The word ‘Chinese’ is all too liberally sprinkled on restaurant menus across the country. But a true Chinese warrior like Monica Liu, 63, is hard to come by. One of Kolkata’s top chefs, Liu is a Cantonese Chinese Indian and has long since won over the Bengali palate, one that is not easy to please!
Walk into any one of her five restaurants and you are treated to a pleasing fusion of Oriental and Western tastes. From an aquarium to walls painted in subdued colours and cosy lighting, there are touches of Chinese culture everywhere. “If you do not like the place, you cannot sit there for long, can you?” smiles Liu, whose poise and steely determination stem from a brutal past.
A resident of Tangra in Eastern Kolkata for 47 years, Liu offers a glimpse into that chapter of her life. Born in Kolkata, she grew up in Shillong in Meghalaya. During that time, she and her family were rounded up along with thousands of other Indian-Chinese, on suspicion of espionage and sedition, during the Indo-Chinese War of 1962.
“We were dispatched to Deoli Camp in Rajasthan, after which we were shifted to Shillong Jail. But the government seemed to have forgotten about us for five years, till our pleas finally reached the home minister of Assam. This led to our eventual release,” recalls Liu. “We were broke, with nowhere to go. Papa had only Rs 24 in his pocket. So we started selling steamed dumplings at a school to make ends meet.”
In the 1970s, the family returned to Kolkata and Liu got married to the owner of a tannery, as arranged by her parents. She was only 18 then. When her husband’s business failed, the young Liu had to regroup and look for ways to earn a living.
“My husband went to teach in Pei Mei Chinese High School, a local school for the Chinese community and I started doing odd jobs. I worked in tanneries; in beauty parlours; and put up a vegetable shop in the local market. I wanted to sell homemade delicacies door to door but dropped the idea because it was not befitting of my husband’s social status.”
Things looked up in time and the couple had three children, two boys and a girl. But even as the young wife and mother raised a family, the entrepreneur in her stayed alive. Finally, in 1990, she took the plunge.
Liu spotted a good deal on a plot in Tangra, the second Chinatown on the eastern fringe of Kolkata, and she took it on lease. “I opened my first restaurant, Kim Ling, here. Initially, it was a small setup with two helps in the kitchen and one service boy. I had some basic Chinese items on the menu, from my mother’s recipes, and there was seating for around 50 people,” recounts Liu. Her business acumen and hearty food soon made the eatery a roaring success and it was not long before she expanded to seating for 200 customers.
Although things were chugging on pretty well, Liu was not fully free of her past, not for a while, at least. “There were many demands from local political blocs and, once, a group of people from a political party barged into my restaurant and demanded money as ‘donation’. I was alone at the cash counter but instead of paying up, I chased the gang away with a chopper!” The gutsy lady continues, “The local goons had underestimated me. They had assumed that a restaurateur, especially an immigrant, would buckle under pressure and yield to their demands for free meals and money. I made it clear that nether was on my menu!”
In time, Liu’s business flourished and Kim Ling had become a household name. Three years after she opened the restaurant, the irrepressible entrepreneur opened her second eatery, Mandarin, in 1993, on Sarat Bose Road in South Kolkata. She opened it on land she purchased when it was put up for auction by a nationalised bank. With two popular restaurants in her kitty, Liu wanted to venture further afield. It was in this spirit that she opened Star Beauty Parlour in 1995, in Central Kolkata. Now run by a cousin, the parlour has many celebrities as its clients.
But food was her first love and it was that passion and her astute business mind that led Liu to open three more restaurants. “I did not want to keep the money I was earning from my businesses in the bank; rather, I wanted to invest it in new ventures.” Thus, Beijing Restaurant, another gift from Monica Liu to Kolkata’s food lovers, opened in 1998 on the site of an abandoned sawmill at 77/1 Christopher Road in Tangra. This was followed by Tung Fong on Park Street in 2001 and Mandarin-2 at Lake Avenue in 2013.
So, what is special about brand Monica? “Hakka cuisine blends well with the Bengali palate,” confesses Liu, sharing the secret of her success. Still, there must be some more magical ingredients. “Yes there are. While preparing Hakka dishes—cooked traditionally with very little oil and only a few spices—I use a little freshly prepared green chilli sauce to give the food the taste my Bengali customers like. On the other hand, with the Szechwan dishes, which are traditionally oily and spicy, I temper the pungency of the spices.” Now a veteran restaurateur, is she still very hands-on in the kitchen? “Oh my God, I enjoy being in the kitchen! All my chefs have been trained by me. Initially, I teach them to only chop vegetables. Once they are proficient with that, I train them to actually cook.”
Liu travels to Far Eastern countries like China and Thailand to bring back spices and special powders to give her food that typical Chinese taste, and to flavour dishes like crispy chicken and prawn, two of the most popular items on the menu. “I travel to China often to collect seeds of vegetables such as spring onion and ask local farmers to grow them,” she says. “You don’t get this variety of spring onion in the local market.”
While her daughter Miranda runs a tannery with her husband, both Liu’s sons help her run her restaurant business as the gutsy entrepreneur marshals 300 employees. “We don’t work under her but are co-travellers in her journey. We could not have had a better guide to chase our dreams than Ma’am,” says Moni Chowdhury, who is among the core group that runs Liu’s operations. “She has a divine power that helps her translate her dreams into reality.” Only seconds later, Liu receives a phone call for a dinner party at Beijing’s banquet hall. The party is in honour of the Chinese ambassador in India, who is visiting Kolkata. Evidently, an affirmation of Chowdhury’s words!
—Partha Mukherjee & Priyanka Mukherjee
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