Thursday, April 08, 2010

Around Town with Arina - Sampan Cooking Class

On 31st March 2010, the Sampan restaurant hosted a first of its kind Chinese cooking class with Chef Penpa. As soon as Rushina asked me if I wanted to go, I jumped with joy! It was double excitement for me; first it was Chinese food and to top that I would get to meet THE Chef Penpa. I have loved Indian Chinese food since I was a child and the first complete meal that I cooked on my own at the age of 12 was an Indian Chinese one. My love for Chinese cooking borders on obsession, but I am not alone, my whole family shares my love for Chinese food. It is our comfort food and in the Suchde home when we can’t think of what to cook (or don’t want to) the fall back is Chinese food.

And Sampan is a family icon. Most Oriental food lovers who have spent a significant amount of time in Mumbai would have at least heard the name of Sampan if not dined there. Ever since I could hear, I had familiar sounding memories of it through my parents and sister; about driving, across town to the Holiday Inn (as it was then called) at Juhu for meals on Sundays and holidays. In fact even today, a good 15 years or so down the line we still smile at how our mouths water when we think of Sampan. We were all sad when it shut down so the news of the Accor group reviving the erstwhile Holiday Inn as Novotel, and the iconic Sampan restaurant was welcome news to us.

Sampan meaning a flat bottomed wooden boat (perhaps because of its location by the seaside at Mumbai’s Juhu beach) has existed since about 1984-85. And Chef Penpa has been the driving force behind it from the day of its debut. The menu began with Cantonese but over the years chef Penpa has added to it dishes he has brought back from his extensive travels and experiences training under Master Chefs in Singapore and Hong Kong. Several spicy Sichuan dishes, an array of dimsums, steamed clay pot rice preparations (which became the house speciality) and fine sea-food and poultry dishes have enriched the menu and a recent addition of Sushi and Sashimi complete the Oriental dining journey for Food lovers.

Being a vegetarian I was happy that they maintained a balance in paying attention to vegetarians and non-vegetarians. In fact for once the Vegetarians got a fairer deal with the vegetarians with two of the three dishes demonstrated being vegetarian and a vegetarian version of the non-vegetarian one being demonstrated.

A part of me was still surprised that a chef was gladly sharing his recipes with people. The class began with Sesame Prawn/Vegetable Toast, a popular starter that is also loved by Bollywood’s first family, the Bachchans as Chef Penpa proudly proclaimed. One bite and fond childhood memories came rushing back, just like the scene in the movie Ratatouille when the food critic Ego takes the first bite of the Ratatouille cooked up by Remy the rat. My sister had taught me this recipe when I was a teenager but both the recipe and the memory had faded with time but this sesame toast was just like my sister used to make crisp, golden fingers crusted with sesame seeds.

Next on the menu was a Veg. Hot & Sour soup. We have been making this soup at home but it just never seemed right so I was pleased to have found the perfect recipe. Watching it being cooked and having tasted it I now have a benchmark to meet when I make it next. Striking the right balance between hot and sour it could not have been more perfect. The chef also shared ideas for non vegetarian variations of the soup using chicken (preferably) or fish.

And then came the piece de resistance the most awaited dish of the evening. Clay Pot Rice. I sat up to pay extra attention to this one, earlier in the day I had been warned by everyone from Rushina, to my family and friends to learn it properly for various reasons. Rushina wanted to learn how to make it but was unable to attend the class as she is working furiously on her book. And the others just wanted to eat! And let me tell you, hands down, (or should I say chopsticks) It was by far the best clay pot rice I have ever eaten, perfectly moist, but not too gooey. And here’s a tip for all you Clay pot rice fans, just like Hyderabadi Biryani, is not Biryani till it is made in the traditional manner; the secret to a great Clay Pot Rice is the clay pot it is made in! Without that, it is just fried rice with vegetables or meat in a sauce. (Clay pots are available somewhere in Crawford Market; I shall hunt them down and share the details here. Keep watching this space – Around town with Arina!)

And then, when we thought we could not handle any more stimulation of the palate we were served the cherry on the top, a Jasmine and Ginger Iced Tea presented by the Beverage Manager. It made the perfect companion to wash down the aromatic fabulous Chinese meal on a hot day. Its bright golden yellow color and the spike of the ginger added the right zing of spice to the sweetness of the sugar and tangy lemon juice, a great drink to kick back at the poolside or beach with a favourite book in hand.

All in all it was a fun evening, the staff was warm and friendly, Chef Penpa has to be one of the most down to earth and sweetest Chefs I have ever met. Happy to answer all the questions, pass ingredients around for us to touch, feel and smell, and even allowed people to come right up to his work station to get a closer look.

I left with a full tummy, a big smile, a goodie bag with a Sampan apron, some fortune cookies, a small bottle of their signature hot garlic sauce and best of all the recipes!

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