What should we order at Ling’s?
I have been asked this question so often by people that I decided to organize a ‘master class’ in ordering in Ling’s Pavilion last Sunday.
Ling’s Pavilion is one of my favourite, if not the favourite, restaurants in Mumbai. One of the few places in Mumbai that we travel to to eat in. The spell of Ling’s is such that if we go to Colaba, we can’t think of eating at any other restaurant. Baba Ling, the owner, is possibly my favourite restaurateur in Mumbai.
I have had numerous meals at Ling’s ever since I first went to Ling’s with blogger Sassy Fork and fell in love with it. Regulars at Ling’s told me that they normally ask Baba Ling about what to order and go with his recommendations rather than look at the menu. Something which bugs his brother Nini Ling a lot who often gently admonishes me for not looking at the menu.
“He is a trained computer engineer, a handy man”, says Baba about Nini very proudly “give him any instrument and he will fix it”.
Baba is the food lover in the family. He took over the reins of their then restaurant, Nanking, from his dad in the 1960s. Nanking was the predecessor of Ling’s Pavilion. They both coexisted for a while which is why Ling’s is not called Nanking. They do have a restaurant called Nanking though.
Baba loves to cook. Supervises the cooking in the kitchen even today though he is 65. He says that no one specifically taught him how to cook. He has picked it up from various influences and follows his instincts. He is particular about the produce used. They have used the same suppliers for 70 years through three generations. He has seen his Koli fish vendors grow from wearing simple saris to loads of gold today as he has consistently gave them business. He says, “if you are loyal to the Kolis they will do anything for you”. There was a time when a cab would come to pick him at 5.40 every morning. He would go to the church which they would open for him, say his prayers and then head to three markets to buy fish for the day. Baba still goes to China pretty often to buy products for the restaurant and stay current with the cooking there and get ideas. He believes in tradition though. Fusion and, I suspect, foam, are not for him. Amen to that.
This doesn’t mean that Baba has his buried in the ground. He keeps trying out new dishes though he stays rooted in tradition. He claims to be the first to introduce sweet corn soup to Mumbai when some sailors had landed up at Nanking with a can of corn. He smilingly reminisced about the time when he introduced individually monogrammed napkins at Nanking. Apparently his Parsi clients were so touched that they were reduced to tears. He says he was among the first to introduce ‘bhelpuri’ tables for waiters to place their trays and serve the food. Bamboo rice is one of his many firsts in Mumbai.
Last Sunday sixteen people joined me travelling all the way from Kharghar, New Bombay, Powai, Borivili, Andheri, Bandra and Tardeo to sample some of my favourite dishes at Ling’s. These are dishes that I have enjoyed the most after having tried many dishes over many visits. Dishes that I order the most often when I come here. Some people asked me why there wasn’t more vegetarian dishes in the menu. That’s because this was a list of dishes that I personally order. Very individual specific. I rarely order vegetarian. Or chicken at Ling’s.
So what did we eat?
Well there were the salt and pepper prawns which are just that. Prawns in salt and pepper making them all about the taste of prawns. Baba had got us largish prawns which he bought at Rs 800 a kilo from the market and were particularly juicy.
Then there were my favourite juicy pork dumplings into which you put soy wine. Sort of a Chinese pani puri! I told folks to have one the way it’s meant to be and one with a red chilli the way K does and enjoy them in two different ways.
The other starter was the slightly sweet special sliced roast pork made with the neck cut of pork. ‘Special’ as it is available only on weekends and public holidays as the waiters told us.
With this Baba gave us some Chinese bao to make pork pockets with.
Then came the mains. The beautifully flavoured stewed pork belly whose sauce takes on the intensity of the bamboo shoots and shitake that it is cooked in, with the bean curd giving it balance. We prefer this to sunflower pork, the other pork belly dish here.
Then there was the extremely tender sliced beef with spring onions and chilli. A dish we had ordered once for our very picky beef loving friend Gia and the beef had met her very high standards then.
There were some Chinese greens that Baba suggested we add to the menu. Yes, I had quite a few enjoyable conversations planning the menu with him. Nothing made waking up in the morning as pleasant as getting a call from Baba, “good morning Kalyan dear, did I wake you up?” to discuss the menu. Coming back to the greens, they had a nice crunch to them and were not soggy or sauce doused.
