Ravindran Nahappan expands his South East Asian restaurant brand, ‘Nasi and Mee’ to Kerala
More than a century ago, a young lad named Kunjambu Nair travelled all the way from Trivandrum to Malaysia determined to make a fortune. There he met the love of his life Lakshmi Reddy, whose family had migrated from Andhra. They eventually got married and set up shop in Malaysia! The family flourished and soon their daughter set up an Indian restaurant in Kuala Lumpur named ‘Bangles’ which went on to become a very popular diner among the crème de la crème of Malaysia. They later diversified into manufacturing by supplying products to five star hotels. It was only a few years later that the great grandson of Kunjambu Nair decided to return to his roots with a brand that serves authentic South East Asian cuisine! RITZ is in conversation with the enterprising entrepreneur, Ravindran Nahappan, whose restaurant chain, ‘Nasi and Mee’ has taken Kochi by storm after its grand success in Bengaluru and Chennai!
Text: Riya Sonny Datson
Tell us how you began your journey as restaurateur and what ‘Nasi and Mee’ means.
I am a fourth generation Malaysian and I spent my childhood mostly in Malaysia, Singapore and London. I am a chemical engineer with a Masters in finance and manufacturing engineering. I worked as a banker for a while and have also worked with Cadburys in a regional role based out of Singapore. But in 2009, during the global financial crisis, I felt the opportunity cost to try something new was never so low and there was an underlying desire to get closer to home after years of being away. Since my family has had a rich legacy in the food service sector, I felt it was time to return home and try something different.
During one of my visits to India, I was fascinated to see the love affair of Indians with Noodles. How had a Chinese dish become so popular in India? So, when I went back, we were discussing the topic over family dinner and someone playfully suggested starting a restaurant in India serving authentic dishes from South East Asia. And ironically, six months down the line, we launched our first outlet in Bengaluru, followed by Chennai and now in Kochi! I am humbled by the response and recognition we have received so far! ‘Nasi and Mee’ means ‘Rice and Noodles’ which is a staple in Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. ‘Mee’ comes from ‘Mien’, a Cantonese word for noodle. I believe South East Asian cuisine is one of the first fusion foods of the world. It could be attributed to the incredible movement of people across borders – for reasons like the spice trade, labour and colonialism. For example, Malaysian cuisine uses the Wok – a Chinese invention, the noodle also has its origins in China. Our breakfast staple is Roti Prata or Roti Chanai which is very similar to the Kerala Paratha. I am sure even the ‘Teh Tarik – pulled tea’ has a connection with Kerala. So, based on the local ingredients available, the cuisine has evolved with multi-cultural influences.
Nasi and Mee is all about authentic South East Asian cuisine which is very different from the local cuisine. Doesn’t that pose as a challenge?
With people traveling so much today, I feel this is not entirely new to the palate. And I find that the Indian customers are very open to trying new things. But yes, there are a few challenges when it comes to cooking and taste. The biggest being, sourcing the right ingredients, ensuring freshness and quality standards. Training people to churn out authentic delicacies is not easy either. It is very important that the taste of each ingredient is subtly projected. Too much marinade or over cooking kills the taste and the freshness. Our Chinese Chef, Chef Daniel Chin is based in India now to train the team in order to achieve consistency. Depending on the ingredients available and cooking style the taste of the same dish may differ from one region to another. Our palate has a spectrum of flavours and in India, there is a natural affinity to spices so we have to adapt to the customer preference accordingly. Another major challenge was to make our sauces and certain dishes purely vegetarian. We do use a lot of shrimp paste/belacan in our cooking to add to the umami flavour. This had to be eliminated completely to customise the menu here.
So are you Vegan friendly too?
Yes, we have products on our menu that caters to vegetarians and vegans as well. We’ve been surprised by the following especially in Chennai!
What do you think is unique about your brand?
Our patrons have accepted us as a warm casual diner that celebrates good food and great company. We offer authentic South East Asian cuisine that is fresh and uses natural preservatives. All our sauces and marinades are made in-house or are imported to ensure we meet quality standards. We believe in maintaining a balance when it comes to food. As a personal ethos, I believe that there is no single solution to good health but maintaining a balance is the key and that applies to food too.
How competitive is the pricing?
Affordability was a challenge when we started out but now, I find that changing. I believe, at the end of the day, good food and good service prevails. The market is big enough for everyone but I can assure you that we are very competitively priced when compared to similar brands in the market. The average price for two would be around Rs 1000 for two.
What is the Lucky 8te?
Every quarter a new set of dishes Singaporean/ Malaysian or Indonesian is introduced into the menu which is called the Lucky 8te. I believe it is our responsibility to educate our patrons about the variety in our cuisine. At the same time, we eliminate dishes that are not too popular. We prefer to keep the menu simple as lesser number of dishes means lesser and fresher ingredients and better consistency.
What is your inspiration?
I love what I do! I love food, the idea of creation and the social aspect of dining. It is important to me to give 100 percent to anything I take up. Thankfully, I have a great team who have been instrumental with the development of the brand and have been with us since the inception, which definitely makes things easier. They deserve a lot of credit.
In three years, we have managed to open two restaurants in Bengaluru, one in Chennai and now one in Kochi. We have plans to open restaurants in Mumbai and Hyderabad as well as I feel India has an incredible growth story! Our sister concern, The Wok Shop, is also on an expansion spree with two outlets in Bengaluru and more opening in Chennai and Bengaluru shortly.
Must try: Traditional Indonesian Nasi Goreng served with Chicken Satay and salad, the lip smacking Prawn Har Gao Dimsums, the exotic Xiao long Bao Soup dumpling, the rich, flavoursome Chicken Rendang and the Singapore Chicken Rice!