Passage Thru India: KL's art-rich Indian restaurant is ripe for rediscovery

July 20, 2020

If walls could talk, Passage Thru India's corridors would echo with a quarter-century's worth of stories that chronicle a Malaysian Indian family's labour of love, led by a patriarch whose taste for food is surpassed only by his eye for culture and heritage.

This former home in KL's Bukit Bintang neighbourhood has weathered decades of highs and lows since it was first built, reputedly before World War II. Since 1995, it has housed Malaysia's most distinctive Indian restaurant, as much a gallery as an eatery.

Dining trends have ebbed and flowed, but Passage Thru India remains an inimitably unique thematic culinary experience, a living museum that not only satiates the stomach but stirs the spirit, casting an enthralling spell and revealing its character as you explore this space, both intimate and cavernous.

Here are some of Passage Thru India's secrets, uncovered when we revisited this year, for the first time since 2005.

For the hundreds of thousands of us who've ever eaten at Passage Thru India, we owe that opportunity to S.P. Selva, who not only founded this venue but left his imprint on every surface. The 70-year-old self-taught illustrator personally finger-painted the restaurant's many murals of nature, flourishing with birds and flowers. His art, crafted with material like coconut oil pastels, makes Passage Thru India an ever-evolving exhibition, with one of its latest masterpieces being an impressionist image of the Taj Mahal at its entrance.

Passage Thru India is also a canvas for Selva's travels through India. A former corporate leader in the men's business apparel industry, Selva, a second-generation Malaysian, was often in India to scour textile factories, in remote rural districts where he witnessed the traditional heart of India, far from its cities.

To complement his art, Selva has brought in artifacts, including intricately detailed doors and window panes that he purchased from people's homes across India - those touches enhance Passage Thru India's identity, which evokes a rustic village residence, with scarred, exposed-brick pillars and cracked, crumbling corners built with mud and clay. 

This is authentically soulful in a visionary way that no commercial designer could replicate - with interiors built by hand over decades, the very restaurant represents India in its tangled, transcendent essence.

Those themes and emotions resonate even before you step into Passage Thru India. An auto rickshaw flown in from the streets of India sits beside Selva's painting that reimagines the temples of Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the river Ganges. Terracotta horses and statues of palace guards stand alongside elephant-shaped lamps and the oversize wheel of a broken-down bullock cart, with vintage Rajastani puppets sitting pretty inside.

Passage Thru India is many things simultaneously. It's a kaleidoscope of hues, channeling Holi, India's festival of colours. It's like a grande dame of fading, falling-apart ruins, a scavenger hunt of knickknacks that span the breadth of India, from Odisha to Maharashtra. It's a survivor, having endured three major economic downturns now since the mid-1990s.

Through time, this 160-seater restaurant has hosted everyone from Malaysian premiers to Indian celebrities, plus heads of state and tourists from across the globe. But it also remains near and dear to many Malaysians' hearts, having fed a generation of locals.

With a setting this sumptuous, the food is also rich in nuance. Passage Thru India credits its first head chef, P.S. Kadam, for setting the tone of its kitchen, a cornucopia of cashews, cream and cheese that borrows inspiration from throughout India, with an emphasis on the North.

Chef Kadam began cooking when he was 15 and is retired today after helming Passage Thru India's kitchen until 2010. He comes from a long lineage of cooks in his family and honed his craft at prestigious hotel groups in India. His accomplishments are sterling - he has been the subject of a documentary and has had a cookbook released by a reputable publisher.

Chef Kadam remains a consultant to the Passage Thru India, and his legacy continues with current head chef Gayethri Selva, the daughter of the restaurant's founder. Fun fact: Chef Gayethri was only 11 when Passage Thru India first opened.

The kitchen brigade is filled with Indian chefs who know this food in their blood, who hail from Delhi to Kerala to Kashmir. No corners are cut - nuts like almonds and dried provisions are imported from India, instead of nearby Indonesia or Thailand, for robust flavours and full-bodied textures. Paneer and yogurt are house-made, with slow-stirred boiled milk fresh from local farms.