The last mains were the Nanking pork which I chose over spare ribs, after chatting with Reshmy of Bombay Chowparty, who came to the lunch too. This is made with pork fat, “the layer next to the meat”, says Baba, fried till rendered to the tissue. The resulting pork has a certain airy crunchiness that is bewitching. So intoxicating that my hands shook while taking the picture!
Pic: Gungun Chanda
With the pork belly was steamed rice.
We also had the mixed meat fried rice which Soumik discovered and recommended to me and has become a fixture on my table at Ling’s since.
And then the pan grilled noodles that K and I so love. The crunchiness of the noodles combines beautifully with the poetic sauce making it my favourite noodle dish. When asked if there was one dish that he could eat all his life, Baba said it would be noodles in any form. We normally have the pan grilled noodles with Chinese greens, prawns or tenderloin. This time Baba served it with chicken as there was a lot of pork and prawns on the menu. The chicken was unbelievably tender. I asked Baba the secret. He said that the chicken was marinated in egg which made it juicy.
Unlike in Indian Chinese restaurants, the fried rices and noodles at Ling’s have enough flavours packed in them so that you do not need a side dish with them. In fact, folks at the table remarked on the fact that they did not have to add condiments to the food.
If Baba loves you he sends you desserts on the house. I have even seen a fellow Ling’s devotee, Kurush Dalal, specify what ‘surprise free dessert’ he want. This time Baba was really happy to see the joy and contentment with which we ate and listened to his stories. The result of this were plates of juicy delectable fried banana dumplings and honey noodles with ice cream that made us all giggle like happy kids in joy.
Some of the the other dishes that I would recommend in Ling’s are the salt and pepper crab, the chicken, liver and fungus dry and the chilli garlic fish (basa, snapper or pomfret in increasing order of expensiveness).
The fare at Ling’s is Cantonese. Dr Pradeep Rao, a foodie who often goes to operate and train doctors in Guangzhou, says that Cantonese food is primarily available in Hong Kong now. It’s popularity is apparently reducing in South China from where it originated as the Chinese government is spreading the Mandarin culture across the country to unify it. The Cantonese culture is getting marginalised in the process according to him. I am yet to go to China but given the number of Chinese travellers who eat in Ling’s I am assuming that the food is fairly authentic.
I often get out of towners to Ling’s. I do so because it is my favourite restaurant. I do realize it is not necessarily not a typically ‘Mumbai restaurant’.
Or is there more to this?
Ling’s is about to complete 25 years. It’s predecessor Nanking, started by Baba Ling’s dad and later ran by Baba Ling, was started in the mid 1940s. A lot of the Ling regulars, Sassy Fork and her parents for example, consist of families that have been coming here from the Nanking days. Now, 1945 is way before the Mahesh, Apurva, Trishna, the Mangalorean seafood restaurants of Mumbai or even the Malvani ones for that matter in Mumbai were set up. Well before even places such as Aaswad and Gypsy Corner serving Marathi veg food in Dadar.
In which case, one could argue, that Ling’s through Nanking can very well lay claim on being a proud representative of the public dining heritage of Mumbai.
Do check out my latest article in Burrp! which traces the history of public dining in Mumbai through the eateries of Fort.
This is some feedback from those who came to the Finely Chopped Table at Ling’s
Gungun Chanda: Amazing lunch experience at Ling's Pavillion organised by Kalyan Karmakar. Special menu carefully selected by him and the owner Baba Ling was just fantastic. Heavy on Pork as promised by him. Had an opportunity to meet some great people and bloggers who love everything about food. Thank youKalyan Karmakar for co hosting such a wonderful event and having me there too.
Babso Kanwar Congratulations on your first "table", exceptionally curated and lovely company
Shubhranshu Das Thanks for revealing the secrets of your obsession! Scrumptious bites all along
Jean Burke Spraker: Met Baba Ling today. Baba is proprietor of Ling's Pavilion in Colaba, a Mumbai institution for lovers of amazing Chinese food. A gracious host, he shared many stories. Spectacular feast created especially for Kalyan Karmakar's first Finely Chopped table.
The goody bags for the lunch were provided by the very talented Gayatri Sarang of Bombay Baker. She gave us boxes of her chocolate chip cookies and waffles that I so love. You can call her at 9619622339 to order them. I would strongly recommend that you do so.