MANY OF the tourist and locals that wander through the doors of the famous Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant in Bangkok do not know that it is run by a Malaysian.
Having been in business in Bangkok for close to 40 years, the restaurant is practically an institution. The first Mrs Balbir’s was set up in 1975 by Harvinder Kaur on on Sukhumvit Soi 11. Today, there are six outlets located across the city.
Many who meet Harvinder for the first time are taken by her warm personality, mega-watt smile, and humble demeanour.
The humility is refreshing because here is a woman who stands at the helm of a successful chain of restaurants, conducts cooking classes attended celebrated chefs from all over the world, hosts her own television cooking show which is in its 16th year running, and serves as a consultant chef for Thai Airways’ international flights.
“These days I’m especially busy because of the on-going protests. Things run out of stock quickly because our suppliers sometimes have trouble delivering our orders due to the road blocks,” she said in her Malaysian accent before speaking in rapid Hindi into the phone, while simultaneously taking down orders in Thai from her restaurant manager.
These days, Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant has become synonymous with North Indian cuisine in Bangkok.
Like all success stories, Mrs Balbir’s did not happen overnight. But what makes the story extraordinary is Harvinder’s incredible grit and determination to rise above tragic circumstances and overcome any obstacle that comes her way.
Now 58, Harvinder remembers the day her parents were killed before her eyes like it was just yesterday.
On May 16, 1969, Harvinder, then 10 years old, was caught in a crossfire during rioting on Jalan Thambusamy in Kuala Lumpur, where she lived with her parents and three siblings.
“The entire street was in chaos. A neighbour — a Chinese man — had just been shot, and my father went to get him out of the streets and into our house, and he too got shot. Hearing the sounds, my mother ran out of the house and I followed her, and we were both hit by a burst of gunfire,” she recalls.
Harvinder woke up in KL’s General Hospital hours later to discover that both her parents had died in the shooting. She and her sister were later sent to school in Kuantan and then to Malacca, while her two brothers were sent to India.
Upon finishing school at 17, Harvinder’s grandfather, a veteran in KL’s real estate industry, arranged for her to be married to an Indian tailor in Bangkok named Balbir Thakral.
As a young bride in Bangkok, Harvinder found herself in completely unfamiliar surroundings.
“Not only could I not speak a word of Thai, my new husband would only eat Indian food. Thankfully, he could cook, and he taught me how to prepare Indian dishes,” she said.
“Back in Malacca, I had learnt to cook all sorts of cuisine — Italian, Malaysian, English — from the nuns at Sacred Heart Convent. I was very passionate about cooking, and once I came to Bangkok, I quickly picked up Thai and Indian cooking,” she said.
Not long after arriving in Bangkok, Harvinder began to conduct cooking classes from home.
“To the expatriates, I taught Thai cuisine, baking, pastry-making. To the locals, I taught Western cuisine, and to young Indian girls, I taught how to cook Indian food so that they can make their future husbands happy. With the money I had saved up from the cooking classes, I wanted to open a restaurant and call it Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant.
“My husband, being a traditional Indian man, was reluctant to let me at first. I told him, if I didn’t behave myself, he could drop the ‘s’ from Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant and it would be all his and he could call it Mr Balbir’s Restaurant,” she joked.
Pouring in about 1 million baht (today about RM101,500), Harvinder and her husband opened the first Mrs. Balbir’s Restaurant with just six tables.
While Bangkok today is a melting pot of cultures, Harvinder said that in 1975, Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant was born in the “toughest market”.
“While most Westerners loved Indian food, the Thais were not so open to it then. They would enter the restaurant, catch a whiff of the strong smell of Indian spices and turn to leave.
“I took it upon myself to educate my Thai friends about Indian food. I told them that many of the spices used in Indian cooking are the same as in Thai cooking, just in different proportions.”
Harvinder described the following six years as “very, very difficult”, and for 15 years after that, the restaurant “merely survived”.
“There were many times when I just wanted to pack up and close shop, but something made me hold on.
“Then suddenly there was a shift in Thailand’s economy and society. I started to realise that more and more Malaysian, Singaporean and Indian tourists were arriving in Bangkok which was increasingly becoming known as a shopping haven.
“This of course, increased traffic into my restaurant, and I decided to open branches in the shopping malls. The new generation of Thais were also a lot more appreciative of foreign cuisine,” she said.
Today, apart from the outlet on Sukhumvit 11, Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant is also in Robinsons Sukhumvit 19, Central World, Platinum Fashion Mall, Central Chidlom, Central Silom, and Central Plaza Grand Rama 9.
The chain is run by Harvinder, her husband and son Sunny, 28, together with a 100 strong staff.
Prices on the menu range from 80 baht (RM8) for the Allu Naan (naan stuffed with potatoes and spices), 150 baht for the Gajar Halwa (classic carrot pudding with a scoop of rich vanilla ice-cream topped with pistachios), to 420 baht for Tandoori Hara Lamb Tikka.
Mrs Balbir’s Restaurant has received seven “Malaysia Kitchen for the World” five-star awards from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation, and has been featured by international media such as the BBC, The New York Times and Lonely Planet travel guides.
Harvinder says that her secret to building a successful business in Thailand, is simply by being patient and understanding Thai culture.
“There are two main important things to remember when working with Thais — be gentle and do not place blame.
“It is all about knowing how to present your request or any problem you have to them, in a respectful, gentle tone, without making them feel like you are pointing fingers at them.
“I have seen many foreigners come and set up businesses here, and fail, because they did know how to work with the Thais at their level,” she said.
Despite having lived in Bangkok for more than 40 years, Harvinder still considers herself “very much Malaysian” and still holds a Malaysian passport.
She makes three to four trips home every year to stock up on “personal essentials” such as belacan, ikan bills, gula melaka, and Boh tea to make her own teh tarik.
She also use the trips back to satisfy her cravings for Malaysian favourites like nasi lemak and asam laksa.
She has plans to open a Malaysian restaurant under another brand in Bangkok which, she says, has a great untapped market for Malaysian food, and is also open to selling the Mrs Balbir’s franchise for branches to be opened in Malaysia.
“No matter how long I’ve been here, Malaysia will always be home and I miss it. I really hope that soon there will be more Malaysian restaurants opening in Bangkok, and also that Mrs Balbir’s will be able to open shop in Malaysia.”