An unexpected result of the COVID-19 enforced time-out is young entrepreneurs returning to their home kitchens to relearn and reinterpret family recipes

Plump and neatly pleated, Fan Meiling’s dumplings have an unexpectedly romantic past. “I’m half Chinese and half Telugu,” says the dancer-choreographer-model, who launched Mei Jiaozi, making vegetable and chicken dumplings from her home, in April.

She explains, “My mom, FS Halam, was a dancer and she acted in movies a really long time ago. She met my dad on set.” Meiling adds with a laugh, “He was playing a villain.”

Meiling’s late father, Fan Shantu, who grew up in Bengaluru, moved to Chennai where he launched the popular hakka style ‘Golden Dragon’ noodles.

“My grandmom came to India during World War II,” says Meiling, adding that the family created their own traditions over the years. “When I was growing up, we used to make dumplings together every weekend. It is a family recipe and it is not easy. You need two or three sets of hands.”

Jiaozi are Chinese dumplings filled with ground meat or vegetables that are then wrapped in thinly rolled out dough, before being sealed together by hand. Meiling’s cross-cultural interpretation is fragrant with finely chopped coriander and spring onions. The vegetable versions are stuffed with delicately shredded cabbage and carrots. Inspired by her mother’s Andhra roots, the dumplings, which can be pan fried, steamed or boiled, are accompanied by a fiery hot sauce, a canvas of umami-rich tomato generously layered with garlic, vinegar and soy.

When lockdown began, Meiling began cooking and sending packs of dumplings to her friends. “I realised they froze well and a lot of people found it useful to have good, frozen food on hand for a snack.” She now makes them fresh every week, on order, delivering them in packs of 18 and 30, on Fridays and Saturdays. Although both her chicken and vegetable dumplings are popular, Meiling is proudest of her hot sauce. “I have sold about 400 bottles from home. It is proper spicy,” she giggles, adding “Being Telugu, I eat it with everything — murukku, thattai, dosa…”

Connect with Mei Jiaozi on Instagram (@mei.jiaozi) to order

Tarun Alexander spent lockdown finding ways to encapsulate almost six decades of tradition in a jar. “My grandfather started Ninan’s in 1956, and it quickly became famous for its caramel custard,” says Tarun, discussing the restaurant set inside the stately and historic YMCA building in George Town.

Located next to the Madras High Court, Ninan’s is a local institution, especially popular with lawyers who walk over for a quick lunch of mutton biryani, fish curry and rice or omelettes. “With lockdown, we had to close completely. As we are not in a residential area, we did not do any delivery. It was really boring sitting at home, so I started looking up our recipes and making pickles,” says Tarun.

Ninan’s Pickles

Now, Ninan’s — which reopened last month and is bustling again — also offers a range of meat pickles, which, like the restaurant, are practical, straight-forward and unpretentious. “I pickle what comes in fresh from my suppliers,” says Tarun, adding that he uses seer, tuna and prawns. It helps that he’s a hobby angler as well. “I take a boat from Kasimedu or use a charter service for a professional angling boat. I mostly pickle what I catch. But I am never always successful. Sometimes you come back with nothing,” he laughs.

After earning a degree in Hospitality Management in Birmingham, UK, joining Ninan’s was not really a part of Tarun’s immediate plans but COVID-19 changed everything. “I came back and am now in the kitchen mainly because I do not want appa to have to come to the restaurant, given his age,” he says. Tarun is not altering the menu except for extending the hours to add breakfast and dinner, featuring appam, coconut milk and egg roast.

And of course, customers can now buy the pickles (meat, fish and prawn) as well as Tarun’s latest product: a sweet and savoury bacon jam. With a focus on flavour over spiciness, the meat, fish and prawn pickles are made in small batches, on order, and taste like home.

Call Tarun Alexander on 9884300555

This weekly column tracks the city’s shifting culinary landscape. Heard of a new food venture? Tell me: [email protected]

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