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Biryani at the Bawa's

By Calvin Godfrey   February 12, 2017 | 09:00 am PT
Biryani at the Bawa's
The Bawa's Grill serves mutton biryani on Tuesdays and Fridays. Even on those days, it's best to call ahead and reserve your order beforehand. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey
A Ho Chi Minh City native offers an epic lamb feast at his home, twice a week.

The Bawa's Grill (est. 2016) has been a long time in the making.

The Bawa, in this case, is Ali Bawa, 50, a Vietnamese citizen of Indian extraction who came of age as Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City.

Before he and his sixteen siblings left for the sub-continent, the Bawa says his father managed to find business in the unlikeliest of places—say, selling copper... in Hai Phong in the 1980s. After finishing college in India, the Bawa himself carved out an impressive career trading timber in seemingly every corner of Southeast Asia.

Though his passport and his heart remained Vietnamese, business required him to spend long stretches in southern Thailand and Kunming.

Three months ago, the voluble Bawa filled the ground floor of his house with tables and chairs that look to have been carved from the finest wood on the continent and hung a hand-carved sign over the front door that read: The Bawa's Grill est. 2016.

The proud restauranteur (who claims fluency in Thai, Lao, Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi, Bahasa—Malay and Myanmar—and Cham) seems at ease sitting among his wood, feeding people and offering them bits of yarn from his rather incredible past.

Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

Ali Bawa, 50, was born in Vietnam and has lived all over Southeast Asia. Last year, he opened a restaurant in his home to convince his 23-year old son, Ali, not to return to Australia where he studied and cooked professionallyPhoto by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey

That said, the Bawa built his grill, in part, to convince his 23-year old son (Ali Khazir Bawa) not to move back to Australia.

The Bawa's mission seems written into the wallpaper, which alternatively features the names of famous foreign buildings (the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House) and New York City subway stations.

A framed zulfiqar—a replica of the split-tipped scimitar Mohammad passed to his cousin Ali during a particularly bad scrape with the Meccans—breaks up the theme.
“It's just stuff my dad thinks is cool,” said the Lesser Bawa, who is similarly bearded, good-humored and well-fed.

Though he spent six years developing a taste for thick Aussie steaks and suburban quiet the second-oldest son of The Bawa's seven children couldn't refuse an offer to cook with his dad.

Together they drafted a carnivorous menu of halal hamburgers, steaks and pastas. They also maintain a small Pakistani menu (Chicken Krai, Kima and Kebab Rolls) that fits in a back pocket.

That said, the Main Event for the Bawas falls on Tuesday and Friday, when they roll out their mean mutton biryani.

The Bawa presents his hunks of lamb roasted in basmati rice on a tin tray accompanied by shots of sweet tamarind rasam (to aid with digestion, he says) and a chopped salad of purple cabbage and apple that sings with the sweetness of southern Vietnam.

Fans of moist biryani should call for the curry—a rich, spciy gravy of lamb spines stewed to melting.

While each table contains two squeeze bottles of hot sauce and a plastic jar of thick tuong ot (ketchup), put in a special request for the electric orange paste The Bawa spins from chilies grown outside a village near Chau Doc, where he puts on biryani feasts for holy days.

Lately, the Bawa is mulling a request from a large Malaysian energy concern to cook lunch for 300 people.

At one time, he cooked biryani at comparable volumes, but when his wife passed away a dozen years ago, he gave away his entire buffet set convinced he would never cook the dish again.

Shortly after the opening of the grill, customers began clamoring for the rice he once colored with saffron and studded with cashews. The Lesser Bawa talked him into creating something simpler and they settled on a recipe that tastes great and sells for a lean VND160,000 ($7) per person.

The Bawa is now shopping for a new buffet set.

Address: The Bawa's Grill

72/3B Huynh Van Banh, Phu Nhuan District, Ward 15, Ho Chi Minh City

Tuesdays and Thursdays are Biryani days when it's best to arrange your order ahead.


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