Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: It’s Ming, not Singh
The House of Ming, India’s most influential Chinese restaurant is relaunched but keeps the old favourites and its old regulars
It is a story that has passed into foodie legend. In 1971/2, when the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai was planning its new tower wing (which eventually opened in late 1972), Camellia Panjabi, the hotel’s marketing head, was on a sales trip to Hong Kong. She ate at a Sichuan restaurant and was not only taken with the cuisine but also worked out that spicy Chinese food would succeed in India.
At that stage, hardly anyone in India had heard of Sichuan province, let alone its cuisine, but Camellia managed to convince Ajit Kerkar, her boss, and JRD Tata, the Taj’s ultimate boss, that the time was right for a new kind of Chinese cuisine. Neither man had ever eaten Sichuan food, but they had faith in Camellia’s judgment, so they accepted the idea.
Camellia went back to the Hong Kong restaurant where she had eaten her Sichuan meal and immediately hired the manager and two chefs. At that stage, there were massive governmental restrictions on foreign exchange, so RV Pandit, a wealthy friend of the Taj, who lived in Hong Kong, paid their salaries till the Taj was able to get work visas for them.
This Hong Kong team opened the Golden Dragon at the Mumbai Taj in 1973 and changed Chinese food in India forever. Till then Indians had only known the cuisine that the Calcutta Chinese cooked at restaurants (but not at their own homes) in imitation of the Cantonese-influenced bland American Chinese menu. But this was the real thing from the heart of China. It was hot. And it was delicious.
In 1978, the Taj opened its first Delhi hotel on Man Singh Road and brought the same Hong Kong chefs to the capital to open The House of Ming. Not only was it even more influential than the Golden Dragon but its success led directly to the creation of Punjabi-Chinese, or Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine.
The House of Ming served real Chinese food but other restaurateurs worked out that if you made chilli-hot red sauces and added soya, you could create pseudo-Chinese dishes that guests would love. If there had been no House of Ming, there would be no Chinjabi food today.
By the 1980s, though the food at House of Ming continued to be outstanding, the craze for Indian Chinese spread. And the restaurant began to feel the pressure. The House of Ming became the power lunch spot in Delhi and every day you could see politicians, industrialists and other famous people there. When guests this prominent asked for the food to be tweaked to suit their very Indian tastebuds, it was hard to say no.
Even so, the restaurant managed to hold the line. For over a decade, it was the best Chinese restaurant in India. By the 1990s, however, the pressure had become too much. What could any chef do when the likes of the then powerful Amar Singh had lunch there twice a week and demanded deep fried spinach and thick masala red sauce?
By then, China had begun to open up and Sichuan cuisine was no longer such an unknown phenomenon. Other restaurants began serving it and The House of Ming was in the awkward position of being a pioneer who could no longer afford to be pioneering, while others broke new ground.
Over the last decade, several outstanding Chinese restaurants have opened in Delhi. The Hyatt has the China Kitchen, the Shangri-La has Shang Palace, the Oberoi has Bao Shuan, (run by Andrew Wong whose London restaurant has two Michelin stars), and there are Hakkasan in Mumbai and its dim sum focussed Yauatcha sibling.
The Chinese food boom has meant that while everyone in Delhi has heard of the House of Ming, its pioneering role and its significance have largely been forgotten. Moreover, the Taj, which created the Chinese food boom, has lost interest in the cuisine. Till recently, there wasn’t one restaurant in the group that served good Chinese food, which is sad when you consider that the Taj had a first mover advantage.
Consequently, people began to accuse the House of Ming of serving the same kind of Punjabi-Chinese its success had led others to concoct. It was called House of Singh by rivals and anyone who liked authentic Chinese food stopped bothering with it.
I imagine that these developments made the Taj management cry all the way to the bank. Because even while people were making jokes about The House of Ming, the restaurant remained solidly profitable. It was nearly always packed out. And its loyalists loved the food.
So, what do you do when a very successful restaurant seems as dated as The House of Ming did? Do you take the line that if it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it? Or do you say: “We are a luxury hotel and must run a world class Chinese restaurant?”
In recent years, the Taj’s attitude to food has been pragmatic : if a restaurant does well, then it doesn’t matter what people think. If people rate a restaurant very highly but it doesn’t make much money, then the restaurant must shut. (It closed the much praised Delhi Wasabi.) If the food is a bit of a joke but the money keeps rolling in, then that’s fine.
But the Taj has now taken a risk by spending money renovating the House of Ming and updating the menu. It helps, I think, that the Delhi Taj’s kitchens are run by the group’s best executive chef, Arun Sundararaj. Arun has the ability to master different cuisines, so he was the only chef who could have attempted a revamp.
The gamble seems to have paid off. The restaurant is jam-packed and nearly everyone I have spoken to has liked it; some have even loved it. I went for lunch last Sunday, on a day when I knew that Arun and the senior team would be off, having taken care not to book in my own name. (I was rumbled eventually.)
I thought the old favourites were still the best: the Konjee Crispy Lamb (now called something else and listed as a starter) may not be a dish you find on many menus in Chengdu but its House of Ming pedigree is flawless and the kitchens turned out an excellent rendition. The minced chicken with sesame was delicious and though the Sichuan Eggplant was not as I remembered it from the old days, it was still tasty.
The rest of the food was hit and miss but all around me, people were enjoying themselves. The House of Ming is not intended to be an authentic Sichuan restaurant (as say, the China Kitchen can be when Chef Zhang and his team of expat chefs are asked to make the real thing) but neither is it a Punjabi-Chinese operation.
It is an upmarket, pleasant restaurant that serves the sort of Chinese food that Delhi loves. And it keeps alive the legacy of the original House of Ming.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, July 30, 2022
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