Dancing with the stars ... Mainland China Cookbook Launch

The last thing you would expect, after making the most successful ever series in Hindi films and after directing one of the biggest Hindi film hits, is to be asked to move aside so that someone can take a photo with your friend instead of with you.
I felt sad for Raj Kumar Hirani the director of Munnabhai and 3 Idiots. It’s probably never happened to him before. But then, in my world, Anjan Chatterjee is a rock star. Come across a Bengali and chances are that you would come across someone obsessed with food. Particular about what to eat. Probably loves cooking. However, very few take this passion ahead the the next level. We are not an entrepreneurial race after all. That is why I admire Anjan Chatterjee for what he has achieved. He is one of the few who has lived their dreams. And his restaurant empire is growing by the day. 

So, sorry Mr Hirani, didn’t mean to hurt you. But I wanted my photo with The Man. I am sure there are millions of others who would love to get clicked with you.

I was invited to the launch of the Mainland China (MLC) Cookbook by its publishers, Random House. I was quite interested to know more about this as there are hardly any restaurant based cookbooks in India. No Les Halles Cookbook or French Laundry Cookbook here.


I was wondering why Mr Hirani was there. Turned out that he and Anjan Chatterjee were close friends fwell before they got into their current roles. One got to hear some wonderful stories from the two. Of Anjan Chatterjee’s lecturing a hapless production house canteen guy on the merits of soft bread omelette toast versus a grilled one for twenty minutes. Of how he experimented for more than six months with different types of milk before he opened Sweet Bengal. Of how they opened the restaurant after closing time for a sudden party after the premier of Munnabhai. And of how it all started in a restaurant which was too bare to even have a loo. Fuelled by a dream and praise of Chatterjee’s wife cooking from friends such as R K Hirani. And stories of the quintessential Ghoti Bangal feuds at home.

I later caught up with Chatterjee and asked him about why we don’t have an Oh Calcutta at Bandra. “High rentals, too niche unlike Mainland China to sustain itself”. Why there was no pork or beef.  “Restaurant policy”. I complimented him on his achievements and behaved like a high school geek in a Star Trek convention.
Head Chef, Rajesh Dubey, was there too. He is not the one who gets kissed in the Mainland China ad though. He did a cooking of demo of a simple Oyster sauce based chicken dish. The entire idea of the book is to show how to cook Chinese at home without feeling intimidated. 

Chef Dubey spoke about how he was indebted to Chatterjee for allowing him to travel to various regions of China. Dubey regaled me with stories of the creepy crawlies that he ate over there. He said that the trick is not to think too much about what one was eating. I again threw my question on the absence of pork at MLC. A meat which is essential to Chinese food. Dubey cited local religious sentiments. He also went on to say about how the anti red meat consciousness and the fact the Muslims in China were beginning to travel across the country was restricting the use of pork. I asked him about why they don’t serve the sticky fried rice that one gets in real Chinese restaurants. ‘Indians would think that this was sub-standard rice’ he said. Made sense. So they use Basmati versus Jasmine rice.

The food was a mix of starters from the restaurant. I am not a big fan of party starters in any case. Satisfactory without being memorable. Not the best setting to taste the dishes. I guess the evening was more about food stories than actual food. The chicken Dube cooked was phenomenal though. Very juicy with a tantalising touch of cracked black pepper.

I got to meet another person I really admire. Bachi Karkaria, the ex Calcuttan, Parsi journalist and columnist, with a sharp wit. We chatted for a while. She offered her sympathies when I told her that I was married to a fellow Parsi. We chatted about Bengali and Parsi mothers and their obsessions with the sons. Of Hypochondriasm that is common to both races according to her. We exchanged notes about how we were both psyched about keeping our drivers late on duty. And promised to meet up Bandra so that I could show her Sante and this ‘legendary’ place called Pali Market.
It was great meeting people one really looked up to. It was great seeing the Indian food scene evolve grow up with the entry of restaurant cookbooks. I am now eagerly waiting to get a copy of the MLC book which promises to share recipes from the restaurant. Mainland China is one of my favourite Chinese restaurants after all.
I also learnt that it is better to confirm the schedule in advance for such events. Throw Bollywood, Bengalis and Bombay traffic together and you could have an event that starts two hours late.