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Updated: May 21, 2014 17:18 IST
THE RELUCTANT GOURMET

Guerrilla dining in Asia

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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OFF THE BEATEN TRACK Jen's Underground Supper Club Photo: Jennifer Brand
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK Jen's Underground Supper Club Photo: Jennifer Brand

Go underground. Follow a trail of whispers. Eat in a quasi-legal establishment. Discover guerrilla dining. It features top chefs and talented home cooks. Pop-up restaurants and legendary basements. Five course wine-paired menus and slap up pasta dinners. Three-month waiting lists and on-the-spur dining. They only thing they have in common is secrecy. Even as restaurants get increasingly chichi in Asia, diners are shoving aside velvet ropes and black ties to dive into a world that's shadowy, ephemeral and endlessly exhilarating.

Chef and sommelier Dan Perlman spent more than 20 years in the restaurant business in New York City before moving to Buenos Aires, Argentina, from where he writes the popular blog, SaltShaker, (http://www.saltshaker.net/) exploring travel, food and ‘closed door restaurants' across the world. And yes, he runs his own closed door establishment, though he prefers to refer to it as a ‘salon for food and conversation.'

This style of dining, says Dan, is far from being revolutionary. “Originally, all restaurants were run out of the home of whomever was cooking, that's how they got their start. In Latin America, they simply never went away… There are places here that have been open for more than 40 years.” No advertising of course. Chowhound, website for the food-obsessed, calls them ‘anti-restaurants.'

Dan does it because it's more flexible. “I have a lot more control — I set the menu, I decide who gets to come to eat… it's not a free for all.” Many closed-door venues screen their customers, because you are, after all, often eating at their house. Also, a large part of the charm is the company, since they bring together a group of 10 to 30 strangers. “In a place like ours with a communal table, part of what you're paying for is the social experience.”

Salt Shaker lists some of the Asian underground dining. There are many more, accessible only through local contacts, word of mouth, or – lately — Facebook. They're in China (mainly Hong Kong), Indonesia, Tokyo, Malaysia, The Philippines and Singapore. India, Dan says, used to have two, including the posh Uperwali Chai in Delhi by Pamela Timms offering ‘pukka afternoon teas'.

In Jakarta, Lisa Virgiano runs Azanaya, organising Underground Secret Dining (USD) events. “I got bored with the social entertainment setting of Jakarta. We only have gigantic malls with massive franchise restaurants or fast food chains,” she says, adding “I want to experience the authentic Indonesian food culture. I also like to meet friends, food hunt...” Underground movements, she says, inspired her. “I thought it was an uber cool way to catch the young generation's attention so they know more about Indonesian food culture. I simply can't talk to them about traditional cooking values, ethnicity, or exoticism of Indonesian food culture when all they care about are macaroons, cheese burgers and Chardonnay.”

Thirty-six people attended her first USD in 2009. Then, it went viral. “People spread the word. They love it! Azanaya has served more than 1,700 participants so far.” She organises one event a month, each with its own theme. “We have 33 provinces in Indonesia, each with different ingredients, and cooking methods.” Locations vary. “Somebody's house/garden, near a swimming pool, a camping ground, even a cemetery….” Clients are typically a mix of locals and expats, “Food adventurists who are eager to learn, yuppies, professionals, aged between 25 and 60 years old. They love to travel and love to meet new people.”

Jen's Underground Supper Club, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was inspired by Jen's daughter who lived in Melbourne. “When she was here for the holidays she mentioned this very interesting movement taking place in Melbourne. This was ideal for me, as I wasn't keen on operating a full-time restaurant.” (Jen used to own a restaurant before moving to Kuala Lumpur). “I have a cooking school and I love to travel, blog and write (www.jenthecookingtourist.blogspot.com.) Her Facebook page lists her location, but not her house number. “Our address was listed because of our school in Time Out, inflight magazines and Tripadvisor, so local folks pretty much figured it out. Besides, if you think about it, the best kept secrets are usually never really a secret!” Right now, she says, underground dining is still unusual in Kuala Lumpur, with just four establishments that she knows of. “I don't see the others as competition, my guests are exclusive. We are particular who we welcome into our home. We keep the numbers small to guarantee our first class hospitality and maintain quality.” Jen says this style of dining is popular because the experience they offer is so different. “Tourists love to go off the beaten tracks and they feel it's a great way to experience the culture of the country. For the locals, it's a culinary adventure and great home-cooked food is a luxury. Conventional restaurants are as they should be — about yield and profits. Over here, everything is from scratch and handmade: that's premium.”

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