Anjan Chatterjee, founder of Mainland China, talks about his just-launched cookbook and the secret behind the success of his restaurants
Let's start with crackling spinach. Unpretentious, uncomplicated and unabashedly populist. It's the ideal mascot for Mainland China. The restaurant chain has, in a little more than a decade, redefined ‘Indian Chinese,' moving far beyond chilli chicken, and handholding customers to lead them into a space that's slightly more adventurous, by intelligently reinterpreting authentic Chinese food for an Indian audience. The result: a burgeoning web of restaurants around the country, an ever-expanding following of loyal fans and, now, a cookbook.
The magic word
Founder Anjan Chatterjee, in Chennai to launch The Mainland China Cookbook, explains why his restaurants have managed to strike a chord in a country that's bristling with competition. “Consistency,” he smiles, “That's what makes a difference.” He adds: “A restaurant is pure hard work. We have passion. We have drive. And, we realise that good food tastes better with good service. That's why we're so popular.” He quickly taps the table in front of him: “Touch wood.” Though by the looks of it, luck is on his side anyway.
He's constantly interrupted by congratulatory phone calls. Customers excitedly cut into this interview to praise his restaurant and demand he signs their copies of the book. And, after two successful openings in Chennai, he's all set to open the third Mainland China in Anna Nagar. He also plans to open a restaurant here shortly, from his Oh Calcutta! Chain that specialises in Bengali cuisine.
Chatterjee is the founder of the Sigree, Haka and Machaan chains, all of which he says are doing well, Yet, Mainland China is undoubtedly the most successful, given its rate of expansion. “I made it for people who come in a Maruti 800,” he says, adding “it's also for people who come in a Mercedes Benz, of course.” But, the idea was to create a fine dining restaurant that was accessible. A restaurant that stood out from the clutter of multi-cuisine eateries that generally fell into this price range.
“Multi-cuisine is a culture I hate. If you're not focussed, you're talking through your hat. Look at the roadside vada pav wala.” He pauses. “Wait. What street food is popular here? Bajji? Ok, the roadside bajji wala. He does, maybe, two dishes, but he does them for 365 days. So, his technique is perfect.”
Tweaking it for Indians
Specialisation was the first step. Chatterjee decided to explore the four main Chinese styles of cooking — Peking, Shanghai, Sichuan and Canton — and find dishes that would work in India, with alterations. “Chinese is one of the most adaptable cuisines in the world. The Americans make it with barbecue sauce. In Germany, you'll find frankfurters in the fried rice.”
Their challenge, he says, has been to stay reasonably true to the cuisine, and still appeal to a mass audience. Which brings us back to the crackling spinach. The original recipe calls for seaweed. Instead, they use spinach, spice it up with chopped chillies and pepper, add sesame seeds for texture, and fry it crisp. “If the Chinese steam dim sum for three minutes, we steam it for eight, because Indians like their meat well cooked. If it's slightly flavoured, we add spice. Like the Chinese, we aim for freshness, harmony, yin-yang. We use cornflour only when necessary, MSG only in the marinade, and minimal oil when possible.”
Recipes and a cause
The book, he says, is their way of giving back to the public. Dedicated “to the 18 million Chinese food fans who have made Mainland China what it is today”, it shares the recipes of about a 100 of the restaurant's most popular items. All proceeds from the sale of The Mainland China Cookbook (available at the restaurants for Rs. 499) will go towards educating underprivileged children through the Speciality Education Fund.
The recipes are surprisingly clear and detailed, given how coy most chefs are about sharing secrets. Additionally, there's a helpful section at the back explaining exactly where to source the more difficult ingredients from. What might prove tricky is technique — all that tossing and flipping and stir frying. Not impossible for sure, but to be honest, after browsing through, I felt more like picking up my phone to make reservations than picking out a wok to start work on a braised fish in chilli-vinegar sauce.
Nevertheless, for more-dedicated home chefs, this should prove fun. As for secret ingredients, here's one. What makes crackling spinach so addictive? Well, on top of the spice and frying, apparently there's a thin dusting of powdered sugar!