Regional Chinese food, from various provinces in the vast country, have found enthusiastic takers in India through home chefs, supper clubs and pop-ups. One such supper club is the Bengaluru-based Má Là Kitchen. It is run by the husband-wife duo, Aditya Ramakrishnan and Dongli Zhang, who is a native of Chengdu, China.
They launched it to showcase the food from the Sichuan region where Zhang hails from. Má Là, which means spicy and numbing, is one of the 24 flavour profiles in Sichuan cooking.
Ramakrishnan says, “When we started Mà Lá Kitchen last year, it was a Sichuan supper club. Now, we want to showcase more diversity from across China, while still paying homage to Dongli's roots. Her hometown Chengdu is also known as Tianfu or the land of plenty. So we are currently rebranding our supper club to The Tianfu Table."
The meal begins with an elaborate gong-fu tea ceremony. Ramakrishnan skilfully pours hot water into gaiwans filled with dried chrysanthemums and goji berries. This non-caffeinated tisane acts as a palate cleanser between courses.
As he pours the tea, he narrates how he learnt to cook Chinese food to appease his homesick wife. Due to Covid restrictions, Zhang could not visit home in China. One of the ways the couple tried to deal with her homesickness was by visiting some of the city's finest Chinese restaurants. Zhang found that they mostly served Hakka-style dishes that were brought into India by Chinese immigrants belonging to the Hakka community. Chinese cuisine, just as Indian food, has vast regional diversity. Ramakrishnan began sourcing ingredients to replicate Chinese food from Zhang's childhood, the traditional way.
Slowly, the couple started inviting their friends and family to try their culinary experiments. After the pandemic restrictions eased, they went to China and enrolled in a culinary course to polish their culinary skills.
The first entrée of the six-course meal is a cold wood ear mushroom salad with sweet and sour flavour notes. Zhang recollects, “When I was growing up, my parents would insist I have this salad often. It is believed to have medicinal qualities and is rich in anti-oxidants."
The next entrée was a garlicky scallop dish. Sushi-grade scallops sourced from Hokkaido are nestled in a bed of thin glass noodles and served in a clam shell. As we scooped up the scallops directly from the shell, Ramakrishnan spoke of how he tops the scallops with finely minced garlic, and bastes it with oil for the pronounced garlic flavour.
As Zhang clears the table, Ramakrishnan brings in the aptly named ‘mouth-watering chicken’. The juicy and succulent chicken is plated in a pool of fiery red liquid, which is surprisingly cold, with bits of julienned cucumber. Despite the redness of the dish, it is not spicy; the blend of toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and chilli oil gives it a sweet, salty and umami taste.
Ramakrishnan talks about making chilli oil the traditional way: "Most places pour hot oil over chilli flakes. Here, we use 20 different aromatics and spices. We pour the oil at three different temperatures to preserve the colour, aroma and heat."
Next is the creamy and umami-rich Dan Dan noodles. Thin wheat noodles are served with minced pork and blanched beans. While the Dan Dan noodles I've had in restaurants use peanut butter, Ramakrishnan emphasises that the original recipe uses sesame paste.
Finally, comes the signature dish, the ma po tofu redolent with the flavour of Sichuan peppers. As a pleasant numbing sensation spreads across my lips and tongue, Ramakrishnan talks about how the tofu has been hand-made and sourced from an Indo-Chinese family in Bengaluru.
Then dessert is served. It’s a sweet corn mochi topped with jaggery syrup and edible flowers. Unlike most sugary desserts, it wasn’t too sweet. Zhang laughs and shares, “My mother says the best compliment you can give Chinese desserts is that they aren’t too sweet.”
Given my sweet tooth and my conditioning on what desserts taste like, this dish was a bit of a let down. Overall, I expected the food to be more spicy. At ₹3500 per person (without drinks) the experience is pricey as per Bengaluru’s standards.
While the entrées for the six-course meal remain unchanged, the main course and desserts change seasonally depending on the availability of ingredients. Sometimes, on special occasions and festivals, they introduce seasonal specialities.
While exchanging goodbyes, Ramakrishnan brought out a surprise. It was September when the mid-autumn festival is celebrated in China. The couple treated their diners to a special off-the menu-delicacy—mooncakes sourced from Shangri-La. As we bit into the crumbly mooncakes filled with red bean paste, Zhang narrated how the Chinese watch the moon and eat mooncakes to alleviate homesickness.
It felt like the experience has come a full circle: In the process of learning how to cook to remedy homesickness, the couple has introduced a hearty and flavour-rich supper club to Bengaluru’s ever evolving culinary landscape.
Deepthi Bavirisetty is a corporate lawyer by training and a keen watcher of food and culture trends in Bengaluru.