Thousands of people… holiday-makers, businessmen, fishermen, college-goers, just-married couples, photographers, map-sellers, balloon-sellers, sketch artists, cops, tour guides, wage-workers… posing for pictures or pointing cameras, gazing out to sea or hopping on to the ferry, licking on melting ice-cream cones or crunching down some peanuts…
When you visit the beautifully majestic Gateway of India in Colaba today, packed with people and traffic, it is difficult to imagine a time when ALL of this was just a small port, a peaceful lookout, nice for a relaxed and breezy evening stroll. A time when tape recorders and cassettes were just making an entry, and mobile phones belonged exclusively to Captain Kirk and his bold voyagers on Star Trek. A time when the superstar Khans of Bollywood were using their muscles to drag early school bags, and Narendra Modi was still serving tea in a canteen! A time when 5 regimental chefs were flown down from China to give Bombay its first taste of authentic Chinese cuisine… at the Golden Dragon restaurant at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Colaba.
Legend goes that these five chefs were a terror in the Taj kitchens – rigid to the bone, unrelenting task-masters and fiercely territorial, not letting anyone touch anything that belonged to them… But boy, could they cook! Word of their expertise spread fast and thick amongst the discerning foodies of Bombay, and people made a beeline to sample their stuff, choosing the real flavours of China here, over the Calcutta-Chinese that was the regular fare everywhere else in the country.
Many decades later, last week, some handpicked signature dishes were showcased to us – a trio of food aficionados namely Roxanne Bamboat, Shirin Mehrotra and me – so that we could savour those menu favourites that have stood the test of time and are still as great as when they were first served by the ‘Fiery Five’, all those years ago!
As we settled in with some hot tea, served from a kettle with a really long spout (this was to avoid eavesdropping by tea-servers at strategic military meets in ancient China!) Nikhila Palat and Parveen Chander took us back to the Taj of olden days with their stories and trivia and little nuggets of history. For starters, there was a startlingly beautiful plate of 4 Dim Sums, each different in texture and flavor, and if I had to pick my favourite at gunpoint, I would choose the amazing flakiness of the Flaky Radish and the fresh crunch of the Lotus Root and Celery. Both vegetarian! 🙂
Before you jump to conclusions, the Golden Fried Prawn was just perfect, and, while nibbling on its tail, I jumped at the sight of a pretty, bright-red clay pot headed our way. Another intriguing vessel with a story? Not this time, but what it housed in its belly was the intriguingly-named Song of the Dragon Chicken – crisp n light chunks of succulent fried chicken with just a hint of fire from the plump, red peppercorns that it nestled with. It’s no wonder why this has been a favourite for decades now!
Conversation shifted gear to our own special memories attached to the iconic Taj Mahal hotel – from family outings to gaze wide-eyed at the Christmas decorations in the lobby, to partying-till-dawn at Beyond 1900s – and then Insomnia – with the ensuing hilarious ‘walk of shame’ of our teenybopper days, as Nikhila so rightly put it 🙂 Can you even imagine what the walls of this 110-year old edifice would have to say if it suddenly decided to speak – in a deep, soothing baritone voice??
Meanwhile, a shining silver, samovar-style bowl had been placed before me, which revealed a superbly fragrant Sharkfin Crabmeat Soup, definitely recommended for the heart and soul! And soon after, a plethora of dishes were marched up to our plates, amongst which my favourites were the Standing Pomfret – it’s carved in such a way that it actually stands fin up on the plate! – the Konjee Crispy Lamb, and the Wothib Asparagus, this last a light pancake that leaves you with a lingering aftertaste of earthy asparagus and smoky soy.
Finally it was time for dessert and along with the traditional Toffee Banana, the Chef decided to give us a taste of a newer favourite on the menu – the Candied Ginger with bitter Chocolate Dim Sum. I would happily go back just to have these silky translucent globes filled with oozing chocolate and bits of ginger, floating in a flambéed orange sauce!
We foodies would have flatly refused to budge from our seats after that lavish a meal, but guess who had a tiny window of time for a quick chat? The legendary Chef Hemant Oberoi, the darling Big O, who never fails to mesmerize with his fascinating stories of the kitchens, and beyond! This time round, he recounted experiences of the ‘Fiery Five’, and it was almost as if you were watching the movie ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ with flying swords, leaping fighters and twirling ponytails right before your eyes… except that this was no ‘wuxia’ fairytale! This was and always will be the true legacy of the oldest Chinese restaurant in the city, STILL standing tall and proud!