A Chinese Connection in Udhagamandalam

This gloriously long name belongs to one of India’s most popular hill stations, perched on the Nilgiri range and better known as Ooty. It would not be wrong if I said that I discovered a Chinese connection to this charming summer getaway as far back as 1993, when I had the pleasure of eating at ‘Shinkows’, with some friends. It was among one of my most memorable meals and remains as fresh as if it was yesterday. 

My husband and I had been invited to lunch by friends from Bangalore and as we drove up to ‘Shinkows’, I was told about the Liao Chinese family, who were daring enough to open the first Chinese restaurant in Ooty in 1956. At the time we visited Shinkows it had already been in existence for almost four decades. So much so the roundabout next to the restaurant was known as Shinkow’s Circle! To start with, the restaurant was small with only 50 covers. As its popularity grew, they realised that they needed more room and the Liao’s decided to shut their shoe shop next door and create a separate and more exclusive section with a bar and 150 covers, named The Zodiac Room. As expected the decor of the new space was covered with signs from the Zodiac.

We introduced ourselves to the present owner Pao Chun, whose father had opened the restaurant, at a time when no other good restaurants existed in Ooty. Pao Chun and his wife Linda worked very hard indeed, to run the restaurant and serve the most authentic Chinese food. Linda an expert in Hakka and Szchewan cuisine was mainly responsible for the kitchen and ensured that guests were able to taste the freshest vegetables and herbs, from their own kitchen garden. Since they did not use any frozen food at that time, Linda’s repertoire was somewhat restricted without sea food. All their special ingredients were homemade – noodles, chilli-sauce, tomato sauce and soya sauce. A comparatively new entry in Chinese cuisine in India and now a perennial Chinese favourite is Beancurd, which has to brought all the way from Bangalore.   The Liao couple’s efforts then as well as now, remains to create cuisine that uses as much of the fresh produce available in Ooty. Pao Chun, responsible for shopping, makes his weekly visits to Coimbatore or Bangalore, by road and also takes care of the service in the restaurant. I also recollect the couple mentioning they had family in Canada and had sent their eldest son there and were also planning to send their other two sons as well, for further studies – at the time I wondered if they would return and take on the mantle of responsibility of this unique heritage restaurant.

Shinkows may be considered a ‘real’ Chinese restaurant as the kitchen continues to be supervised by its owners. The cuisine also has the old popular dishes that people are familiar with — dishes before the Schezwan Chinese food with red hot chillies, Thai cuisine and Lemon Grass,  appeared on the scene! 

We were a group of rather famished group of six, when we reached Shinkows and were determined to have a full meal beginning with starters and ending with a dessert!  The group included two vegetarians and so we began with ‘Vegetable Spring Rolls’ and ‘Chicken Wing’ as starters. This was  followed by the delicious ‘Asparagas Soup that I remembered from an earlier visit. Next came two veg dishes, ‘Mixed Vegetables with Almonds’ and ‘Vegetable Manchurian’ and two non-veg items, ‘Chilli Chicken and ‘Shredded Lamb with Hot Garlic Sauce’. Finally there was a rather grand looking ‘Peking Fish’ splendidly arranged on a platter. All these dishes were teamed with ‘Mixed Chow Mein’ and ‘Prawn Fried Rice.’  Needless to say we were all totally stuffed, but by popular vote, we decided to go in for a dessert. There are no prizes for guessing what we chose — ‘Lychees and Ice Cream’ ofcourse!  As you can see it was quite a meal in a highly unlikely location. Just imagine a delicious ‘Chinese Feast’ up in the Nilgiris!    

On a more recent visit to Ooty, I invited some of my friends to lunch at Shinkows – they were also  on a visit to Bangalore.  

I had just completed a visit to the Tea Museum on the Doddabeta Tea Estate, where I was offered a cup of tea and was now ready for lunch.

The restaurant has been operating for at least three decades now and is remains one of the sights of Ooty. Housed in one of the hill station’s heritage buildings, it continues to serve the best possible Chinese meal and is a must on every visitor’s must do list.    

But I must start from the beginning. Much of the green cover of tea bushes, dotted all over the Nilgiris, made me decide that I must see the Tea Museum located on the Doddabeta Tea Estate and I set out to see this on the very next morning. The museum allows visitors to enter for a small price that includes a cup of Nilgiri tea, on the way out. There was already a long queue waiting to enter when I reached and after a 15 min wait, I entered and climbed the flight of stairs to enter the Tea Museum from the top floor.

There were a row of well designed panels that began with the history and origin of tea – as represented in Chinese mythology  

Columnist: 
Shona Adhikari