For as far back as I can remember, Chinese food came on porcelain plates, served inside dimly lit, crimson-hued greasy spoons, layered with MSG (which isn’t that unsafe for you, by the way — tomato and cheese have it naturally), made often with basmati rice (instead of Chinese cultivars like indica and japonica) and paired with starchy gravies featuring meat and/or veggies. This formed the prototype for Chinese food in India, which had predominantly been preserved by immigrant-owned eateries in Kolkata, Mumbai and other corners of the country, before finding its way into fine dines, and eventually, delivery kitchens. So much so, that at some point, the cuisine morphed to develop a new identity, best described today as ‘Chindian’ food. And for all the backlash it has received from purist circles, it still continues to be one of the top favourites among Indian diners. In fact, it is second only to Indian cuisine, Vimal Verma, GM of JW Marriott Pune — where Tao Fu, a new Chinese diner, has recently opened up — points out.
And it is important to understand the context, before we deep dive into Tao Fu’s menu that’s essentially trying to recontextualise Chinese fare. The kitchen team led by chef Fu Lei, for their part, were conscious of this. “We did extensive research for a year in Pune and Mumbai by visiting 5-star properties and standalone restaurants to not only understand what people were serving but also, what customers were enjoying. Post which we started working on the menu,” assures chef Lei, who also happens to be of Chinese origin. Although, a decade-long career in F&B in India, perhaps renders him as Indian as the next person you see. Having said that, chef Lei’s obeisance towards his origin country is on remarkable display at Tao-Fu, a roomy restaurant inside the Pune hotel, with relaxed interiors, punctuated with Chinese latticed wooden panels and an open kitchen taking centre stage. Wall showcases with porcelain crockery from the Ming Era help add splashes of blue to the otherwise subdued diner. It hardly looks like a daring or experimental restaurant at first glance. But it’s the menu here that’s really taking all the risks. There is a certain gamble in playing with a widely loved cuisine, in all its bastardised glory or trying to rid it of its Indianness. The faint-hearted may even go as far as to say, ‘Why fix something that’s not broken?’ And yet, it’s not so much about fixing as it is about doing due diligence to the provenance and heritage of cuisine, which despite finding currency the world over, continues to, for the most part, remain ill-represented. For me, at least, there’s value in trying. And try, Tao Fu does.
On my table, for instance, I find salads — a dish I would rarely associate with Chinese food. But at this diner, the salad gets a whole section. There are options like a marinated chicken with chilli sauce made in Sichuan style, or the black fungus salad, which gains flavour and fervour from a delicate dressing made with red chilli, soy and garlic. It’s as understated (in appearance) as it is bold (in terms of flavour). And the first bit, chef Lei clarifies, is entirely intentional. “Since I’ve travelled extensively through China, pulling out heritage recipes, some from my family and from others’ homes, we were sure that whatever we put on the menu had to be great in terms of flavour, aroma and texture. There are a lot of home-style dishes, but we haven’t created fancy plating for them. We wanted the food itself to speak,” he asserts. At this point, it would probably be wise for me to tell you that Tao Fu is not where you head for the old and usual. Or at least, that’s not the direction I would personally recommend you take.
Ultimately, as a restaurant that has to rake up numbers, in the form of sales, Tao Fu does play its part in not alienating new customers. And to that end, has usual suspects like kung pao chicken, hot and sour soup, hakka noodles and Sichuan fried rice. But chef Lei’s creativity shines through in the less familiar offerings. Of which, a personal favourite is the Peking duck, served whole on the table and carved right in front of you to be fashioned into crispy, umami-rich skins as nibbles and rolled into pancakes, with scallion and a redolent apricot sauce. Then, there’s the dan dan — which is ubiquitous in our country and typically served as an unctuous noodle preparation. Here though, it finds a more authentic format, as a soup with gorgeous, astringent notes from peanuts, chillies and sesame. One of their showstoppers — a spicy sweet potato noodle served with minced morels (though you could also opt for chicken or pork, the latter of which is what it’s traditionally had with) comes with a story, to boot.
Reiterating the folklore, chef Lei says, “According to the legend, in ancient China, there was a lady named Dou Yu, who was staying with her mother-in-law. One day, Dou Yu went out to buy meat, but could only afford a small portion. So, she minced it up, adding green chilli, garlic, onion, and soy sauce, to the mix. When the dish was served, her mother-in-law mistook the pork sticking to the noodles as ants. And that’s how the dish came to be known as ‘ants climbing a tree.’” As someone who has never set foot inside China, I am not predisposed to confirm the legitimacy of this story or Tao Fu’s claim to ‘authenticity.’ But what I can say for sure is this — in a country, where Chinese cuisine has transformed and metamorphosed to take its own life, it is 100% exciting to see someone try something new.