A Pakistani living in Hong Kong opened a restaurant and made and made fire oven in his restaurant. The idea proved to be successful one and Asim Hussain achieve a dream – the world’s first Michelin star for a Pakistani restaurant, an accolade he hopes will fire interest in the country’s often overlooked cuisine.
Forefathers of Asim Hussain started living in Hing Kong in the British colonial period. Like many of Hong Kong’s 85,000-strong South Asian population, Hussein’s family trace their lineage in the bustling financial hub back generations, when the city was a British colonial outpost.
Great Grandfather of Asim arrived during World War One, overseeing mess halls for British soldiers while his Cantonese speaking father owned restaurants in the 80s and 90s.
At that time, Asim Hussain had some 20 eateries in his group when he decided to embark on what he described as his most personal and risky project yet. His idea was to establish a restaurant in Hong Kong that serves dishes from Pakistan’s Punjab region, the family’s ancestral homeland and where he was packed off to boarding school aged six.
His father, a serial entrepreneur and even once Pakistan’s ambassador to South Korea, suggested he restore two old tandoors from his now-shuttered restaurant collecting dust in storage.
“Actually the results are better than if we had new ovens because these things improve with age.”
Those tandoors, frequent trips to Lahore to perfect recipes and a kitchen overseen by head chef Palash Mitra, earned the New Punjab Club a Michelin star just 18 months after it opened its doors.
His success was highlighted in Pakistan a country that is unlikely to see a Michelin guide any time soon and whose chefs have long felt overshadowed by the wider global recognition gained from neighbouring India’s regional cuisines.
“It makes us proud, it makes us very happy,” Waqar Chattha, who runs one of Islamabad’s best-known restaurants, said. “In the restaurant fraternity it’s a great achievement. It sort of sets a benchmark for others to achieve as well.”
Hussain wants to sell pure Punjabi Food of Pakistan there with exact same recipes, the often meat-heavy, piquant food of the Punjab. And it doesn’t come cheap – as much as $100 per head.
“I’m not arrogant or ignorant to say this is the best Pakistani restaurant in the world. There are better Pakistani restaurants than this in Pakistan.”
“It’s bringing a very niche personal story back to life, this culture, this cuisine is sort of unknown outside of Pakistan, outside of Punjab, so in a very small way I think we’ve shed a positive light on the work, on who we are and where we come from,” he explains.
It was the second star achieved by Black Sheep, the restaurant group which was founded six years ago by Hussein and his business partner, veteran Canadian chef Christopher Mark, and has seen rapid success.
Critics have often said reviewers tended to over-emphasise Western culinary standards, service and tastes.
Daisann McLane is one of those detractors. She describes the Michelin guide’s arrival in Bangkok last year as “completely changing the culinary scene there – and not in a good way.”
She runs culinary tours to some of the Hong Kong’s less glitzy eateries – to hole in the wall “dai pai dong” food stalls, African and South Asian canteens hidden inside the famously labyrinthine Chungking Mansions and to “cha chan teng” tea shops famous for their sweet brews and thick slabs of toast.
While she’s “delighted” New Punjab Club has been recognised, she has her reservations: “There is a lot of world cuisine operating way under the radar in Hong Kong and it doesn’t get noticed by Michelin or the big award groups.