An afternoon in Mumbai is like a crowded memory; bazaars and markets get crammed with the likes of hungry pedestrians making their way in the streets; piercing horns and raucous bells intertwine with the spicy aromas wafting out of tea houses. This is a typical street scene from India and the inspiration behind Maruk Miah’s ground-breaking venture, Anakana Chaibar near Old Street Station. Innovative in design and execution, Anakana pays homage to Indian street food from all regions of the subcontinent.
In need of a motif to link the various flavours of the country, Maruk found the perfect solution to be the Indian bazaars and tea houses: “There is a sense of conviviality that you get there that I wanted to incorporate into this restaurant. In India you run into a friend on the street and you say lets go get some tea and some simple food and that’s how we catch up. This is a very Asian way of eating where there’s no such thing as lunch or dinner time, we’re like cows in a field, we graze all day.” Anakana certainly offers a grazing menu, but there are also much more substantial dishes to bulk up and brighten any meal.
Noted for its communal dinning concept, Anakana is the equivalent to the Indian
tea house which, Maruk explains, “aspires to emphasize a more casual
and genial dining experience. One that’s about family, friends
and the food that makes it all better.”
But how does he achieve this goal in a restaurant where strangers are made to share more than just elbow room? Anakana is unique in that customers sit side by side sharing not only tables, but breathing room as well. The restaurant’s layout and design “challenges certain social dynamics” because customers sit at picnic-like tables and benches, pouring talks of their afternoon into heaping bowls of curry. In the UK, people aren’t used to sharing tables, but nevertheless, “when you get people sitting together, it’s very easy to create an atmosphere because you’re forcing people to react, to have conversation” Maruk explained. Inevitably, this means that the restaurant is much more alive, unlike a traditional one in which everyone has his or her own space. There are no subdued voices at Anakana, and definitely no rules of decorum to follow.
The communal dining concept has, without a doubt, a large potential in appealing to the solo diner and is rapidly becoming the new trend. “As a restaurant industry, we don’t cater enough to solo diners. This is a lot more inclusive, rather than having a table just for two, a table just for four. Sometimes it can be awkward when you walk into a traditional restaurant alone.” Anakana however, eases the solo diner and even encourages him by offering a nice selection of single serve dishes. Known as Thali, these dishes are a one-plate offering of four fundamental Indian elements and can be ordered as starters or a single meal. They consist of raita (an Indian condiment based on yogurt), dal (lentil soup), basmati rice and your choice of prawn, beef or vegetables. Other signature dishes include the char grilled duck breast with stir fried pickled vegetables, or if you’re feeling a little more adventurous try the pickled pork belly with cane sugar, boom chillies, rice vinegar and baby apples.
You will find a nice wine menu surprisingly accentuated by Indian Zinfandel, Indian Chenin Blanc and an Indian Shiraz in both the main canteen and the Piya Piya bar lounge. There is also a good mix of imported beers, chai teas, fruit juices and lassis (juice and soft drink mix) that promise to satiate any bored palate.
At Anakana Chaibar you are not just buying a meal; you’re buying an experience. Not only will the food satisfy your cravings, the soothing music and jovial atmosphere will quickly have you chatting up the stranger across the table. Maruk chalks it up to the customer’s expectations: “People are becoming a lot more discerning; they want the super grand experience at not-so-super grand prices.” And at Anakana you truly have an egalitarian product. The food and the consumer are egalitarian. Maruk’s final thought: “At Anakana it’s about food and it doesn’t matter who you are or who I am. When we’re sitting down eating food we’re just enjoying each other’s company,” as it should be.