Friday August 31, 2012
Living his father’s legacy
By FIONA HO
Restaurant owner Herukh T. Jethwani continues his father’s legacy in the culinary business.
IT was almost by chance that Thakurdas Naraindas Jethwani, a lawyer by training, found himself running a restaurant. It was the year 1983, the same year his son Herukh T. was born, when Thakurdas became the proprietor of Bangles, then the oldest Northern Indian restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.
“The place had been around since I was a boy, so when one of my former clients offered to sell it to me, I decided to take it,” says Thakurdas, 60. “The restaurant started out in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in the late 1960s. My office was on the second floor above the restaurant.’’
While he had no formal training in being a restaurateur, Thakurdas says running the place was not a daunting prospect as it was already a well-known establishment.
“I was their biggest customer — I ate most of my own food,” he chuckles.
Little did he know that the decision would lead to a lasting family legacy.
His affinity for food was evident from when he was a boy. As a child, he would often shuffle in and out the kitchen, whipping up “small and simple” dishes that he learned from his mother. It was also from these trips to the kitchen that young Thakurdas first gained an insight into North Indian flavours.
He explains that unlike the fiery, coconut-milk based ‘wet’ curries that are popular in the South of India, the North Indian palate typically consists of thick, moderately spicy and creamy gravies that are fused with milk, cream, cottage cheese and yoghurt. Dried fruits and nuts are also commonly used in North Indian dishes due to the abundance of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables in the region.
While he enjoys cooking, Thakurdas says he is no chef.
“But being in the kitchen all the time helped me understand the various components of cooking.’’
Born in Segamat, Johor, Thakurdas is the first generation Malaysian-born Indian in his family.
“My parents were originally from the Province of Sindh (now Pakistan). They tied the knot in Malacca in 1948. That was probably the first Sindhi wedding in Malaysia,” said the son of a textile businessman.
His family later moved to Kuala Lumpur when he was two.
“So technically, I am an ‘urban bum’,” he laughs.
Thakurdas, who declines to have his photo taken, notes the diversity in Malaysian food in KL in the 1960s.
“Even in those days, we understood what Chinese food was; street dishes like char kway teow and popiah were among my all-time favourites.”
“Then we had satay and nasi kandar, and roti canai. Nyonya food was also abundant on the streets.”
In a paradoxical way, Thakurdas notes that the dining habits of Malaysians have been both “sophisticated and non-sophisticated.”
“Non-sophisticated in a way that most Malaysians are generally not taken in by the concept of fine dining or any kind of elaborate, structured food,” he says.
He reckons that Malaysians have always preferred a simple meal or casual dining over a formal, eight-course gourmet dinner in a fancy restaurant.
“But because we have been exposed to such a wide range of cuisines, we are quite sophisticated when it comes to understanding food.
Just take you and me for instance — we rarely have the same kind of meal in a day. We’ll have maybe a nasi lemak in the morning, a char kway teow for lunch, followed by banana leaf rice for dinner.”
The diversity of flavours we experience through our meals offers a way to understanding multi-cultural Malaysia.
“A plate of char kway teow only cost 30 sen in those days!” recalls Thakurdas. It was also a time when Western chains and fast-food outlets were a scarcity on our shores.
Steakhouses like Copper Grill and The Ship came to Kuala Lumpur only in the 1960s and 1970s.
Elsewhere, Malaysians were introduced to hotdogs, burgers and root beer floats in 1963 when the first A&W outlet opened in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. It heralded the dawn of fast food and was followed by Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1973 and the ubiquitous McDonalds in 1982.
The decade that followed soon saw a dizzying array of fast food chains like Wendy’s, Grandy’s, White Castle, Pizza Hut, Shakey’s, Domino’s Pizza and Burger King.
But for Thakurdas, the food selection during his childhood years was limited to Chinese kopitiams.
“We didn’t have a lot of choice and these kopitiams were everywhere. The ones with black chairs and round marble tops which were run by a Chinese apek in T-shirt and shorts,” he reminisces with a smile.
“Those days, there almost had to be an occasion for us to go out.
“Nowadays, young people make that decision in a snap. Take my son, Herukh, and his friends for instance – they will go like: “Yo, dawg!” or whatever language they speak in and they’ll be out of the house in no time.”
For 29-year-old Herukh, the second of four brothers, growing up in Bangles has been a fun-filled experience.
“I literally spent my entire childhood in Bangles with 15 other children in my family, which included my brothers and my cousins.
“We were always playing together and I was always running around the restaurant, in and out of the kitchen, and jumping up and down to reach the bangles. They were about 70,000 of them dangling from the ceiling,” he shares.
“My family was very involved with the restaurant’s development. Whatever celebrations or parties we had, we hosted it in Bangles.”
The highlight of his childhood came when the then tallest man in the world came to the restaurant for dinner.
“As a kid, that was the most exciting moment for me. I was in Year Eight and my dad called and told us that the tallest man in the world, was coming.
“I was like ‘oh my God!’ and all my brothers and cousins took photos of him and his walking stick. It was a really exciting year.”
Herukh’s interest in food would later lead to a course in hotel and restaurant management.
“I specialised in culinary arts. I believe that you cannot run a restaurant if you don’t know how to cook,” he reasons.
“If you cannot cook, you’re not running a proper restaurant and you’re always at the mercy of your chefs — every time they say they want to leave, you’re in a bind.’’
“I think my father is a very good cook. He has a great understanding of food and I picked up a lot of things from him like how spices work and how foods react to different elements like temperature.”
A hospitality graduate, Herukh managed Bangles when it relocated to a bungalow along Jalan Ampang in 2002. Besides personal dining and corporate entertainment, the restaurant was carving a name for itself in the catering business. Dinner banquets, weddings, special events and company dinners became almost synonymous with the restaurant, which could accommodate up to 650 people.
Bangles officially closed in 2009, but Herukh’s passion for the restaurant business never died.
“We closed down three years ago because I thought we’d reached a stagnant point in our business.
“We were a fine dining establishment that provided service, ambience and everything that went with it, but our competition was the mamak stalls. It was tough for us to compete with the genre of restaurant we were in,” he explains.
The family restaurant has since reincarnated in the form of Fierce Curry House, a year-old casual dining restaurant that sits along Jalan Kemuja in Bangsar Utama, Kuala Lumpur.
One thing that Herukh made a point to retain was Bangles’ signature Hyderabadi Dum Biryani dish, a home-style recipe his aunt in Hyderabad had helped perfect almost eight years ago, he shared.
“When I opened Fierce Curry house, the first thing we wanted to do was to ‘resurrect’ the famous Bangles dish.
“This dish is native to Hyderabad and we’ve never run away from the authenticity of it. It contains 27 ingredients and preparation for it has to start the night before,” the director of Fierce Curry House elaborates.
To date, the restaurant offers some 12 varieties of biryani rice, including crab biryani and scallop biryani, though Herukh insists: “The point is not to change the biryani to fit the Malaysian palate, but to introduce these North Indian flavours to the Malaysian palate.”
As someone who has grown up amid the hustle and bustle of a restaurant, Herukh notes, “Our eating habits haven’t changed that much over the years, really. We are still very much an ‘eating culture’.
“We still greet people with ‘have you eaten?’ or ‘sudah makan?’ instead of ‘hello’,” he says, smiling.
Since the 1990s, specialty restaurants and outlets dedicated to Western, Japanese and Korean fare have morphed into permanent fixtures onto the local culinary landscape. Malaysians are willing to explore the different types of cuisines that are available.
“I think Malaysians are certainly an adventurous bunch but they still love their local food,’’ he said.
According to Herukh, Malaysians have also become increasingly health-conscious.The trend has motivated the restaurateur to come up with a healthier menu.
“We are now looking into grilled chicken, wholemeal bread and healthier specialty sauces.”
Now, far from being just an eating outlet, Herukh said, Fierce Curry House is his way of continuing his father’s culinary legacy.
“My dad and my family were upset when we closed Bangles but I always told people that I closed Bangles to find out how we could develop a better brand and start anew.
“Now, it’s a whole new game and we’re in it 100%.”