Is Pan Asian the new Chinese?

The Rise of The Crouching Tiger

By: Madhulika Dash

Never has the marriage of great flavours, simple ingredients, unconventional pairing and mind-blowing culinary techniques held the fascination and appetite of a nation like Pan Asian Cuisine. Zorawar Kalra waxes eloquence on the luxurious culinary love affair!
January 2015. Massive Restaurant announced its fourth venture: a revolutionary, modernist Pan Asian bistro called Pa Pa Ya. It took the team that gave culinary hits like Made In Punjab, Farzi Cafe and Masala Library By Jiggs Kalra, almost nine months to come open shop to what critics today are calling the "most superlative experience in Pan Asian."

And just like that, Pan Asian that had reached its new height with Chef Vikramjit Roy's Tian, Everest-ed a new peak. So what is it about Pan Asian that it has suddenly become the new Chinese in the Indian dining space? Yes, it's fresh, light, flavoursome with all the 6 taste that makes the Indian palate, but is that enough to make it the big sensation?

"Let me start by saying, Pan Asian is the next 'cool' place to be in. I am not saying this just because Japanese happens to be my second favourite cuisine or because one in every three restaurants that opens today is Pan Asian, the reason to move to Pan Asian is personal. With Pa Pa Ya, I wanted to create a brand where I can relive and create my own Silk Route experience without moving countries or continents.

It is the second cuisine that has influenced me as a food connoisseur first and restaurateur later. They are great on flavour, simple, lovable ingredients, the pairing is often unconventional and the culinary technique used, fascinating. A few of the reasons that makes Asian cuisine, wondrous! This, along with my journey of exploring Pan Asian cuisine, has been the reason for Pa Pa Ya."

"Are we fixing anything with Pa Pa Ya. There is no need, thanks to culinary gems like Tian and Koi who have done a brilliant job of creating the Pan Asian experience. The gap that once separated the original from the improvised has long been bridged - and beautifully so.

What I am trying to do with Pa Pa Ya is creating a space that could take Asian Cuisine to level 3.0. I’m trying to give it an image that would make it more playful, innovative and modern with the signature eccentricity Massive Restaurant is so famous for. We are trying to bring in a 'Gold Rush' to Asian cuisine that would make the experience superlative.

Having said that, I do agree it has been a long learning journey from the days when the best introduction to Pan Asian food would be Chinese, not the real one but the sauce overladen, spicy Chinjabi. I had it too! That was the late 80s, the teething years of Indian restaurant business where new cuisines and concepts were a privy of the outlets that were a part of such grand establishment. Luckily, thanks to my dad Jiggs Kalra, I was exposed to Pan Asian cuisine fairly early in life, thanks to two restaurants House of Ming at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mansingh Road and Tea House of Hot August Moon. These two high-end restaurants in the capital were known for their Pan Asian cuisine, which then was essentially Chinese with a little of Thai and Korean on the side.

My baptism with Pan Asian cuisine mostly happened in New York and Chicago. I first tasted Korean food in New York based Korean Bar and Restaurant, and absolutely loved the food, especially the way the presented the meat, the appetizers, even the complimentary snacks served on the table were fascinating.

Then came Chicago’s famous Lao Sze Chuan, and changed the whole perceptions of Chinese. I realized that not the fare at home was miles away from the original, but each region of this country had a distinct flavour profile. While the Sezchuan cuisine from the heartland of Siachun province was spicy and closer to what is served in North East India, Cantonese food was much milder with very subtle flavours. It piqued my curiosity, just as sushi had at the PanAM lounge when I was 16. My dad had actually traveled business class to taste the sushi. I didn’t like the taste, but was mesmerised with the presentation. That left an inedible mark on impressionable mind.

With little option back home except for the Thai Pavilion in Vivanta By Taj that came up in the 1990 and served one of the best Thai food in town, my exposure to Pan Asian food came mostly from UK, till I visited Foshan, one of the picturesque cities of China.  I realized: If you want to have good Chinese food, you have to go to China!

Mid 2000 and glocalisation changed a lot for Pan Asian cuisine in India, courtesy restaurants like Koh by Ian Kittichai and Wasabi By Morimoto coursing the change. Suddenly after nearly a decade of lackadaisical attitude where anything with Soy and Cabbage was passed on as Pan Asian, restaurateurs began taking pride in their product and serving quality food. Crisp honey lotus stem with sesame? That was Chinjabi! A triple szechuan rice? A street Chinese essential.

The re-opening of Thai Pavilion in 2007, after the dramatic makeover by the master Japanese designer - Noriyoshi Muramatsu, began a new era for Pan Asian. Restaurants - within hotels and standalones - began serving cuisines that had that sense of familiarity and taste, which would make you feel at home even at the host nation - be it China, Thailand or Burma.

That was a big leap from the early 90s. Then came specialized restaurants like Mamagato and Burma Burma, where ingredients too were imported, and Pan Asian food served here became on par with the host nation. By 2013, we not only had some of the best Pan Asian restaurants in India, but an audience ready to enjoy the real taste of the cuisine."

And that happily leaves me with the only one thing to do, to take the hexagonal experience that Pa Pa Ya has already unleashed to the next level."

Picture courtesy: Massive Restaurant