ADVERTISEMENT
Go back to
Home » My Kolkata » Food » The sibling duo behind So Asean talk about the essence of ‘Calcutta-style’ Chinese

Chinese food

The sibling duo behind So Asean talk about the essence of ‘Calcutta-style’ Chinese

Stephanie and Henry want more people to experience Kolkata’s signature Chinese flavours, without burning a hole in their pockets

Ujjainee Roy | Published 22.07.22, 11:51 AM
Stephanie and Henry of So Asean (left); the brand’s Egg Hakka Noodles

Stephanie and Henry of So Asean (left); the brand’s Egg Hakka Noodles

Arijit Sen; soaseanfoods.in/Instagram

People may think whipping up a pot of Tangra-style food at home should be the easiest thing if you’re in Kolkata — and also perhaps the cheapest. However, the mushrooming gourmet labels and specialist retailers cluttering the market don’t always have viable solutions for budget cooking.

“People are prioritising authenticity and freshness more than anything else, more so because they are cooking from scratch. They know it’s not just about boiling noodles and veggies, they’re keen on trying newer products. However, some of the prices we see in the market do not make sense to me,” says So Asean’s Stephanie Li.

ADVERTISEMENT

The six-month-old brand is attempting to offer Oriental flavours that are familiar to Kolkatans — like the popular prawn papad and the multi-spice blend that’s key to any meal in Kolkata’s Chinatown. So Asean, founded by Stephanie and her brother Henry (Li Kuo Choong), fine-tunes the taste of ‘Calcutta-style’ Chinese for modern kitchens.

“There’s only one Chinatown in the country, and that’s here in Kolkata. And with the Chinese population dwindling in the city, it is more important than ever to talk about our culinary culture and the recipes we grew up with. It doesn’t make sense to import rice noodles from Thailand or China or to go for overpriced products that are on offer. We can make it right here — it’s been made in the city for ages!” Henry shares.

The brand’s flagship Hakka noodles are priced at just over Rs 30 and their prawn and fish crackers are priced at Rs 180 a pack. My Kolkata had a sit-down chat with the sibling duo behind the brand, to learn more about their plans. Excerpts from the chat:

My Kolkata: Tell us what got you started…

Stephanie: Before the pandemic, I was working with Uber. A couple of years ago, I was travelling across Delhi and Hyderabad for work when I realised that people across the country are paying huge prices, especially for gourmet products. If you want to make Asian food at home, it’s not cheap. A pack of noodles can cost you around Rs 200! That didn’t make sense to me and we started talking about it back home. That really made us consider other alternatives.

Henry has been the mind behind the products and he was the one who zeroed in on the profiles and ingredients, while I managed the other aspects like packaging and communication. Henry is also in touch with our culture, he still performs at traditional festivities like the Dragon Boat celebrations!

Henry: It took us a while to get things running, especially with the compliances. It takes a long time to get licenses issued, especially if you’re just starting out.

‘Henry has been the mind behind the products and the ingredients, while I manage the other aspects like packaging or communication,’ says Stephanie Li

‘Henry has been the mind behind the products and the ingredients, while I manage the other aspects like packaging or communication,’ says Stephanie Li

Arijit Sen

Henry, you were in charge of the research…

Henry: Yes, I noticed most noodles we have in the market or even the prawn chips that we find, use preservatives. I was looking for ways to maximise the shelf life of our products without using toxic preservatives. 

For prawn crackers, most people use prawn powder or even just the essence of prawns. It seems inauthentic. We use prawns and starch and we are really cautious about our ratio so we can deliver the crispiness, the consistency and the classic fluffiness.

Stephanie: Most prawn crackers we see in the market are white because they have minimal prawn content, but our crackers are made with fresh Bengal prawns that are locally sourced. There was a lot of trial and error involved, but we were specific about sticking to premium quality ingredients

Henry: We devein it, cut it and air-dry it. Our fish crackers have a subtle grey hue, because we use fish meat, and our prawn crackers are slightly pinkish. You can spot this colour even when you’re boiling prawns at home.

So Asean’s prawn crackers, made with locally-sourced prawns, being air-dryed at the manufacturing unit

So Asean’s prawn crackers, made with locally-sourced prawns, being air-dryed at the manufacturing unit

How are the noodles different?

Henry: A lot depends on their moisture content and how they’re preserved. Most packaged noodles are deep-fried and the problem with oil-frying is that you need to add anti-oxidants, which makes it go rancid. Plus, you have to use palm oil, which drives up the fat content. Our noodles are air-dried and the fat content is less than one per cent. Moreover, our noodles are versatile. You can also use them for thukpas, chop suey or pan-fried numbers.

Tell us about the signature spice blend that you’re adding to the noodle packets

Henry: We’re using a seasoning mix featuring onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, ginger, black pepper and chilli. We tried to incorporate a flavour that is authentic. It’s close to the flavours that you will find in a restaurant in Tangra 

Stephanie: I feel people are putting in a lot of effort into every meal now, they’re looking for the right condiments and the best sauces and seasoning. The seven-spice seasoning we’re using is actually a hit with our buyers, they usually call it the So Asean masala, like the Maggi masala!

You’re also planning on scaling up...

Stephanie: Yes, we do want to introduce new products down the road. I was in Mumbai and Bengaluru recently and a few restaurants were really keen on using our products because so many of them associate this taste with Calcutta-style Chinese.

Last updated on 22.07.22, 12:30 PM
Share:
ADVERTISEMENT

More from My Kolkata