In 1947, after 300 years of colonial rule, the British finally left India. And when it did, the world witnessed the largest migration between Pakistan and India. Even though we are divided by a line, the food and culture are deeply ingrained in the hearts of people on both sides. There are certain similarities between Indian and Pakistani food. Punjab, however, offers the greatest number of comparable dishes in terms of flavours, and textures. Since Punjab is on both sides of the country, the Pakistani-Punjabi cuisine is yet to be discovered by many. You can find many recipes from this community, but unfortunately, they don't have a reach worldwide. However, Chef Palash Mitra has made it his aim to bring this culinary community to the world.
Making a name for himself and his heritage, Chef Palash Mitra won a Michelin star for the first-ever Pakistani Punjabi restaurant in Hong Kong- The New Punjab Club, in 2019. After extensively understanding the culture and history of the Indian subcontinent and weaving them with his approach to food, technical skills, and nostalgia, Chef Palash introduced a variety of textures and flavours to the world. While many recognise him as one of the masters in Indian cooking, his journey surely has not been easy. From taking culinary inspiration from his family to working with some big names in the industry, Chef Palash's culinary journey is a perfect inspiration for all budding chefs.
In a conversation with NDTV Food, the celebrated chef opened up about his journey and gave an insight into his life.
1. Why and how did you decide to become a chef?
I have always been interested in the arts and creative pursuits. While I excelled in more conventional education, I scored well enough to either go into medicine or engineering. But my parents were quite unconventional about what I wanted to do for a living, and my relatives heavily influenced me on my mother's side. They lived in Kolkata and ran a few successful hotels in Dumdum. It was a collective family decision for me to join hospitality. This was ridiculed in our local community and neighbourhood for a while as back then, working in hotels and restaurants was taboo.
2. Who has been the greatest inspiration in your culinary journey?
My maternal uncles and grandparents were a constant influence as they were very passionate about food and hospitality. Growing up in Kolkata and Gujarat developed a terrific appreciation and admiration for the food within these regions.
While in school, I was exposed to several good books on cooking. Back then, we didn't have social media, there were limited food channels, and the only way to learn was through reading books and going out to eat (which wasn't always easy as money was tight in school!). For me, it's safe to say that Thomas Keller, Jiggs Kalra, Marco Pierre White, Larousse, Thangam Phillip, Tarla Dallal, and Madhur Jaffrey, to name a few, were huge inspirations to me.
3. How did you decide to open a Pakistani-Punjabi restaurant in Hong Kong?
I met Black Sheep Restaurants' Founders Asim and Chris, while I was working in London, and during the many meetings we had, I realised that their vision and love for Punjabi cuisine was something that we shared. It was a value I held very close to my heart, and luckily they had this upcoming project - I quickly jumped on the bandwagon!
4. Since people in Hong Kong might not be familiar with Indian flavours, how did you introduce the Indian culture over there?
Hong Kong has a long history and association with minority cuisines. Punjabi immigrants and their foods have been in the community for decades. It was only a matter of reintroducing it to the culinary landscape in its true, most profound form that needed to happen.
Focusing on the bold flavours and doing so with a deep respect for the seasonality wasn't done in the existing restaurants. For us, it was not a question of reinventing the wheel when it came to the cuisine. It was about the pride and conviction with which we served our food and the menu we built. I see an underrepresented community coming to terms with its glorious culinary heritage and feel inspired to up the game where it matters.
5. Did you have any challenges while deciding the menu for the restaurant?
Deciding the menu was fairly easy. We took classics from the region and looked at them from a New Punjab Club perspective. We examined it with the food ideology and applied those sensibilities to dishes that haven't changed in centuries. Luckily for us, what we were doing was well received, and in some ways, we have created our own cult classics. Honestly, the main challenge for us was to follow through with the execution and operation and stay true to form - we were the very first to do this kind of work in Hong Kong.
6. When you first opened the restaurant, what was the reaction you garnered from the audience?
This perception of the work we were doing was the hardest thing to overcome. People's expectations of the kind of restaurant we were supposed to be and the kind of restaurant we were, well, they didn't align right away. But very early on, we also learned that what we had created was a winner, we booked out, and the local community at large supported us. That's what has brought us this far.
7. What is the most popular item on the menu?
Tandoor items are easily the favourites, from the Tandoori Anda, Tandoor Cobia, to the beloved Masalewali Chaanp, or tandoori lamb chops with ember-roasted onions. Newer favourites include the Sarson Jhinga, these robust cardinal prawns doused in pistachio butter and oxtail broth. We also hit a sweet spot with our desserts, the sticky toffee pudding is by far one of the most popular items, and the Masala Chai is something we take great pride in.
8. What are your future plans as a chef and for the restaurant?
The idea is to keep growing, to keep shaking things up and disrupting this stale perception of Indian food. There is so much depth and flavour to the work that we do. We want to keep taking this journey farther and farther.
9. How would you define your favorite comfort food and something you often cook at home?
These days, I am cooking a lot of upma as it is a dish my daughter loves. I have a complex palate, and while I love Murghir Mangsho, Bengali chicken stew, and bhaat (steamed rice), I also enjoy lovely camembert with a glass or two of Royal Tokaji.