Hindu temples are full of bright colours and otherworldly motifs. And while the first-floor Saigon Indian doesn’t include the light blues, pinks and greens of typical Hindu design, the deep oranges, dark yellows and subtle lighting at once set this long-running Saigon eatery apart from other restaurants in its vicinity. Walk up the well-worn stairs, enter the slightly ramshackle lobby and suddenly you are in a different world.
There are quirks aplenty at this restaurant. Elephant and snake charmer silhouettes on the windows, classic Indian images portraited and framed on the wall, and an atmosphere that is at once modern yet pleasantly classic. There’s also something nicely atmospheric about the place — an oasis of non-Vietnamese calm in the centre of a nonstop, increasingly frenetic city.
My trips to Saigon Indian have always been based around a craving for South Indian cuisine. The lack of yoghurt and cream, the greater focus on vegetables, the deeper spice and the batter-based snacks like the dosa, vada and idly have always whetted my appetite far more than the fare more typical of the north. And yet it’s northern Indian cuisine that — except for in Malaysia and Singapore — is the taste and flavour experienced by the world.
As with previous excursions to this eatery, I avoided northern cuisine and instead went straight for the deep south — hitting up a lunchtime dosa masala (VND75,000). Served up with two nicely tart chutneys — tomato and coconut — the crispy dosa was filled with a mildly spiced mix of potato and peas. Mixed with the vegetable sambar served on the side, there was something quite moreish about the combination. With a side of the dry and spicy aloo gobi mattar (VND70,000 — peas, cauliflower and potato) added in, I nearly licked the plate clean. The dishwasher would have been ecstatic.
With a delivery order thrown in between my next visit — the standouts were the ochre-based bhindi dry fry (VND65,000) and the vegetable chettinad (VND70,000), both dishes that even my mother-in-law raved over — this time round I hit up the Indian-Chinese section of the menu.
Introduced by Saigon Indian five or six years ago, as far as I know this is the only restaurant in Vietnam serving up this hybrid cuisine immensely popular in India.
Adjusted to fit the local palate, Indian Chinese cuisine has been developed over the past century by the Chinese living in Kolkata. Flavoured with cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric, today it is an integral part of the country’s cuisine.
Not quite sure what to expect, I went for the paneer Manchurian dry (VND84,000). It fit perfectly into my preconceptions of how this hybrid should taste. Essentially glutinous sweet and sour cottage cheese, combined with garlic, ginger, green chilli and soy sauce, the final dish transformed itself into something entirely different. I can’t put my finger on the taste — it was too unusual for me to pigeonhole — except that the dish sat well on the palate.
The chilli lamb (VND132,000) was equally disarming yet tasty. Served up with sweet green peppers — you never see cilantro in Indian cuisine — this was like a spicy, fusion version of chicken or pork with black bean sauce. I finished the whole dish.
For anyone looking for a more unusual dining experience, I would certainly recommend trying out the Indian-Chinese menu. But for me the real beauty of this eatery is the cuisine served up from the south, from provinces like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana. Yes, it’s a personal preference. But the fare is done well here — the number of Indian diners I encountered on each visit pays testament to this.
Saigon Indian is at 73 Mac Thi Buoi, Q1, HCMC
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals