This Chef of Mixed Heritage Is Changing Perceptions on Chinese-Indian Food

Half-Chinese half-Bengali Keenan Tham talks about his experience of Chinese-Indian cuisine in India – from the infamous roadside variety to the unique combos only found in homes – and how it has evolved.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
February 12, 2019, 10:25am
Fusion food
Chinese-Indian food is a popular cuisine in Mumbai. Photo from Keenan Tham

Keenan Tham loves what he calls the oddest combination when it comes to ghar ka khana (home-cooked food): Dal-chawal (rice and lentils) and a thick, simmering serve of Chinese buff (buffalo meat) chilli. It may sound unusual, but anybody who has eaten out in Mumbai will know that Keenan’s words are to swear by. Born to the legendary Tham family, one of the oldest Chinese families in the city, the 34-year-old son of a Chinese father and Bengali mother, has a legacy to attest to – and is proudly carrying it forward.

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The Thams are one of the most prominent names attached to Chinese cuisine in Mumbai (others being the Wangs, the Chens and the Nangkings). Mumbai itself represents one of the smaller Chinese clusters, apart from Bengaluru, Delhi, Gurugram, Noida and Pune. The biggest community resides in Kolkata. Keenan’s family too, comes from there. Back in the 1960s, Keenan’s grandfather, Tham Mon Yiu, left the city to settle in Mumbai, and started what became some of the most iconic Chinese, as well as pan-Asian establishments, across the city.

With over 50 years of experience in the food industry running in the family, Keenan—who, along with his brother Ryan, has taken over the mantle of managing the family business—tells us how his mixed heritage has shaped his understanding and experience, of one of the most important markers of identity: food.

Keenan Tham

Keenan's grandfather started what became some of the most iconic Chinese, as well as pan-Asian establishments, in Mumbai. Photo from Keenan Tham

Your family has lived in India for three generations now. Could you tell us about experiencing Chinese food in today’s age?

Growing up, I ate everything at home—from dal-chawal-pickle to Chinese food, to salads to everything. We're foodies so we have a decent amount of variant at home. We don’t have roots in Kolkata anymore. We're in Mumbai now. But our palette is pretty much all-encompassing.

What about the family recipes? Are those still used?

Absolutely! Home food, for us, means my grandmother's recipes. She had a very authentic way of cooking dishes so that was definitely passed down—from fish bowl soup, to steamed pomfret and the garlic noodles—and we get to eat them once in a while. And these are age-old recipes, you know, passed down from one generation to the next.

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What about your mom? She’s a Bengali. How does she take to the Chinese side of your family?

My mom is a Bengali, so she has her own background of food. Although she's a Chinese food lover, she comes with her own ideology about food. It's quite different. The dal-chawal and buff chilli combination comes from there.

What about you? How does your own relationship with food respond to your mixed heritage?

I feel my approach to food is different because I’m from the food industry. That’s why my approach to food is larger than my identity. Also, I have learnt a lot from my father. However, it would be correct to say that I did not stick to a particular food just because it’s a part of my heritage. I had a lot more global exposure.

What’s your favourite cuisine then?

I’m definitely a big fan of Japanese food. I think it stems from the way they ‘create’ dishes. Whenever I go to Japan, I try and learn from there. So, yes, Japanese food is a major inspiration when it comes to cooking.

Spicy-Chicken-Bao

The Spicy Chicken Bao served in Tham's restaurant. Photo from Keenan Tham

Tell me about your usual Chinese New Year feast.

So this year, we’ve decided to step out to a restaurant: we’re not cooking this year. But usually, we have something like a seafood thali (platter). It’s this big metal plate in the centre of the table, and we put all the different seafood that we make. There are no separate plates: everyone just eats from that big thali. There’s prawns, crabs, lobsters, all in different sauces.

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In India, this community eating is a thing. Is it so in Chinese tradition as well?

Generally, Chinese sit together and eat. And they share. Indians and Chinese have very similar aspects where we're okay sharing, as opposed to European ways, in which everything comes pre-plated. This is all about one plate, sharing all together. That's the Chinese New Year vibe we have.

Indo-Chinese food is among the best comfort food in India. Where do you think this fusion food is headed?

If you look at our products, they are authentic Chinese. None of them are Indian-Chinese. I feel that India is a changing market. Earlier, the exposure to Chinese food in India was quite different that what it is now. People are well travelled. People understand authenticity. The expectations have definitely changed. Keeping with the current trend, we, as restaurateurs, are pretty forward and we're trying to be as authentic as we can. Yes, there's a lot of fusion that comes into the food. We do pan-Asian: Japanese, Malay, Thai. But the Indian-Chinese food is no longer viewed as a premium product in that sense. It’s still looked at as roadside Chinese food.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Pallavi Pundir is on Twitter .