“We want to promote different Chinese cuisine, one that’s being lost here and in India,” chef Salil Mehta says of his Hakka-Chinese and Indian-Chinese menu at the Chinese Club (208 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-487-4576) in Williamsburg. “We have a beer-battered General Tso’s and Taiwanese noodles printed on our menu to get people through the door. But once they’re in, they see Ganesh in the window, there’s Bollywood music playing, our waiters are in Indian dress, and they get a bit confused.” Which is exactly what Mehta wants to happen.
Mehta, who also owns the Union Square Malaysian restaurant, Laut, with his wife and business partner, Stacey Lo, is from Delhi. Lo was born in India but her family is Hakka Chinese from the southern coastal Guangdong province, which plays home to the largest native Hakka Chinese population and from which the majority of expats hail. In India, most Chinese are Hakka, too.
“The only Chinatown in Kolkata was in Tangra,” Mehta explains. “There, the Chinese were discriminated against.” To give his fellow Hakka somewhere to discuss politics and social issues, Lo’s great-grandfather, Foo Fung Lo, established the Darjeeling Chinese Club in 1914 as a safe space where they could continue the traditions that would then follow their immigration around the world. They also combined their native cuisine with the Indian dishes around them, forming a unique hybrid that most New Yorkers have never experienced.
In Williamsburg, Mehta and Lo look to change that, re-creating the flavors that speak to both of their childhoods and those often found in Indian-Chinese dishes.
“Indian Sichuan chutney is very different than Chinese Sichuan,” Mehta begins as an example. “Indians don’t like mouth-numbing heat like the Chinese, and we want fresher flavors in our food.” So his chutney is made with fresh chilies and spices. The marinade for his Tandoori Kung Bao Chicken is a creamless variation, where tomato (specifically Heinz ketchup, which he insists is in 90 percent of Indian-Chinese food) takes center stage. The Manchurian Veg is like a “Chinese falafel,” with the fritters floating in a sauce of fresh chilies and onion, and can otherwise “only be found in India.”
Then there are his more adventurous plays on tradition.
In Mumbai, bhel is a traditional street snack made with puffed rice, red onion, tamarind chutney, and chaat masala; Mehta’s is a crispy rice-noodle salad served on a bed of avocado with the Sichuan chutney. To attract Indian vegetarians, his Organic Butter Salt & Pepper Mushrooms are tempura-fried to the texture of calamari and finished with scallions. Bored with mango lassis, he created one that incorporates turmeric — “it has so many health benefits, so we wanted to incorporate that” — and a Chinese element of goji berries on top.
They all get touched with Mehta’s high-end ingredients and the refined technique that earned Laut its Michelin star.
“There’s a popular dessert dish at home where they give you a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, and then on the side, serve fried wonton skins with honey and sesame seeds sprinkled on them,” he recalls. “For our twists and turns on that dish, we tempura batter our ice cream and wrap it with pan-fried noodles to make it look like a sphere, and then top it with candied fennel, like sprinkles, which is a great digestif. It adds texture and color, and the dish looks beautiful.”
The duo approached every dish and design element at the Chinese Club with a sense of adventure, taking twists and turns with traditions and hoping the idea would catch on with diners. Right now, it’s still a work in progress.
Of the few Indian-Chinese restaurants in the area, Mehta points out that most are in corners of New Jersey where ex-pat populations are concentrated. He also understands that the absence of basic knowledge of Indian-Chinese cuisine might throw patrons off a little, rather than lure them in. And as he’s currently doing only about forty dinner covers a night, he doesn’t yet have enough volume to see exactly what’s taking off and what’s not hitting right.
So far, he’s enthused. “I wasn’t sure how well Indian-Chinese food would be received in Brooklyn, or in New York in general. But I’m not seeing much hesitation when people open the menu. And I’m surprised and impressed at the level of heat customers can take here. We’re not shying away from flavors and we pack some dishes with chilies, but people are wiping their plates clean. I have so much respect for my clients.”
To introduce them comfortably, he makes sure his staff knows how to explain dishes, and that they don’t push certain dishes or pressure patrons to order more than they want to. Only if people ask for suggestions do they guide diners towards the more Indian-Chinese dishes, explaining what Hakka Chili Chicken or Manchurian Vegetables are. General Tso’s is always there for them, but he’s pleased most reach toward the Indian-Chinese dishes.
“There’s a certain history, a certain heritage, that’s getting lost,” he explains of the dwindling Hakka-Chinese and Indian-Chinese cuisines. “I feel a bit of responsibility to have people come and try this food once, and then judge. I want people to come here in flip-flops, like the casual vibe, eat, have a good time, and keep coming back. Or don’t leave!”