One of my earliest memories as a child of eating out was at Ichiban, the Chinese restaurant on Pandara Road, poring over their place mats, which included the 12 Chinese Zodiac, with the years and characteristics of each sign put down on each paper (I suspect this is because I found out I am a dragon; I doubt I’d have had as vivid a memory if I were a rat or a pig).
“The Chinese zodiac thing was entirely his Mr Phuntsok’s innovation, the menu of Ichiban was mostly from us,” muses Hem Godayal, as much an institution as the restaurant of which he is the manager. House of Ming at the Taj Mahal hotel on Mansingh Road opened in 1978, becoming one of Delhi’s first Chinese restaurants. Godayal joined there in 1982, as a trainee. The owner of Ichiban once worked there too. And over the House of Ming and its manager’s tenure, Delhi developed the taste for Chinese food it has today, knowingly yet unconsciously influencing the palate for Chinese food across the National Capital Region.
“Going by Indian’s taste buds, a decision was taken back then to concentrate the menu on Sichuan Chinese, balanced out by Cantonese cuisine. There were a dish here and there from other regions in China, but the menu mainly focused on these two,” explains Godayal, referring to the several (6-9 depending on your source) distinct Chinese cooking styles and cuisines. With the space that houses the restaurant shutting down for renovations on July 14, till 2022, we look back at its legacy, neatly encapsulated in a limited edition menu, available till next week.
And given that the people who worked at House of Ming would go on to open Delhi-defining Chinese restaurants like Golden Dragon, the aforementioned Ichiban, and so many others, it is nigh impossible to not see the influence that most august eatery has had on the readouts of any Chinese eatery’s menu today. But apart from inspiring food for the hoi polloi, House of Ming has always been a destination. The space where the small table I am seated at today, as pointed out by Godayal, was, for one meal, occupied by a long table on which Raj Kapoor celebrated his Dada Saheb Phalke award with the Kapoor clan, many of whose members would go on to chart their own illustrious careers.
And it’s not just the Kapoors. Godayal and his team have seen generations of the same family come and return to their favourite tables for their favourite meals. “Many of our regulars don’t even bother asking for the menu and just reel off all the dishes they want. In case they have forgotten a particular favourite, we include it into the order and then they go, ah, yes yes, we wanted this too,” smiles Godayal. Everyone who is any one and comes to Delhi passes through its doors, including former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Our last truly great statesman, Vajpayee, who loved his shrimp, left an indelible mark on the restaurant, and even Godayal, who still treasures the thank-you note and special menu signed by India’s political laureate. As our table begins to fill up with its provender, we realise why the restaurant is so beloved. As indicated by the legacy menu presently available, there are dishes which have stuck around for decades till the present date, providing a sense of reassurance to generations of Indians who saw their country rapidly go through changes since the ‘90s.
The legacy menu includes dishes dating back all the way to the ‘80s, items that, Godayal assures us, haven’t really ever gone off the pages. These include the Golden Prawns, Chilli Chicken Salt and Pepper, and even scallion pancakes. Even though the last is today off-menu, the staff is happy enough to whip it up to those wh o re - member and still desire. Today, the kitchen is headed by Chef Salem Lepcha, and still remains a potent force. It’s not for nothing that, while the hotel was shut and only delivering food through Taj’s Qmin app, House of Ming outpaced all the other restaurants with which it shares space.
Our meal begins with dim sum, something that didn’t even exist in the Indian mindset until the Asiad Games of 1982, held in the Capital, which introduced Delhi to the varietal of meat and or vegetable ingredients, all bound to dough, yet universally palatable. And that’s not even starters. That’s just dim sum. The starters of the Legacy Menu include Eggplant stuffed with Mint Chicken, Crispy Duck, and other favourites from the restaurant’s past and present, a theme that carries on through the mains and desserts.
Much like Pokemon, you’ve got to catch em all! As we finish our meal, we are reminded of so many others, and accordingly grateful. So similarly, dear reader, the next time you dig into your Chilli Garlic Noodles, from a place well-known or your own special secret, remember to give a nod of thanks to the House of Ming.