As a restaurant that serves up bold Indian flavours, six-month-old Thevar is an outlier. While there are fine-dining options and hawker stalls sticking by traditional dishes, few have dared to give Indian cuisine a new context the way this Keong Saik bistro has.
The kitchen has been leading a richly flavourful enquiry into Indian cuisine through a series of small and big plates. But where does one draw the line between being authentic and creative?
The soft-spoken chef Manogren Thevar seemed at once the likeliest and the least probable person to answer this very question. The Penang-born chef has never trained at an Indian restaurant before but tended to the craft of European cuisine. Before his current project, chef Mano earned his stripes at the one-Michelin-starred Pure C in the Netherlands, and later at the two-starred Waku Ghin and Indian-inspired barbecue joint Meatsmith Little India in Singapore.
Instead, he draws on childhood memories and a fresh pair of eyes to the cuisine for Thevar. But this is no easy feat in any way. After several trials by tandoor fire and pallid curries, chef Mano is near finding a convincing argument for the case of contemporary Indian food for the discerning crowd of fine-dining customers.
When Chef Sun Kim and I decided to do a restaurant together, he casually suggested naming it after me. I didn’t want to. Restaurant businesses are risky, and I didn’t know how long I was going to be in Singapore for. We did think of other names. When we discussed with our investors, they brought Kimme — which is Sun’s childhood nickname — up as an example. They suggested we should do something similar, and we went ahead with Thevar since most people aren’t familiar with my last name.
Cuisine-wise, I kinda got the idea for Thevar when I was cooking at Meatsmith Little India. It is still entirely different since Meatsmith was more about American barbecue with some Indian influences. Thevar is a modern, contemporary take on Indian food.
It is challenging, but I’ve never trained in an Indian restaurant and I didn’t want to claim that I’m cooking authentically. That allows me some safe space creatively with my dishes. Plus, when it comes to Indian food in Singapore, there are fine-dining restaurants and then there are stalls in Tekka Wet Market. There aren’t many options in between. So I wanted to offer Thevar as that ‘in between’ option.
That said, I try to create authentic flavours. I Google a lot, I eat a lot. What we’re trying to do here is to work with the same methods and ingredients. We make it more refined so everyone can enjoy and focus on small plates. We go smaller so diners can taste rather than get overwhelmed by all these rich flavours.
Traditionally, Indian food is served in big portions. I do personally prefer more communal-style dishes so that people can share dishes. But, it’s difficult to do in our current space (previously occupied by Sun Kim’s restaurant Meta) because of the bar counter seatings. I can’t do sharing platters because of this set-up. Instead, I try to do small plates that can be shared by at least two people to keep a sense of that communal spirit.
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We bring in European techniques, such as putting our meats into the sous vide and brining them. But we also showcase Indian influences. Take for example the classic brine solution in French cuisine which is just salt water, bay leaf and juniper berries. Here, we are more focused on spices. Our brine includes turmeric and star anise too. It’s essentially the same method, but it adds more flavours in our meats.
We try to cook meats in a traditional way, such as our lamb, naans and duck confit. That’s where our tandoor oven comes in. It was a huge challenge to cook with it as I’m not familiar with using it. The temperature inside the tandoor isn’t fixed like electrical ovens. Initially, I thought it had to be kept very hot. You can imagine, whatever meats we threw in the tandoor just turned up black. It’ll be all charred on the outside but raw inside.
So, we experimented a little. Say, our roti which is a cross between pita bread and naan. We created this recipe so that the roti can puff a little first before baking it in the tandoor oven. With our meats, we avoid overcooking them in the tandoor — something most Indian restaurants would do. If you go to restaurants in Little India and ask for medium rare, they won’t do anything about it. Lamb or beef is well-done, and fish is almost always fried. Not everyone wants their meat well done, and we try to serve ours perfectly medium rare.
My family runs a South Indian restaurant in Penang and I would follow my grandmother there after school. I would just sit in the restaurant, watch her cook and eat. That’s where I get some of my inspirations from. Take for example my grandmother’s rasam (a spicy tamarind soup), which my family usually enjoys with seafood. I thought of reinterpreting it in a modern way. So I made it into a granita with sugar and paired it with raw oysters.
I also travelled around India, especially to the south where my grandmother was from originally. I ate a lot and took a lot of notes. There are many differences in food around India. North Indian cuisine uses a lot of mutton and yoghurt, so it’s rich and very heavy. South Indian foods are a lot more focused on spices, so flavours are tangy and sharp. For now, at Thevar, we focus a lot on North Indian food.
While we try to cook in similar ways, we also make an effort to tone down the flavours to accommodate everyone. Many people can’t take spice or can’t take how heavy some dishes are.
There’s a difference. We tone down the spice level and we make it tastier — we don’t just turn everything else down.
Small, yet crucial, changes are made in dishes. We made my grandmother’s fish curry at the restaurant for our mackerel dosai dish; recreating the same flavours but with a few different ingredients. Our curry has sauteed coconut flakes instead of coconut milk for an additional smokier flavour. Adding in coconut milk just adds richness and a creamier texture.
There were some spices I came across in India that aren’t widely used in the restaurants in Singapore. In India, black cardamom is used widely and it provides rich smoky flavours with some refreshing notes. You can find this spice easily at Mustafa Centre, though I really don’t see anyone using it in their cooking. I usually sweat it and sautee it with other spices to make a sauce. It makes a huge difference with beef.
I also realised that time is an important thing in Indian cooking. There was a restaurant in Delhi which took three whole days to marinate their lamb. They would season the meat and put in a chiller for a day before they add yoghurt. I tried using a shorter method here, but the flavours weren’t the same.
Indian food is mostly about slow-cooking ingredients. I can make curry in 15 minutes, but I can also let it simmer for two hours and the taste will be entirely different. The focus on quality in India is much greater, the cooks will let the curry sit for long hours to develop flavours. In Singapore, restaurants think about quantity and not so much on quality. That’s the difference.
Well, I’ve failed many times especially when I do food tastings or experimenting. I’ll just sit back, reflect and share with the team how certain flavours should taste like this. I’ll also get the team to try Indian food outside, but it will never taste like what I ate in India. We learned a lot about our heritage for sure, we’re still working on it.