Hustling in the vibrant streets downtown in London’s Soho is a small culinary abode for Indo-Chinese cuisine. Centuries ago when the Hakka folks migrated to India, they brought along with them their magnificent cooking abilities which intertwined perfectly with the aromatic Indian ingredients to give birth to this fusion cuisine.
Their tagline “From Tangra to Soho” rightly sums up their vision as Fatt Pundit geared up to promote the best Indo-Chinese flavours from Calcutta.
With the easing of the restrictions, ‘iGlobal’ got chatting with the “pundit” himself, Co-Founder Huzefa Sajawal on his quest to exhibit this modern cuisine on a global scale.
“There are so many passionate people from all over the world who have come here (London) to this melting pot, they bring the best and you get to celebrate that.”
To follow his passion, Huzefa trailed from to the United Kingdom to pursue his postgraduation in hospitality. Having started his training at JW Marriott Grosvenor House in Mayfair, Huzefa had the occasion to store important tricks and techniques up his sleeve from the Head Chef Ollie Couillaud.
“Working with him and his team was a great experience, that really ignited my love for restaurants and food.”
Being a regional food enthusiast, Huzefa felt that there is much generalisation of Indian cuisine. He expresses his discomfort at chefs not being able to justify the true regional palates: “When people serve vindaloo in an Indian restaurant, only a Goan would know a proper vindaloo. They don’t even put vinegar in it and call it vindaloo.”
Huzefa’s grandmother has played a major part in nurturing his gastronomic fondness. As he recollects the various gatherings hosted by his grandfather, he reflects: “My grand mom’s principal role was to train chefs who would come from Lucknow. So, they would come to our house in Bombay, get trained and would cook the food. I saw them play host seven days a week. She was unbelievable!”
Huzefa has ingrained in him the fascination for using raw ingredients in his dishes from his grannie. “Today we think about having tapioca and acai and all these healthy things for breakfast, she would have that in the 1980s. I still remember going shopping with her and she would only take mutton from a specific shop and milk from another specific shop. At that time, I didn’t understand, for her it’s in her nature.”
This got magnified when he began working with Chef Couillaud. “Where you get your meat or strawberries from was more important than anything else because the rest of the skill is in your hand,” he explains.
Indo-Chinese cuisine has always been the go-to dining choice for Indians back at home. To Huzefa’s surprise, the number of restauranteurs tapping into this distinct market in the UK was sparse. In a way to “self-treat”, he partnered with a friend to advertise the much-loved Hakka speciality.
When they discovered that Indo-Chinese was rooted only in India: “I have been to Soho, China Town so many times. I ordered for chicken Manchurian and the waitress looked at me like ‘what’s wrong with you? What’s chicken Manchurian?’ A dish like that doesn’t exist in China and I wasn’t aware of it.”
After a year of scouting for a trained chef, the partners finally commenced with Bombay Chow in Hammersmith.
The love they had been receiving from the community encouraged them to branch out with another outlet of Bombay Chow in Wembley and a brand-new Imperial Lounge in Croydon.
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Huzefa enlightens us about the intricate details in the cooking technique used in Chinese cuisine called “Wok Hei”, which translates as “flavour of the wok” or the “soul of the wok”. The high-intensity cooking burner with huge flames can be perfectly handled only by trained chefs since it is equivalent to 36 jets and can burn the food in minutes if not given the required care.
This prominent craft makes the difference. He says: “If you cook fried rice at home, you will never get that flavour. You can follow any recipe you want to. But when you eat fried rice in a good Chinese restaurant it smells completely different. That is Wok Hei.”
The peculiarity of Indo-Chinese delicacies originates from the hot flamed wok cooking being combined with the common Indian ingredients like green chillies, coriander, turmeric powder. “All of a sudden when these ingredients were put in a normal pan it would taste the way we Indians cook. But the moment it was put in a wok cooker, it changed the flavours completely and that has the biggest impact on the cuisine.”
The use of Indian ingredients at Fatt Pundit is not normally found in authentic Chinese dishes. Their cooking equipment ranges from wok cookers and steamers to grillers and even tandoor.
