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The Great Wall Of China

I’m going to stick my neck out and make a prediction. Some years ago during the first season of my Travel and Living show, I charted the rise of Chinese food in India or what I called Sino-Ludhianvi, says Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2011 12:48 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

I’m going to stick my neck out and make a prediction. Some years ago during the first season of my Travel and Living show, I charted the rise of Chinese food in India or what I called Sino-Ludhianvi. My thesis was that Chinese food only took off in India after the Taj group introduced Sichuan (i.e. spicy Chinese) cuisine at the Golden Dragon in Bombay and (more influentially) to the House of Ming in Delhi in 1978.

Once the Taj had shown that Chinese food could be masaledar, then Indians, who had never been particularly enamoured of the bland Cantonese-style food served up by the Calcutta Chinese who ran most Chinese restaurants in India, fell in love with this new kind of Chinese cuisine.

NoodlesEventually, this cuisine drifted further and further from its Chinese roots, such new dishes as Chicken Manchurian were invented, genuine Sichuan spices such as mouth-puckering peppercorns were junked and Sino-Ludhianvi became yet another school of Indian cooking.

I stand by that thesis. The food you get at dhabas, roadside stalls, small town restaurants with Nepali chefs etc is as Chinese as rogan josh. It is now a full-fledged school of Indian cooking with its own recipes, rules and dishes.

But here’s my prediction. I think that Chinese food in India has finally moved beyond Sino-Ludhianvi. And this will be the decade of genuine Chinese cuisine.

My prediction has two parts. The first part is an acknowledgement of the power of Sino-Ludhianvi. I don’t think that it is a cuisine that will ever go away. Like butter chicken, a dish invented in Delhi restaurants in the middle of the 20th century, it has a popularity and strength of its own. There will always be restaurants that will revel in serving Sino-Ludhianvi. And there will always be a

market for that.

But it is the second part of my prediction that is more significant. For years and years, Indian restaurateurs and chefs have claimed that the popularity of Sino-Ludhianvi means that no other kind of Chinese restaurant will ever succeed in India. When Indians go to Chinese restaurants, they want spicy food and thick red gravies that they can eat with rice or noodles.

My prediction is that this view is no longer accurate. Indians now distinguish between Sino-Ludhianvi and the real thing. While the Sino-Ludhianvi market flourishes, the market for genuine and authentic Chinese food is growing much faster than people realise.

Let’s start with the hotels because most imported innovations reach India through the five star sector and then work their way down. With the success of the Taj’s Sichuan restaurants and their many clones (Chinoiserie in Calcutta, the Golden Dragon in Madras etc), most hotel chains believed that Sichuan was the only Chinese cuisine that would succeed in India.

That view has now been exploded. The best Chinese restaurant in the five star hotel sector in Delhi is China Kitchen at the Hyatt where the house specialty (Peking Duck) has nothing to do with Sichuan. So it is in Bombay. The China Kitchen’s sister restaurant, the China House, serves much the same sort of food with great success. The single best hotel Chinese restaurant in Bombay is San Qi at the Four Seasons where the food reflects the passion of chef Leong, an overseas Chinese with no great interest in Sichuan food.

The final proof however comes from the Taj group itself. Though it brought Sichuan food to India, the Taj has now moved away from spicy Chinese. The massively successful revamp of the Golden Dragon (damaged during 26/11) has led to a menu that is largely Sichuan-free. That same menu is being rolled out in different forms at Chinese restaurants throughout the Taj group.

The hotel sector is important because it sets the trends. But it is the stand-alone sector that reflects the change in wider public tastes. So I have been watching the openings of new Chinese restaurants in Bombay and Delhi closely. And guess what? Even they are moving away from spicy Sichuan.

The best stand-alone Chinese restaurant in Bombay may well be Royal China. Well travelled Indians know the Royal China group well. I have never quite understood the ownership structure but there are several Royal Chinas in London including a highly praised branch in Queensway and a Royal China Club in Baker Street (though I’m not sure it has the same owners as Queensway) which is one of three expensive Chinese restaurants frequented by rich Indians in London. (The others are Kai and Hakkasan.) None of these restaurants does much Sichuan food and though the cuisine can be adventurous and fusion-istic, it tends to appeal to Indians anyway.

