Malay lotus leaf rice

The South East Asian Rhapsody

Why are people are happier posting updates and photos of the sushi platter they are enjoying in a restaurant than they are eating Murg Mussalam? Vinita Bhatia investigates.

Look, Maa, It’s Sushi!
Friday nights were much awaited in the Malhotra household in New Delhi. The reason? Fifteen year old Siya and her seven year old brother Kabeer would demand that the family head out to eat their favorite Chinese fare at popular fine dine restaurant in the tony Khan Market area. Their parents, Shirin and Maneesh, did not mind indulging them a bit, thinking it’s always nice that kids get exposed to different varieties of food. So imagine their surprise, when one Friday night Siya demanded that they forsake their regular Chinese haunt for a new restaurant in the vicinity that served South East Asian cuisine. “I was astonished that she wanted to eat Khow Suey and she even knew how it was presented and what went into it!” recalls the surprised Shirin. “And imagine my amazement that even young Kabeer wanted to try out some sushi. I had no idea he knew that term before.” While talking about this with their friends, Shirin and Maneesh learnt that most youngsters these days are up-to-date with South East Asian dishes and can even order them with aplomb in any restaurant – even if their parents are not as tuned in to the cuisine themselves!

The past few months have seen the mushrooming of several South East Asian restaurants throughout the country. And it’s not just the metros that have taken a liking to Nasi Goreng or Vietnamese Pho; their counterparts in upscale parts of rural towns too enjoy a bowl of Pad Thai, given an opportunity. That brings us to the question – what has made South East Asian cuisine so popular amongst Indians across all belts? “One reason that springs to mind is that Indians are well travelled these days and trips to South East Asian countries are economically more viable for the middle and upper middle class. So when they visit Hong Kong, China, Malaysia or Thailand, they are willing to try out the local cuisine and once they return to India, they are more inclined to dine at restaurants that bring back memories of their trips,” says Chef Vicky Ratnani of Aurus Restaurant.

Sushi at Nom Nom
Sushi at Nom Nom

Dharmesh Karmokar, Director of Nom Nom, illustrates this point with an incident. A few months ago he visited his local vegetable vendor and saw that the latter had Thai brinjal, lemon grass and Thai basil in stock. And his vendor nonchalantly remarked that a lot of his customers kept asking for these so-called-exotic ingredients and it made good business sense to stock it. “To say I was stunned is an understatement. But it’s commendable that there is an entire segment of people who are adventurous in their kitchen trying out unusual cuisines. Today, they want to make a Thai Curry to go with the Jeera Rice,” he says. And he is happy that at long last people now accept that South East Asian cuisine extends beyond Chinese food. In fact, there’s a wee bit of snobbery attached to walking into a South East Asian restaurant with guests and ordering dishes with strange names without batting an eyelid. At least that’s what Siddharth Kashyap of Jjamppong believes. “While doing our research before opening Jjamppong, we realized that there was a downward trend associated with eating Chinese food. The prices were rock bottom, the typical Manuchurian rice was a staple street food in most commercial districts, and every restaurant was offering some Chinese dish or the other. It had lost it lure with a certain section of diners. People wanted something new and South East Asian became that new culinary bling to indulge in,” he notes.

Sharing is Caring, at the Dinner Table
South East Asian cuisine is one that is meant to be shared. Order a platter of Dim Sum or Prawn Satay and a group can dig into it while sipping on Sake Bombs or Kaffir Lime Gimlets. This is a lot like sharing a plate of Chicken Tikka or Paneer Balls – something Indians enjoy doing when they are dining out. Communal eating has always been our strong suit. In fact, one reason that Indians have taken to South East Asian cuisine so well could be because it shares many similarities with Indian food. Most South East Asian dishes are spices-driven, which is how Indians prefer their food. Of course, given the various countries within the South East Asian region, the cuisine in each country is manipulated to suit local preferences and available produce. But nonetheless, certain elements are still common in the entire subcontinent. Take the case of ginger, garlic or red chilli paste. These are commonplace ingredients in any Indian kitchen, as are they in Vietnamese or Malaysian households. South Indians use coconut milk in various preparations to bind sharp flavors and add palm sugar to lend a little sweetness to a dish. So do the people in Thailand. People in other parts of India often eat stir fried Cabbage Kachumber as a side dish during dinner. The Koreans too have their Kimchi.

Sajan Ibrahim, GM of Yauatcha, also points out that a lot of guests at his restaurant like eating at South East Asian restaurants because cuisines from these regions are considered to be healthier, while being scrumptious. Most of the food is stir fried in a wok with little oil, be it rice or noodles or even meat and vegetables, or it is made by quick blanching or steaming. Soups are generally clear broth infused with ingredients like lemon grass, galangal or Kaffir lime leaf, which aid digestion and are good for the heart. “So if people want to make a healthy choice while eating out, they prefer South East Asian cuisine,” he adds.

Making the right choice
With the proliferation of restaurants that claim to serve authentic South East Asian cuisine, how does one know if their claim is really true and that diners are getting their money’s worth? Or are they being served some frau frau fare masquerading as authentic SEA food? Well, the sad part is that one can never know for sure, because the term ‘authentic’ has been abused beyond imagination when it comes to culinary experiments. The Tom Yum Soup you might have eaten in Thailand during your last vacation will taste very different from the one served in your favorite restaurant in India. And it’s not because the establishment is trying to con you in the bargain. The answer lies in the quality of the produce used. Locally produced fresh ingredients lend a much different flavor to a dish than one that has been imported and stored in deep freeze.

Or take the case of something as simple as noodles. Many restaurants, be they in India or any other country, create their own hand pulled noodles rather than opting for the packaged version. Ditto with various sauces – XO, Sichuan, Red Chilly – that different chefs make as per their cooking style. It is therefore obvious that the taste of these condiments or the dishes made with them will vary from one establishment to another, though each restaurant would still be technically correct in claiming that their dish gets as close to the original one as is possible. That aside, every restaurant localizes dishes to suit the palate of their customers. Take the case of Jjamppong. The restaurant serves only vegetarian South East Asian fare and even customizes the dishes to suit their largely Jain clientele – something that sounds incredible. So that means they avoid onion, ginger, potatoes or any other root vegetable, in several dishes. “Some of our Jain or Marwari diners like our Glass Noodle Salad so we make it without the usual carrots and mushrooms and add a healthy dose of cucumber and basil dressing instead,” says Siddharth. It’s doubtful that any cuisine other than South East Asian can yield itself so simply to customization for the Indian taste buds and dietary preferences.

But despite the increasing popularity of South East Asian cuisine, most restaurateurs agree that the cuisine is still largely unexplored. And some of them also admit that over time it might suffer the same fate as Chinese food, with every street corner hole-in-the-wall outlet selling it. Will South East Asian cuisine still be the darling of our taste buds? That’s too early to predict. But yes, at the moment people are happier posting updates and photos of the sushi platter they are enjoying in a restaurant than they are eating Murg Mussalam.