishes such as Luole Hongzunyu, Chashao Bao and Qiang Chao Baicai, at the Lower Parel eatery till February 2. Preparations for the New Year start a week prior and includes cleaning and decorating with lanterns, knots and flowers. "Older family members gift red packets to younger ones as a symbol of good luck and fortune," informs Li, who will be whipping up a feast that includes steam duck with oyster mushroom and chicken stock in Saigon sauce, till February 8. Grand Hyatt plans to have a week-long feast and a cultural show that includes a lion dance.

Golden treasure pockets with wild mushrooms at HakkasanGolden treasure pockets with wild mushrooms at Hakkasan

And though he won't be whipping up a special feast this year, Ling reminisces about the feast he would make when his parents were around. "We used to make eight to 10 dishes using oysters and sea cucumber," he tells us. Options that are on his menu, which compel Chinese families settled in areas as far as Vashi to visit every week.

Other places

Butter cookie tail at KOKO

Celebrate the year of the metal rat with traditional treats from the cocktail menu such as the tray of togetherness.

AT KOKO, Kamala Mills Compound, Ground Floor, C Wing, Trade World, Lower Parel.
TILL January 26, 12.30 pm to 1 am
CALL 7715963030

Try the limited-edition à la carte menu that includes dishes such as auspicious golden treasure pockets.
AT Hakkasan, 206 Krystal, Waterfield Road, Bandra West.
TILL February 9, 12 pm to 4 pm; 7 pm to 1 am

CALL 61378005

Opt for a lavish feast that includes pokchoy dumpling in black bean sauce and shitake hoisin bao.
AT Meishi, The Park Hotels, Juhu Tara Road, Shivaji Nagar, Juhu.
TILL January 9; 12 pm to 12 am
CALL 68159100

Try the limited-edition à la carte menu that includes dishes such as auspicious golden treasure pockets.
AT Hakkasan, 206 Krystal, Waterfield Road, Bandra West.
TILL February 9, 12 pm to 4 pm; 7 pm to 1 am

CALL 61378005 

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