A relatively new entrant to the Bangkok dining scene, Jhol is an exhilarating journey through India’s coastal cuisines. Prestige goes along for the heady ride.
There is a well-known Hindi proverb that amplifies the diversity of languages in India. It reads “kos kos par badle pani, char kos par badle vani”, or “water changes every mile, and language changes every four miles”. Switch “language” for “cuisine”, and you won’t be wrong either. The truth is, the food of India is as regionally specific and as diverse as its population. The vast constellation of cuisines is heavily influenced by the country’s history, conquerors, trade partners, and the religious and cultural practices of its people. But for too long Indian restaurants around the world have drawn sustenance from the Mughal-Punjabi-Frontier handbook of recipes, creating a hackneyed catch-all for the vast and multi-hued gastronomic diaspora of the sub-continent.
Now, a new entrant to Bangkok’s restless dining scene is hoping to remedy this slight, and perhaps stir the pot up a bit. Jhol, which translates to “mischief” or “curry” depending on which side of the country you are on, offers reimagined dishes from cuisines along the meandering 7,000-km plus Indian coastline, from Gujarat in the West to Bengal in the East. And yes, there is more than one cuisine.
Well-known chef and cookbook author Hari Nayak, and the man behind the Jhol’s menu, is excited to be presenting his dishes to a Bangkok audience. “Growing up in the city of Udupi, Mangalore, on the west coast of India, I ate food that is much different from the Indian food served in restaurants. At Jhol, I want to showcase what I grew up eating. I also want to show that there is more to Indian food than what you see out there,” says Nayak, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and honed his skills with Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelson and Albert Adria.
Housed on the ground floor of an elegant white-washed villa on Sukhumvit Soi 18, Jhol’s chic interiors are accentuated with elements that reflect the Indian heritage of the menu, as well as Nayak’s coastal roots. An alcove wall features French geographer Pierre Duval’s map that illustrates peninsular India of 1697, while in other areas pastel-coloured walls are heightened by filigreed dark wood panels, black & white photographs, and pendant lamps. Banquettes in muted hues offset the dark round back cane chairs and wooden tabletops.
At the entrance, a large panel of Moroccan tiles adds a splash of colour and welcome diners to the attractive and well-stocked bar on the left. It’s a good starting point for what is to be an exciting culinary journey. The drinks list inspires, with a remarkable selection of Old and New World wines, as well as a section of experimental wines that include biodynamic, skin contact, and local vintages. Cocktails are impressive too, and swing between Thai and Indian flavours. Grand Maa Jinn is a delicious concoction of local gin, coconut, Aperol, and mango pickle, all topped with coconut foam. Aam Panna is a refreshing summer drink made using raw mangoes and mint, but here it is rejigged with sweet basil-infused Chalong Bay rum, mango, fermented chilli, and served in a handmade smoked applewood tumbler mug. It’s refreshing with just a tiny bite of chilli. From the ‘Fruit Forward’ tipples, Raabta is excellent with its sweet-sour combination of kaffir lime- infused gin, orange distillate, berries, gomme and frozen raspberries. If you are stumped for what to choose, the dapper general manager Anirban Nandi is more than happy to talk you through some of their exotic drinks.
The food menu is small, but offers a unique blend of classical and progressive dishes inspired by some of India’s incredible regional delicacies, and utilising the best of seasonal Thai produce. “Chef Hari wanted to keep the menu choices to one page,” informs Anirban. “While most Indian restaurants in the city focus on North Indian food, we wanted to showcase the flavours from the coastal regions of India. Something nobody has done before,” he adds.
As an amuse-bouche, head chef Suresh DC sends out a re-working of a much-loved Indian street-side snack. It’s a fried pastry shell filled with sweet- sour spinach in a yoghurt-mint sauce, topped with crispy spinach. This is followed by another fast-food favourite, wherein smashed avocado and julienned jicama are stuffed into a puri (a hollow, puffed crisp dough ball). Here Jhol substitutes the usual spicy, tangy, and sweet pani, or water, with passionfruit juice. Another appealing starter is the mini appams. Savoury pancakes made from fermented rice batter and coconut milk, they are filled with spicy young jackfruit meat and capped with lengths of purple potato crisps.
The masala maska buns combine two of Bombay’s most famous snacks: bun maska and pav bhaji. Simply put, the former is a soft bun with a lavish spread of homemade butter inside, which is traditionally served in the city’s dying breed of Irani cafes (their origins are another story). To enjoy it you, dip into a tumbler of piping hot sweet tea. The contrasting flavours of sweet tea, salty, creamy butter, and soft, freshly baked bread are indescribable. The latter of the two buns is spicy mixed vegetable mash eaten with buns lightly grilled in butter. The chefs at Jhol have brought these tastes together, filling miniature buns with a curried potato mix and serving it with butter that incorporates the flavours of pav bhaji, and a spice mix. They are reason enough to eat and repeat.
The spicy prawns koliwada is another mashup that makes perfect sense. Prawns are marinated in ginger-garlic-red chilli paste, sautéed lightly, and then served on a bed of curd (yoghurt) rice accompanied by a prawn ceviche salad tossed in yoghurt. The curd rice, a daily staple in the southernmost states of India, is meant to cool your palate after the fiery prawns. However, they could actually do with some more heat here. The chilli pepper crab, on the other hand, more than lives up to its name. Chunks of jumbo lump crab give way to release little bursts of spice. While the accompanying appam, with a luscious lightly poached egg yolk in the centre, evens out the heat just a tad.
Other outstanding mains include the Kerala mutton roast and the ghee roast chicken. The former is dry roasted until tender, with coconut shoots, black pepper and a unique variety of chillies (a famous variety grown in the state of Karnataka, that impart a musky aroma to the meat rather than any heat). Use your hands to break the accompanying flaky Malabar paratha and scoop up the flavourful meat for a truly satisfying mouthful. The last main, a specialty from Kundapur, in Karnataka, gets it characteristic flavours from the town’s fragrant masala mix that the chicken is roasted in. The crispy cone-shaped dosa accompanying the aromatic chicken is the perfect complement.
Jhol gives the usual dessert offerings at Indian restaurants a wide berth. ‘Baby Banana’ is delicious, and that’s saying a lot as I generally loathe bananas. Here banana is cooked with cardamom and filled into a banana- shaped mould of white chocolate and served with filter kaapi (coffee South- Indian style; strong, milky and sweet) ice cream. Alternatively, opt for the flower-shaped mango kulfi with a side of chocolate soil, crumble of pistachio, blueberry gel, and crema of kaffir lime. An excellent way to come down from the preceding spice high.
Jhol offers an exquisite culinary ride and I, for one, am glad that Chef Hari Nayak chose Bangkok as the place to show off the sub-continent’s other little-known cuisines.
Jhol is open from 12 – 3pm, and 6:30 – 10:30pm daily. To reserve your seats or find out more, call 0 2004 7174, or visit jholrestaurant.com.