“There’s nothing called ‘curry’ in New Punjab Club. I hate my food being called ‘curry’,” declares Palash Mitra, executive chef at the hottest Indian restaurant in Hong Kong. To many Indians, it’s a lazy imperialist catch-all term for spicy dishes from any number of Asian countries. It’s a word which doesn’t exist in the lexicon of traditional Punjabi cuisine.
Tandoors, on the other hand, are a celebrated and essential tool in creating the robust, rustic fare from the fertile Punjab region of northern India and eastern Pakistan. New Punjab Club boasts two of these earthen, charcoal-burning ovens (many are now gas or electric), which Mitra describes as “the Rolls-Royce of tandoors”. One is reserved for bread. The other, for seafood, meat and vegetables.
Squat and encased in metal, these ovens aren’t much to look at. But they turn out extraordinary flavours. Take the Masalewali chanp, tomahawk lamb chops hefty enough to crack a skull, are roasted in a matter of minutes to smoky, salty, sour, piquant and succulent perfection. The best way to enjoy them is to grab a chop by your hand and chomp on it. Greasy smears and crumbs on shirt be damned.
Mitra insists there is no secret to the dish. He merely adheres to the traditional principles of Punjabi cooking. “When I say traditional, I mean we don’t use spices excessively,” he explains, in an attempt to correct another misunderstanding about Indian cuisine. Only five ingredients – garlic, salt, chillies, ginger and mustard oil – go into the lamb marinade, which is then left for 14 hours before cooking. The fat drips on to open flame, compounding the flavour.
There’s also cobia, a chunky, line-caught game fish from the South China Sea marinated with dill, carom seeds, turmeric, chilli and yoghurt. It relishes the scorching 320-degree heat of the tandoor, emerging with crisp skin and juicy flesh.
“We don’t take shortcuts and I don’t put in my interpretation of what a dish could be. It’s all about the food in Punjab as it should be.”
New Punjab Club’s menu may be compact, but authenticity is key, and you’re unlikely to find dishes such as the keema pau with spiced mutton and milk buns at other restaurants. “We don’t alter spice levels or cooking technique. We don’t take shortcuts and I don’t put in my interpretation of what a dish could be. It’s all about the food in Punjab as it should be,” says Mitra.
To him, authenticity is more about the ingredients and techniques than it is specific recipes, which can “change from street to street, alley to alley, home to home,’ says Mitra.
It’s about making everything from scratch using sun-dried, hand-ground spices, and produce you would find in Punjab. It also means dishes and spice levels are rarely adjusted to customers’ requests, so the food tastes as intended.
Just quietly, there is a curry, of sorts, on the menu – the Mughal Room makhani, or butter chicken. It’s listed under “deg”, named after the pan in which it’s been slow cooked. Rich, earthy and deeply fragrant, it’s a universe away from the radioactive orange versions served elsewhere.