THERE was a time when the high point of a visit to a Chinese restaurant, which was the extent of our exposure to Asian cuisines, was to be served American Chop Suey (so memorably nicknamed ‘chop sewage’ by Vir Sanghvi), or when asking for Gobhi Manchurian was the standard operating procedure when you had a vegetarian guest.
Much water has flowed down the Yangtze since then and we have discovered a vaster universe of flavours across South-East Asia. As if inspired by this voyage of the palate of a city that used be ridiculed in the past as the Republic of Butter Chicken, ‘Oriental’, or ‘Pan-Asian’, restaurants in Delhi-NCR are pushing the creative envelope.
There was a time when a restaurant serving sushi and sashimi was a novelty; now, these are home delivered. There was a time when the teppanyaki style of cooking, or a Mongolian barbecue, used to fire the imagination of critics, but today, if it’s not a showstopper such as Akira Back’s evergreen-hit Tuna Pizza or Guppy by ai’s short-lived Ramen Burger, it doesn’t raise eyebrows. What, then, are the new a-ha dishes on the menus of Delhi-NCR restaurants? Here’s a checklist:
Okonomiyaki at Latest Recipe, Le Meridien Gurgaon: Also known as ‘Japanese pancakes’, these pan-fried street delicacies originated in Osaka. At the base is the batter made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water, eggs and shredded cabbage. For non-vegetarians, prawns and bacon are added (in Osaka, it’s common to use pork belly strips); the vegetarians get sweet corn and green onion. Toppings include okonomiyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire but thicker and sweeter), aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes — the vegetarian version doesn’t have them), Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger (beni shoga).
Gaeng Gai Bama, Rred Hot Café, Sushant Lok Gurgaon: This preparation of Burmese origin, but popular also in northern Thailand, has the potential of ousting the ubiquitous khao suey from the popularity charts. Coconut milk, Thai red curry paste, fish sauce (or fermented fish paste, if you’re brave!), shallots and tomatoes are its principal ingredients, apart from boneless chicken. Spicy and flavourful, it is best had with rice on a banana leaf.
Mantou Buns with Grill Chicken drizzled with Bull Dog Sauce, Mamagoto: Mantou buns, unlike Chinese baos, are made with milled wheat flour (maida) because they originated in northern China, where wheat is grown in higher quantities than rice. Filled with grilled chicken drizzled with the popular Bull Dog sauce, a favourite accompaniment to tonkatsu (Japanese pork cutlets), they buns make for quite a treat.
Ruo Jia Mo at Jade, The Claridges: Street food is figuring on the menus of restaurants in a big way because that’s one way you can be original and tread upon the road less taken. Ruo Jia Mo, or the flavourful meat sandwich sold on the streets of China’s north-western Shaanxi province, is regarded by many as the world’s earliest hamburger. Traditionally, the meat used for the filling was pork (ruo), but at Jade the options include pulled lamb, chilli and coriander chicken, and stewed vegetables; mo is a flatbread made with wheat flour batter and baked in a clay oven.
Takoyaki at Yum Yum Cha, Select Citywalk, Saket: They look like the Tamilian snack kuzhi paniyaram, but these octopus (tako)-stuffed balls are not steamed and their batter is made with wheat (not rice) flour. Invented in Osaka by a street vendor named Tomekichi Endo in 1935, takoyaki are cooked in a cast-iron griddle with semi-spherical moulds (again very similar to the cooking instrument used to make kuzhi paniyaram. The balls are brushed with takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire) and mayonnaise, and then sprinkled with green seaweed flakes (aonori) and dried bonito shavings (katsuobushi). At Yum Yum Cha, you’ve the option to going for the chicken filling or the cheese and peppers, apart from baby octopus of course.
Cong You Bing at Jade, The Claridges: The Chinese like to joke that the Venetian explorer Marco Polo got the idea of the pizza from these unleavened flatbreads (like our tandoori rotis) made from wheat dough and stuffed with minced scallions. In Taiwan, these are sautéed with egg yolks coated on one side. They seem to have been invented to go along with beer.
Mochi Ice Cream at Yum Yum Cha, Select Citywalk, Saket: Invented in San Francisco in 1993 by Frances Hashimoto, Late President and CEO of Miyakawa, a company that has been producing Japanese desserts since 1910, this is an ice-cream that comes stuffed in a mocha (or sticky rice cake). At Yum Yum Cha, the ice-cream comes in three variants — mango, cappuccino and Rocky Road (chocolate ice-cream, nut and mashmallows) — and my favourite is the third because it adds a crunch to the ice-cream eating experience.
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Sourish Bhattacharyya, co-founder of the Delhi Gourmet Club, is a freelance writer, editorial consultant, food columnist, restaurant critic and blogger. He has contributed regularly to the Mumbai Mirror, Times Life, BBC Good Food, Travel & many more publications. Nothing is dearer to him than the joy of writing, which he blends with his passion for food.