Making it Chinese, only as Indians do

Updated: Feb 03, 2019, 09:22 IST | Phorum Dalal

Sampan at Novotel is in its 35th year, and it's thanks to this one chef who keeps customers coming back for more

Making it Chinese, only as Indians do
Mandarin chicken

At age five, a family dinner at a restaurant could be boring if not for the promise of dessert in the 1990s. Going to Sampan at then Holiday Inn in Juhu meant honey noodles with ice cream. A large serving of crispy fried and honey tossed and sesame topped noodles and a rotund scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

Today, the dessert is served with flat, wanton noodles giving it a bright orange flame tinge, but the same nostalgic comfort. The restaurant is running its 35th year, with chef de cuisine, Pempa Tsering, at its helm from inception.

Egg pocket
Egg pocket

It's a surprisingly chilly morning when we walk into Novotel Hotel, and the red walls with golden strokes, with lattice partitions and fine-dine vibe offers a time warp of "authentic" Indian Chinese food.

With no other customer in, a smiling Tsering, dressed in his white chef coat and tall cap, joins us. For the past 43 years, he has worked at the hotel, first as a multicuisine chef and then helming Sampan, in its first, smaller format. "My journey began in Delhi in 1972, where I got the job of a kitchen help at 17. I left schooling in Shimla and was hired at The Claridges. My to-be father-in-law trained me in cooking, and saw the potential that I could become a chef," says the 63-year-old.

Honey noodles with ice cream
Honey noodles with ice cream

He came to the city in 1976 and joined Holiday Inn. In 1984, the hotel launched Sampan and he trained under Chef Ching Chaung Chu from Singapore. "I was sent to Hong Kong and Singapore for training, and I took over as head chef," says Tsering adding, "It's funny, I met my father-in-law before I met my wife, who also worked at the salon at The Claridges.

Actor Ajay Devgn had popped the question to Kajol at Sampan. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Actor Ajay Devgn had popped the question to Kajol at Sampan. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

The time was late 80s and early 90s, and dishes like chicken dry red chilli and prawn hot garlic sauce were new offerings that wooed the taste buds of customers, which included Bollywood stars. "From Amitabh Bachchan, Hema Malini, Jitendra, Govinda to Ajay Devgn, they were all regulars. Ajay Devgn even proposed to Kajol at our restaurant," Tsering quips, adding, "Bachchan saab would order sesame mushroom, sweet and sour veg, veg fried rice." While Jitendra still frequents the restaurant and asks for Tsering, Govinda orders a parcel.

Chef Pempa Tsering
Chef Pempa Tsering

Till date, 60 per cent of patrons do not refer to the menu. "They know what they want, and they will refuse new dishes." To keep up with the times, Tsering plots cuisine specific festivals of Korean, Japanese and Thai, to keep our new customers engaged. Today, the menu is a mix of Cantonese, which is lighter version with soy and white sauce, and Sichuan, a fiery rendition. Tsering's most popular dishes include cha chu prawns - tempura-fried salt pepper garnished prawns with ginger and fresh coriander; chicken dry, stuffed eggplant and egg pocket.

"Indians like their food sweet, spicy and with a generous gravy. The foreigners, especially Chinese and Japanese guests don't take to it. So, I tweak dishes according to the customer," Tsering smiles.

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