Over the past year and a half, Mano Thevar has been quietly making waves with his interpretation of progressive Indian food at Thevar. Fresh from a month-long break while the restaurant underwent renovations, he is back to bowl diners over with a symphony of spice and flavours.
It’s been almost a year and a half since we opened. At the beginning when chef Sun Kim of Meta approached me to open a restaurant, we didn’t have any ideas of what we wanted to do. When thrashing out ideas, Kim suggested Indian-inspired food so we went to India, did some research, came back and dived right into it. I’d never cooked Indian food professionally before so it was very difficult for me initially. While I grew up eating Indian food, I never really cooked it, so a lot of techniques I had to learn from books, by googling.
SHARING IS CARING.
Indian food is meant to be communal. I felt that the type of dishes I was serving previously was quite restricted by the fact that I used to have more counter seats than table seating. I’ve cut down bar counter seating to just six and our dining area now accommodates bigger tables to facilitate sharing of food. There is a new chef’s table for ten right at the front of the restaurant; this will be for bigger groups and they can arrange for special menus.
WHAT GOES ON A PLATE.
What inspires me is that a dish is not just a plate of food, it is what it represents: the history and culture that goes into that one plate, the personal reinterpretation and the amount of work and passion that goes into producing that one plate, that is what Thevar’s cuisine is all about.
IT GETS PERSONAL.
As I’d never cooked Indian food before, I always get nervous when people comment about the food. I always doubt myself, even when people give good comments, I would think they’re lying. I make it a point to always try our own food, then make adjustments. We’re always looking at bad reviews to improve ourselves. Running a restaurant is not easy, there’s already a lot of pressure to begin with but because there is my name on the door, it feels like people are coming to my home. If they leave unhappy, I will take it very personally. Hence it is of utmost importance that our service and hospitality is up to standards. I always tell my staff to take care of the customers, and to tell them who we are.
ALL ABOUT THE FLAVOUR.
I still have diners coming to the restaurant thinking we serve authentic Indian food, but we don’t. It’s our interpretation of Modern Indian cuisine, where we try to play around with flavours. I use regional produce— stuff like ginger flower, lemongrass— and mix that with Indian spices to create Indian-inspired flavours. I don’t need to use the most expensive produce, I just use produce that are good, fresh, and tasty. I’m not opposed to using premium ingredients such as caviar and truffle too. We have a caviar with idli (a savoury steamed fluffy rice cake) dish that uses idli like an Indian blini.
LOOK FOR DIVERSITY.
I’m of South Indian descent and grew up in Penang. South Indian food and the Indian cuisine I was raised on are similar but not entirely the same. What I’m doing is not ‘authentic’ Indian; we always try to mix things up. For our aloo gobi, which is actually a classic Indian dish of spiced potato cauliflower stir fry, we make a potato gratin topped with a cauliflower cous cous cooked with spices like masala and turmeric then serve it with tamarind aioli. I’d like to explore more Indian street food and presenting them in creative ways and allowing people to partake them in a restaurant setting.
NOT ABOUT SPICE.
The biggest misconception some diners still have about Indian food is that they’ll always ask if our food is spicy, and if they come in big portions. They confuse spiciness with the heat you get from chilli. Spice in Indian cuisine is essentially flavour. I personally like to eat spicy food but when I cook, I try to cut down the spiciness. Recently one of my favourite spices is Sichuan pepper corn, which we use in our mutton pepper fry donuts. For me it’s better than black pepper, because it elicits a numbness that’s very interesting.
I’m used to being compared to restaurants like Gaggan, Nadodi and Gaa. But what I always tell people when they do is that we are all very different; everyone is shining on their own platform. What we are doing collectively, though, is bringing more attention to South Asian cuisine. I think it’s good that we have more Indian restaurants and choices for South Asian cuisine. Whenever there are new restaurants coming up there’s always new things for us to learn as well.
LOTS MORE TO DISCOVER.
If we think about Indian food, or South Asian food, there’s so much that we can tap on; it’s such a diverse and undiscovered area of cuisine. The cuisine is always evolving. In the north of India, there’s a lot of Chinese influence in their food and culture so you can find stuff like momos (dumplings), and chow mien (fried noodles) in Calcutta. In Kerala, there’s a sizeable Malay settlement so the way they treat Malay food is fascinating as well. There is still so much I want to go and discover.
Sun Kim took a chance on me and I would like to pay it forward. Right before we closed for renovations in late February, our restaurant had a takeover by our sous chef Nurl Asyraffie. He’s been cooking with me for a year now and that takeover was an opportunity for him to create a modern Malay menu and showcase his talent. It was well-received and I hope to have regular team takeovers through the rest of the year. This helps make them creative and be more invested in the restaurant and their career. I also want to push myself and the team too. All of our achievements are a collective effort.
FAST CASUAL DREAMS.
I always want to open up an Indian or Asian fast casual concept, where I can serve up a fish mash of Chinese-, Malay-, Indonesian- and Thai- inspired dishes: something like Chat Thai in Sydney or like Mission Chinese but with Indian-inspired flavours. Recently I went to dine at Mustard Seed is the kind of restaurant I aspire to create: a small and intimate restaurant where the chef cooks with the flavours he grew up with.
It’s heartening to see that in the past decade, there has been more local chefs stepping up to show their talents, and that the F&B community has been supportive— the best way for the industry to grow is if we all learn from each other. Diners too have to support local talent. It’s not easy to set up a restaurant so even if a chef is doing a pop up, do show your support. Nobody gets it 100% perfect on the first try, but we still need to provide platforms for chefs to shine.
*This article first appeared in the May/June “Southeast Asia” 2020 issue of Wine & Dine