“We use a tandoor as well. For us it’s just a grill. It’s just for cooking meat like lamb chops with masalas in black bean sauce.”
Unlike other regional Indian cuisines, Indochinese has not been staged so widely across the globe. “The dream was always to take it to W1 the reason being that’s where the entire world comes and if you do Indochinese cuisine there, everybody will get to know about it.”
Huzefa took on the challenge to central London. “The cuisine was there before us as well but in all the Asian dominated areas. Nobody was willing to take the risk to take it to central. I was always told ‘Huzefa, don’t do it there, it’s very risky’.”
He and his team spent half a year on the R&D to fabricate the dishes with the right ingredients. According to him, a lot of people might not land up in the Tangra district of Kolkata. For this very reason, his restaurant might be their only chance to feast on the delicious food.
He aims to make every experience count: “So, I take a little bit of responsibility for that and I want them to have a good experience and understand the story behind it. More than business, I want to give them the experience.”
The variety of flavour points have been brilliantly selected only to avoid a repetition in the menu. “I didn’t want someone who was having a chilly chicken to have a chicken Manchurian as well. It’s more or less the same.”
There is an option for those who want to indulge in grills as well as steamed momos, which weren’t being popularised in central London.
Huzefa doesn’t believe in having one dish in five different versions. “If you see, we have four different flavours of momos. None of them have the same spices.” He has made sure that they incorporate the regional influences of not only Calcutta and the Northeast in their food. The Malabar Monkfish Curry which has a coconut and turmeric base tells the tale of those Chinese immigrants who settled on the Malabar coast of India and around Madras who had developed a great affinity for the curry.
Huzefa celebrates their much acclaimed ‘crackling spinach’. It is a must-try adopted from the Chinese speciality-crispy seaweed, topped with a blend of tamarind sauce, plum sauce and flavoured yogurt. “Seaweed wasn’t readily available in India so we just took it out from there and did it with spinach instead. All individually fried.”
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The Eat Out To Help Out plan had been a lifebuoy to surge the industry back in for over a month. Huzefa describes the journey from there onwards to be a bit of a struggle, “you don’t complain about it because all of us are facing it.”
In the UK, restaurants and bars provide people a space to catch up with their friends, a space where they can cherish their love for food. “The hospitality industry needed a bit more support because in the UK it is one of the most obvious ways; people go out and treat themselves.”
The industry will go through a slow recovery in the next few years. The young restauranteur calls for more teamwork: “Everybody will have to pitch in together. Everyone will have to work as a team- employers, employees, government. Things have changed for good. And if you are not going to change with it, if you want to go back to old-school rules, it’s not going to work.”
Fatt Pundit opted to explore the takeaway option to sustain the business. “No matter how many takeaways you do, you will need to start your restaurant for sit-down service. Your rents and rates don’t change. We have adapted to takeaways but that is not the real business that we started off for. Incapacity wise, you are working only 30 per cent of your original projection. That is the most you can do if you do well.”
Their chefs have gathered their competences by working at Chinese restaurants for almost 20 years. Their skillset is restricted to only those techniques utilised in cooking Chinese food. “If I tell them to work on a tandoor, they can’t. Technically they are not Indian chefs they are just of Indian origin. All their lives they have worked on a wok cooker.”
The front of the house team has been equally important to Fatt Pundit: “If the cloth breaks, the restaurant won’t work.” They have been blessed to have been able to retain their staff, their biggest . “For me my team means everything to me. Because without them we wouldn’t be able to pull anything off.”
While working with the celebrity Chef Couillaud, the intense the team had for the food they cooked inspired Huzefa’s training. During this time, he experienced closure of a restaurant because the concept hadn’t kicked in with the audience. This taught him a valuable lesson from a business front:
“Sometimes you might put in your best but sometimes it might just not click but that doesn’t mean that you are doing something wrong entirely. You need to hold on to your passion and eventually you will get the rewards.”
He recommends understanding the audience who are being catered to. “In the end, it is all for the guests. Always be open to listening to them: what they want, what their suggestions are. Don’t take it personally. Do it with passion and relate to your clients. In the long run, it will be a but sometimes it can be tougher to get there.”