Yo!China is now offering serious food— selling khao suey (even in Amritsar) and Oberoi-type dim sum buffets. Bye, bye McDonald’s-type positioning…
Whatever we may say about Indian-Chinese, it’s a genre that has spread far and wide. In Hong Kong recently, while we feasted on an enviable spread of dim sums for breakfast and had the chef ladle out healthy hot pots of noodles — with a choice of veggies and meats — that seems to be everyone’s favoured main meal in China, I was surprised to discover the co-existence of “fried noodles” on buffet spreads. These were in the same vein as the highly flavoured “chowmein” that we Indians immediately recognize, but to make their provenance clear, they were placed alongside chana, aloo and papad that compromised the “Indian spread” on the buffet that the touristy five-star where we were staying was offering to all its residents. The irony couldn’t have been more: Even China has recognized Indian-Chinese. Hail, Mother India!
Of course, this has been a trend for sometime now. Mainland China, a popular chain of Indian-Chinese restaurants run by a Bengali from Mumbai (!) ambitiously opened its Beijing outlet more than a year ago. And popular food consultants such as Sudha Kukreja in Delhi have told me in the past of the huge demand for Indian-Chinese restaurants (positioned as much), not in Ludhiana or Amritsar but in Australia, Canada but, yes, in South-east Asia too.
I don’t quite know how all these restaurants are doing. If I were an Indian traveling abroad, I wouldn’t settle for manchurian and fried rice. No, not really. But I do know that in India, surprisingly, people seem to be getting rather fed up of these strong, fried, bastardized flavours. I wrote a column last Sunday on the exit of Indian-Chinese from our metros in the next few years — what with stylish, new Chinese restaurants competing to establish authenticity, and offering new legit, lighter experiences such as live cooking, hand pulled noodles, dim sums and stir frys rather than chilly or honey chicken and sweet corn soup. But if more proof was needed of this impending change, it came with my meeting Ashish Kapur, the founder and Managing Director of Yo! China, an indegnous brand, synonymous with “fast Indian-Chinese”, in a McDonald’s type format — that is till now.
Kapur’s story is an interesting one: Of a young Indian professional following his dreams and turning them into reality. A computer engineer, who was working in the US with some big firms, Kapur, unhappy with routine, chucked his job, came to India and decided to turn entrepreneur — even if it meant that he was jobless when he went to meet his prospective bride’s father. He didn’t have the requisite capital but dreamt of an Indian food chain to take on the McDonalds of the world. And he hit the bull’s eye with Indian-Chinese. Concept in place, investors were found and thus arrived Yo! China, seven years ago, a bright yellow and red store that contemporarised the kind of street Chinese all of us craved then.
Yo! China offered combo meals. On the menu were fast-moving items like manchurian and chilli chicken and these were teamed up with precooked noodles and rice and sent out on smart (well, at least initially) trays, with a little kimchi or a few pieces of fried spring rolls or wontons on the side. It was a quick meal and meant that you no longer had to share out of bowls but could order individually—veg or non veg—what you pleased. The young (supposedly) loved it and Yo! China quickly penetrated interior India and found its place under the sun in places such as Patna, where even the angels fear to tread.
That would have been end of story, except for a dramatic turnaround.
If you have looked closely, you will notice that the childish-looking yellow and red logo colours for Yo! China have been replaced with a more respectable and chic brown. The change represents a complete u-turn in positioning. From being a McDonald’s like chain peddling noodles and “fast Chinese”, Kapur is now repositioning the brand as a more “serious” F&B player. Yo! China will now be more like a “cool” restaurant for the young where you get authentic (or at least more authenticated) versions of more serious (mind, not Indian-Chinese) food: When Kapur invited me to a meal at the flagship store in Vasant Vihar, I must say, I came back pretty impressed with what’s on offer.
The pedestrian combos have all but disappeared – “we realized that now everyone in food courts was doing the same so they had lost their novelty value,” is Kapur’s explanation. In their place is a pretty substantial dim sum menu (three days a week dim sum buffets, unlimited, at Rs 500 plus), there are stir fried greens and all-time faves like kung pao chicken (though the recipe, still, I would say, is not authentic enough with no pounded peanuts). There are luscious prawns and hot pots and there is even khao suey on the menu.
Selling khao suey in Patna and Amritsar? Sure. Middle India is ready to shake off the ghosts of red “cornflour curries” in the name of Oriental food and experiment. ‘Actually,” says Kapur, “Our clients in Amritsar taught us to serve Khao Suey. Normally, the rice or noodles already comes with the curry and the condiments in separate bowls. But people in Amritsar wanted even these to be served separately because, for one, they want much more curry.” The dim sums are really impressive. Anyone expecting loads of fried Indian-Chinese is likely to be disappointed as these are freshly steamed bites, healthier and trendy.
All in all, the new improved Yo! China looks all set to join that emerging breed of “young” Chinese café-type restaurants. Where the ambience, music and mood are youthful, the prices relatively modest, and there is an emphasis on good food— on fun dining rather than pompous gourmet meals. Will Patna lap it up? Watch this space.
Food: 3.5 (out of 5)
Value for money: 4
Where: Yo! China, Basant Lok market, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi
Cost for 1: Rs 200 (according to the restaurant, on a relatively frugal order)