Ashoka extends spice route to Thao Dien

(No.6, Vol.3, July 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photos: Ba Han

Before the eighteenth century and for millennia the southern part of Vietnam was home to Indian influenced civilisations - Funan, Chenla, Champa and Kambuja. As the French developed Saigon from a small fishing village, Indians played their part, as evidenced by three Hindu temples and a mosque in the downtown area. Today, while they may not be so plentiful, it is not hard to find an Indian restaurant in District One. One of the more established places is ‘Ashoka’ on Le Thanh Ton’s restaurant row. I first enjoyed their food ten years ago. Now they have opened a new branch strategically placed in Thao Dien ward of District Two, where in recent years, an international community has set itself up. I was invited to its Grand Opening to taste some samples of its delights.
The new branch is housed in a charming brick and terracotta tiled villa. Indian atmosphere is achieved with long mural photographs and a Hindu shrine. There are both indoor and outdoor seating areas and a large courtyard big enough to have space for a planned shisha pipe smokers’ (hubbly bubbly) area. Cooks have been hired from the mother country, so you can be assured this is true Indian food without the Vietnamese characteristics I have experienced in some foreign food restaurants. You can be assured of attentive friendly service, however, as the rest of the staff is local.

This opening would have been an all-Indian affair, had it not been for my and my teenage daughter’s presence. This was her first experience of an Indian gathering. She was impressed by the beautiful colourful shawls and saris the ladies were wearing and surprised to see men and women seated at separate tables. She was also getting quite hungry too as Indians start dinner quite late compared to most folk.
Whilst when we arrived things were laid out banquet style, this was not a buffet dinner. The first part of the evening engendered much conversation, as it was more like a cocktail party with soft drinks, beer and whisky. The serving staff brought on a series of nibbles; the specialities of the house all spiked on skewers. I had been expecting thick curries. I learned from my one trip to India that the word curry hardly exists there as they use the word ‘gravy’. However, Ashoka specialises in the cuisine of Northern India, most especially in Tandoori dishes (cooked in a clay oven) along with classic flat breads such as chapati, naan and paratha. There were grilled prawns called ‘Prawn Akatori’ though this was described as Mongolian; perhaps introduced by the Mughals, I conjectured. ‘Rudali Kebab’ was a new and very tasty one for me. It is chicken stuffed with ‘paneer’, familiar to Westerners as a kind of cottage cheese. There was a spicy green yoghurt sauce to dip them into. The next appetiser was the ‘Paneer Shashlik’ - cubes of fried cheese with a bell pepper stuffing. Then there was mildly spicy baby corn and curried potato with cauliflower. A chicken Shish Tauk or chicken kebab with onions and green pepper was the final tidbit. I found the spices used fairly mild, although the palate was left with a fairly hot aftertaste. If you do dine here, management informed me that dishes are served to the level of spiciness requested by the customer.
All of this was a lengthy warm-up for the main dishes, to which by the time they arrived, I had hardly enough space in my stomach to do justice. There was culinary theatre as the chef arrived and vigorously cooked stir-fried vegetable rice in a wok (Biriyani). My daughter and I were surprised to see the women folk had risen excitedly to watch this spectacle by the male chef, while the men, not battling an eyelid, carried on with their chatting. Then it was ‘help yourself’ from large copper tureens to plates of this, together with ‘Raita’ which is a cool yogurt-based dish and ‘Vegetable Jalfreezi’, which came as a thick broth with a sweet-and-sour flavour achieved from peppers.
One fine thing about eating this kind of the food is you get pleasure not just when you pop the morsels into your mouth but the spices leave your stomach with a kind of afterglow that lasts for some considerable time. We had been given quite an introduction to what this restaurant has to offer, although if you look at the extensive menu, there is so much more to discover that it could have the more adventurous coming back for quite a few trips before they will have savoured it all.
So, if you live out in the suburbs, there is now thankfully no more need to come into the centre of town to enjoy excellent Indian food. Ashoka has spread its wings and whilst we know it will retain its personal touch, we hope it will continue to open branches in places where the international community has set down roots. This family-run restaurant is making a fine contribution in helping Saigon to become known not only as a fine go-ahead Vietnamese city, but also one willing to take on its mantle as a world city of renown.

Ashoka Northern Indian Restaurant
at 17/10 Le Thanh Ton Street District One HCMC and 33 Tong Huu Dinh,
Thao Dien Ward, District 2.

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