HK restaurant gets world's first Michelin star for Pakistani cuisine

Asim Hussain of New Punjab Club says accolade is a great source of pride

A pair of his father's old tandoor ovens helped Hong Kong-born restaurateur Asim Hussain achieve a dream - the world's first Michelin star for a Pakistani restaurant, an accolade he hopes will fire interest in the country's often overlooked cuisine.

Like many of Hong Kong's 85,000-strong South Asian population, his family traces its lineage in the financial hub back generations, when the city was a British colonial outpost.

His great-grandfather arrived during World War I, overseeing mess halls for British soldiers while his Cantonese-speaking father owned restaurants in the 80s and 90s.

Hussain, 33, already had some 20 eateries in his group when he decided to embark on what he described as his most personal and risky project yet - a restaurant serving dishes from Pakistan's Punjab region, the family's ancestral homeland, where he was packed off to boarding school aged six.

His father, a serial entrepreneur and even once Pakistan's ambassador to South Korea, suggested he restore two old tandoors from his now shuttered restaurant collecting dust in storage.

"He comes from a generation that doesn't throw things away," Mr Hussain, dressed in a traditional knee-length tunic and sitting in a restaurant decked with paintings by Pakistani artists, said with a laugh.

"Actually the results are better than if we had new ovens because these things improve with age."

The two tandoors, frequent trips to Lahore to perfect recipes and a kitchen overseen by head chef Palash Mitra earned the New Punjab Club in Hong Kong a Michelin star just 18 months after it opened its doors.

The success made headlines in Pakistan, a country that is unlikely to see a Michelin guide any time soon and whose chefs have long felt overshadowed by the global recognition gained from neighbouring India's regional cuisines.

Mr Hussain is keen to note that his restaurant represents only one of Pakistan's many cuisines - the often meat-heavy, piquant food of the Punjab - and it does not come cheap, as much as US$100 (S$135) a head.

"I'm not arrogant or ignorant to say this is the best Pakistani restaurant in the world. There are better Pakistani restaurants than this in Pakistan."

But he said the accolade has still been a "great source of pride" for Hong Kong's 18,000-strong Pakistani community.

"It's bringing a very niche personal story back to life. This culture, this cuisine is sort of unknown outside of Pakistan, outside of Punjab, so in a very small way I think we've shed a positive light on the work, on who we are and where we come from," he explained.

It was the second star achieved by Black Sheep, the restaurant group founded six years ago by Mr Hussain and his business partner, veteran Canadian chef Christopher Mark, and has seen rapid success.

But he said the hard work has only just begun.

"I joke with the boys and I say that, 'It's the first Pakistani Punjabi restaurant in the world to win a star, let's not be the first one to lose a star.'" - AFP

Food & Drink