The Bombay Royal China does the best dimsum in India (a wonderful silky Cheung Fan in particular) and has a dedicated following. Now, there’s a Royal China in Delhi. (Different owners but apparently the same kind of consultancy agreement with the London Royal China.) I went for dinner the other day and though it is slightly difficult to find (on the sixteenth floor of the Eros corporate tower down the road from the old Parkroyal Hotel), it was packed anyway.

I thought the food was very good but here’s the thing: it was not very different from the food at the Bombay Royal China and that, in turn, is not very different from the London menu. (Of course you don’t get some of the more exciting dishes from the London version alas.) I did not have the Peking Duck which I was told was the restaurant’s specialty but nearly everything I had was cooked to international tastes with no concessions to the Indian palate.

My experience at Royal China mirrored my original visit to Varun Tuli’s Yum Yum Tree in Delhi’s Friends Colony Market. Tuli tries to serve a Pan-Asian menu with nods to his favourite American chefs (yes, I know, it sounds complicated but he pulls it off) and while the Singapore-style street food dishes aim for authenticity, the real surprise for me was how pure he has kept his Chinese food. Tuli’s menu steers clear of the Sichuan clichés and yet his restaurant does well.

So it is with Zest (or Setz or whatever we’re supposed to call it now), my Delhi restaurant of the year. Though the menu is multi-cuisine, there’s an extensive Chinese section (excellent Cheung Fan, by the way) which also aims for international quality.

I haven’t been as yet to the new China Garden at Delhi’s Ashok Hotel. But from what I’ve heard the restaurant has moved beyond Nelson Wang’s original Indian Chinese formula (in my Travel and Living show, some of you may remember, Nelson talked about how he invented Chicken Manchurian) to serve cuisine that is much more authentically Chinese.

Nearly everywhere you look, the change in tastes is all too apparent. Take My Humble House at the top of Delhi’s Maurya Hotel. When the restaurant opened, rivals quickly wrote it off. In fact, My Humble House is now doing extremely well. Part of it has to do with the change in menu style (they now tell you what the dish actually consists of instead of all the poetic crap that used to confuse diners in the old days). But much of it also has to do with the change in preferences. People are simply much more willing to eat authentic Chinese food than ever before.

What does all this mean for the Chinese restaurant sector? Well, my view is that the sector will follow the pattern I outlined in last week’s Brunch. As the middle class grows, as more people travel abroad, as India’s demographic change pushes more and more young people into the mix, there will be a fragmentation of the market that will end the bland homogeneity of the past.

At the top, there will be the five star places which will get increasingly more adventurous in an effort to distinguish themselves from the strong competition from new stand-alones. At the bottom, there will be the masala noodle and Chicken Manchurian kind of dhabas.

The variety will be visible in the middle. Take the example of Mainland China, India’s most successful chain of Chinese restaurants. I don’t think Anjan Chatterjee, the visionary behind Mainland China’s success, will mind my saying this but his chain is based on cloning the Sichuan restaurants that the Taj group ran ten years ago. Even though the Taj has moved away from that formula itself, there are still people who want that kind of food and Anjan’s restaurants do a brilliant job of fulfilling that need. But even Anjan has seen the future. He is keen to do a newer, fresher kind of Chinese food and has been experimenting with a trendier Mainland China sub-brand.

The Royal China kind of restaurant is about 15 per cent more expensive than Mainland China and around 25 per cent cheaper than the five star places. That kind of restaurant caters to a newer demand. Its customers are people who can afford to eat at My Humble House or House of Ming but who don’t always want the five star experience. Nevertheless, they have moved beyond the Mainland China style of cuisine and want something more authentic.

So, here’s my final prediction. Sino-Ludhianvi will survive in the way that butter chicken and chicken tikka have survived. But it will no longer be the way ahead. A new generation has more money, more exposure and more sophisticated tastes. It wants real Chinese food.

And, as the recent openings demonstrate, it is finding restaurants that serve the kind of cuisine it wants.

- From HT Brunch, January 2

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First Published: Dec 30, 2010 19:42 IST