Passage Thru India also guards the coveted recipes for six to seven garam masala spice blends that its cooks have inherited from chef Kadam. Its powders - curries, coriander and turmeric - are ground by a mill according to its specifications. It's no wonder that the restaurant has been a firm favourite of the Indian High Commission, which regularly entertains its home country's dignitaries here.

Passage Thru India is its own factory of flavours, of ingredients and recipes. With about 100 dishes on the menu, this is a restaurant to return to, again and again, for anyone seeking to understand the classic Indian cookbook better.

Start with Punjab-style northwestern Indian classics like samosas plumply packed with masala-spiced potatoes with a crunchy exterior (RM9.90) and Amritsari fish, flaky snapper marinated and deep-fried in the fashion of India's Golden City (market price). Presentations have become increasingly vibrant at Passage Of India in recent times, with leaves, herbs and edible flowers all playing a role in making these dishes look even more alluring.

Indo-Chinese specialities are also a great way to whet the appetite - the Kashmiri LollyPops evoke sweet-sour boxing chicken, slicked up for tangy, lip-smacking satisfaction (RM10), while the Gobi Manchurian is another time-honoured staple, comprising cauliflower made punchy, tossed with sauteed onions, capsicum and garlic in soy-chilli sauce (RM16).

Crustaceans are crave-worthy here - crab is listed on the menu as Passage Thru India's pride and joy, and it'll bring bliss to customers too. Fleshy live mud crabs are as buoyantly sweet and juicy as expected, best served saturated with a mild coconut-based masala gravy that's blended with 18 spices, beautifully married with the seafood without drowning it out (market price; chilli crabs and pepper crabs are also available).

A dozen different spices also enhance the tiger prawns, grilled on a tawa flat plan and split open in the centre to showcase a rich, savoury sauce that makes these prawns extra-decadent (market price).

If you're having dinner at Passage Thru India, a must-order is the lamb ribs, which take 24 hours to marinate, grilled to order and best consumed within minutes - the restaurant doesn't do takeaways for this dish, since it refuses to compromise the enjoyment of the lamb. The ribs convey a firm but tender bite, robust in their meatiness without being too gamy, with a sultry smokiness brightened by a masala coating that's tinged with fruits like papayas, pineapples and oranges (market price).

Other protein pleasures exhibit the influence of the tandoor, including the perennially popular Murgh Tikka Butter Masala, boneless chicken coal-roasted in the clay oven and coated with creamy butter masala (RM23.50), and of course, Tandoori Platters bolstered by chicken, fish, lamb, prawns and kebabs that herald the Turko-Persian inflections on Mughlai cuisine, gently laced with ginger, yogurt and other uplifting flourishes for barbecued meat at its most aromatic.

Carbs to partner with the produce include Passage Thru India's variety of naan (in flavours like garlic, cheese or butter), also charcoal-fired, yeast-free for an authentically rustic sturdiness, and pulao, saffron-scented rice that's flavourful enough even to eat on its own.

Nobody should leave Passage Thru India hungry, but even though we were thoroughly stuffed, we still indulged in soothing masala tea, house-mixed for a mellow sweet-spiciness, beneficial for digestion, and one of the restaurant's latest creations, a coconut sorbet shake that relies on organic coconuts, ringing with tropical beach flavours, laced with organic honey, cashews, almonds and walnuts for a low-guilt chilled treat that's both rejuvenating and nourishing.

Passage Thru India is so absorbingly ravishing, we spent an entire afternoon immersing ourselves in its endlessly, exquisitely photogenic sections. Many thanks to the team here for having us.

Note that Passage Thru India also has a second outpost, a more modern-outfitted space in Damansara Heights.

Passage Thru India

4, Jalan Delima, Off Jalan Bukit Bintang, 55100 Kuala Lumpur.

Daily, 11:45am-2:45pm, 6:15pm-9:45pm.

Tel: 03-2145-0366