COCONUTS HOT SPOT – Like most multinational companies, south Indian restaurant superchain Saravana Bhavan does not enjoy an existence free from controversy. What it does enjoy, however, is a loyal following of Indian food lovers who couldn’t give a damn that the founder has been found guilty of murdering the husband of a woman he wanted to marry.
Like I said, controversial.
Saravana Bhavan – the biggest chain of vegetarian restaurants in the world with 33 outlets in India and another 47 scattered across the planet, including one in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong – was founded in 1981 by the now-68-year-old Chennai born P. Rajagopal.
Just as the chain was going global in 2002, Rajagopal was found guilty of murder in a highly publicised case. He’s only served a total of 11 months due to health reasons, but none of this seems to have dented the popularity of his brand, which employs 8,000 people in Rajagopal’s home town alone.
Food so good you can get away with murder? As much as it pains me to admit, I was keen for a guilty taste.
Saravana Bhavan specialises in what is known as “tiffin”, the holy trinity of south Indian snacks made up of dosa, idli and vada, all of which are fashioned out of ground rice and lentil flour.
I’d had the crispy golden crepe known as dosa before and absolutely loved it, so went for the traditional Masala Dosa (HKD70) – served with a generous filling of potato and onion masala, dahl and three dips of varying heat that almost certainly all have names I don’t know – and a Palak Dosa (HKD65, see header photo) – the same thing, only triangular, and packed with spinach.
Both were great value, fresh tasting and satisfying, but I think I’d recommend the classic Masala Dosa to the uninitiated.
Speaking of the uninitiated, don’t come to Saravana Bhavan and expect non-Indian-person-friendly descriptions of the dishes, or even a waiter who can speak much English/Canto. These almost canteen-like joints are strictly aimed at Indian expats missing a taste of home, and they don’t give a monkey’s if you get it or not.
FYI, and because we don’t want to see you embarrassed, dosas, idlis and vadas are all torn apart with the hands and then dipped. Don’t show yourself up like I once did at Mumbai Airport by pouring the sauce on top of my dosa and then requesting a knife and fork to deal with the soggy mess that resulted. I can’t go back there… for a number of reasons.
Idli (L), Vada (R)
Next up we tried a mixed portion of the Idli and the Vada (HKD45), with the former being a white, steamed saucer of light fluffy carbs, and the latter being a dense, golden brown savoury doughnut, despite them both being made from more or less the same ingredients. It’s a mystery, much like the exact circumstances surrounding the death of Rajagopal’s victim.
Neither of these particularly blew my mind if I’m honest, but they both make excellent vehicles for sauce, which I gather is really the point. The sauces were exactly the same as those served with the dosas, though, so if you feel like mixing it up at Saravana Bhavan, this is perhaps as crazy as it gets.
At least, inside the restaurant.
We also gave the Butter Masala (HKD70) a spin, but with just veggies (obviously) and a Heinz Tomato Soup-style sauce, it wasn’t really for me.
The slight disappointments and murdery founder stuff aside, Saravana Bhavan is definitely a great find for those bored of the standard Indian offerings in Hong Kong and happy to put their stomach before their conscience.
I, for one, will certainly be back, albeit it in sunglasses and a big, floppy hat. Yep, I embarrassed myself here as well.
Saravana Bhavan, 4/F, Ashley Centre, 23-25 Ashley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, (+852) 2736-1127.