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    Mainland China: Chinese with a difference.

BEYOND Sahar Airport, beyond Leela Kempinski, at the Sakinaka Junction on the busy Andheri-Kurla Road, stands Mainland China, arguably the suburb's most authentic Chinese restaurant.

Its cooks come from Calcutta's Tangra, which is the next best place to China itself, and its manager and assistant manager have been borrowed from the Taj Bengal.

If you live in that part of the town, in and around the Hiranandani Complex at Powai, you are fortunate; if you do not, the restaurant is worth the long trip to it.

The repertoire of the kitchen is amazing. There are several interesting and usual Chinese dishes, cooked in rice wine, with Chinese parsley, in conjee sauce. I repeat, it is conjee sauce, prepared from sweet beans and chilli paste, not conjee.

There is a row of shops in Hong Kong, making only conjee (I had it once with tripe, much to the disgust of the people accompanying me).

For some reason, Chinese restaurants in Mumbai do not serve conjee, possibly they consider it exclusively hospital food. I wish some local Chinese would make amends.

But to return to Mainland China, it is owned by two young Bengali executives, Anjon and Indroneil Chatterjee, who have made a success of Only Fish (also, Only Kababs). To let you into a secret, they are now planning Sweet Bengal, an outlet for Bengali sweets.

It is a comfortable restaurant: valet parking, which is necessary, well spaced out, around 90 covers, a subtle Chinese motif (lazy Susans, yes; Chinese lanterns, no), educated service by Phiroz Sadri and Jasanto Chatterjee.

The bar menu specifies: Scotch in India (Teacher's, Highland Queen, Spey Royal, Black & White). I call that being honest.

The food. The place is known mainly for its Cantonese and Hunan cooking, though a good deal of Szechwan is also cooked. Hunan, I understand, is a mix of Cantonese and Szechwan, since the provinces overlap.

Begin with the crackling spinach (Rs.65), it is in the Dim Sum list. The spinach is shredded, deep fried, with a touch of seasoning, sesame and chilli, tossed. It is crunchy and crackles in the mouth. I suspect they use a little cornflour to coat the spinach, but I may be wrong, very wrong.

There is a bitter after-taste, but there is a whisper of sweetness also, probably sugar. It makes a lovely beginning to a memorable meal. Do try it, even if you have not liked spinach since you were a child.

The other Dim Sums include a very peppery siu mai (prawns, chicken or vegetables), steamed and fried wontons, but that's normal, and a Szechwan chilli babycorn, pungent, or crisp fried mushrooms with sesame seeds. I suggest you stick to the spinach and siu mai, and keep room for the starters of pak choyuk prawns.

Note: the pak choyuk is not Chinese cabbage. This is a Hunan dish, to be eaten with a Hunan dip. The prawns are medium, sized, though the size depends on availability in the market. they are deshelled and non-marinated, except for a little salt and pepper. The object is to retain the natural flavour of the prawns.

They are steamed and eaten with the dip. The Hunan dip is made with chopped bamboo shoots, spring onions, ginger, soya and oil. However, if you do not care for this, ask for a Cantonese dip. Either way it is priced at Rs.155.

More unusual is chicken rice pearls (Rs.85). I do not think I have eaten it in any other restaurant in town. The chicken is minced, along with black mushrooms, Chinese greens, made into rounds, and rolled in rice. Not rice flour, actual rice, the rice grains, raw. Put in a steamer and cooked. The chicken mince naturally gets cooked, so does the rice, the grains puffing up. It is served dry, but with a sweet and spicy vinegar dip.

Among the entrees, I suggest, if you have people to share with you, have the full pomfret, done Shanghai style. It is tossed in cornflour, with a little seasoning, and braised. As expected, the outside is crusty, inside succulent. You have a choice of sauces, try the chilli-oyster. The full pomfret is for Rs.190.

Or you may try a lobster or prawn Hubei style. The lobster is de-shelled, the meat marinated and seasoned in egg white. It is first fried, next cooked in a delicate sauce flavoured with black beans and pickled onions. There are also steamed lobsters, crabs, and a fish done in a hot bean sauce, or a chilli vinegar sauce.

Not on the menu but available is a sliced pomfret in Chinese parsley. The parsley is ground to a fine paste with vinegar and sugar. Or, if you don't care for the sugar-vinegar, have it done in a tausi sauce.

The restaurant also has its own sauce, invented and prepared on the premises and called mahlak sauce for no particular reason. The ingredients are hot oil, dry red chilies, and Szechwan pepper corn.

And I will give you a final chicken dish. it is shredded chicken cooked in a celery and Chinese rice wine. It has the aroma of celery and the tanginess of fermented rice wine.

I am not mentioning the vegetables, but I am sure they are good.

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