As Malaysians, one of the things that we’re proudest about our country is the variety of cuisines that we get to indulge in, any time of the day. The amazing blend of flavours that we get from our meals today is no longer something new to us. Instead, many chefs have taken things a step further by creatively combining different seasonings and spices with cuisines from other cultures for a colourful – and sometimes unexpected – burst of flavours.
For Singapore’s Passport To Feast 2022 – a culinary event held in conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival, co-founder of The Elephant Room (a culture-forward cocktail bar in the Lion City), 34-year-old Yugnes Susela joined hands with Bar Pahit to introduce a new mixture of cocktails for us to try out. Fun fact: not only is it infused with spices, but it’s also got a touch of Indian food that’ll give you that extra oomph! We had a chat with Yugnes and got the 101 on his career as a bartender/mixologist, his journey to opening The Elephant Room and the inspiration behind the drinks that he has curated for this collaboration.
Share with us about your background and how you started up The Elephant Room.
“I was born and bred in Singapore, and I’ve been in the F&B line since I was 16. I started off as part-timer working as a kitchen porter to a dishwasher, a cook and finally a waiter to earn money to pay for my school. At 17, bartenders were flaring, and I thought that they were cool, so I asked my manager if I could become one. Unfortunately, he told me that I wasn’t 18 yet, so on my 18birthday, I asked him again and that’s how it all began.
I was very much in love with the profession (and still am) so I quickly decided that I wanted it to be my career from the start. I worked in various famous restaurants and even went on to become a head bartender. But it came to a point where I had to do a life check and think about what I was going to be doing in the next few years. I asked myself if I had what it took to open a bar of my own and since I couldn’t answer the question, I told myself the only way to go about finding out the answer was by diving straight into it – and that’s how The Elephant Room was born.”
What about The Elephant Room makes it stand out from other cocktail bars?
“The Elephant Room celebrates Indian culture every day. Anybody can open a cool speakeasy bar, but my aim was to showcase what the Indian culture is all about and to put it on the map, so the place was built on four pillars – hospitality, cocktails, Indian food and aesthetics.
In terms of hospitality, we don’t just serve you a drink and leave, but we’ll explain to you what Indian cocktails are and the ingredients used. As for cocktails, we get our ingredients, produce and herbs from Singapore’s Little India on a weekly basis. We focus a lot on spices, culture and cuisine. When you ask a non-Indian what Indian food comes to mind, they’ll usually end up naming the regular dishes – dosai, biryani and prata. My aim is to change the view that people have on Indian food as we have so many other dishes that are unknown. It might come as a shocker, but we want to show people that bar snacks don’t have to be just that.
You can enjoy comfort food as bar snacks too and one of our stellar dishes is the Mussels and Crab Sothi where uncommon seafood is used in this dish. Our fourth pillar is aesthetics which refers to the vibe of the bar. It is built around the Indian culture and the colours we’ve used reflect that. If you take a look at our menu covers, you’d realise that they’re actually made from leftover sari strips that can be found at the tailor shop at Tekka Market in Singapore. Our aim is to showcase how vibrant the fabric is and how it can be transformed into something else.”
Tell us more about the cocktails that you’ve introduced at Bar Pahit.
“What I did was I brought back some of the old top-selling drinks from The Elephant Room. Currently, our menu is inspired by the various states in India. Hence, we made a drink called the Indian Lion to celebrate the whole of Punjab and the Singh community. Technically, Singh means lion but many people don’t know about this. To make it stand out and bring out its meaning, we used Tandoori nectar and Fenugreek Vermouth that’s mixed with whiskey so that the drink is savoury, sweet and strong like a lion.
Another drink we’ve included is the Indian AF (IYKYK). Through this, we sous vide traditional pickles with tequila, lime juice and agave nectar, which is one of our versions of the classic. On the other hand, Buffalo Road is named after a road in Little India. It’s a combination of gin and tonic with pink guava, but the thing is that not many people know that gin and tonic originated from India instead of the west. Made in Kolkata represents the West Bengal state where pani puri originated from. We turned it into a nice garnish for the drink where we’ve included a mustard-like ingredient in it, and since they love the taste of fish, we created a dry sparkling cocktail made from ghee-fat washed rum, banana cider and saffron to go with it. That’s how we introduce drinks that are sophisticated yet memorable. The drinks we’ve curated for Bar Pahit is palatable for everyone.”
What are some of your most favourite Indian ingredients that you’ve used to curate drinks?
“Personally, I like kalpasi aka stone flower as it gives you a nice wet and mossy feel, and you can even add it to your cooking. Another one is called kodampuli, a black kind of tamarind that’s found in Kerala which gives a nice roasty taste to drinks. I also love cardamom as you don’t need to add sugar to the cocktail, yet it’ll give out that fragrance and sweet taste instead. Now that you see many people going for cocktails that have less sugar, we incorporate sweetness using alternative ingredients such as cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg that add sweet notes to your drink. Instead of white sugar, we also use jaggery as an alternative.”
Besides food and spices, what else have you considered using as part of your drinks?
“I love rasam but many people look at it as just a kind of broth that you drink after a meal. I’ve always looked at it as a Bloody Mary and when I started to dig deeper, I found that there’s this thing called Pineapple Rasam. It’s served in South India and the pineapple is a “royal” fruit that many people couldn’t afford back then. If someone gives you a pineapple, it means that you are special to them. So what we did was add gin to the rasam where we did a distillation and added some tomatoes before topping it off with frozen pineapples. It was amazing!”
What’s the one element from Little India that you’ve consistently included in the cocktails you’ve served?
“When you come to Little India, there’s always this specific smell which comes from the flowers that are sold, incense sticks and the food. It’s very rich and somehow, after doing a lot of research, I’ve managed to incorporate certain scents into every cocktail that I’ve curated based on its DNA. That’s the one element that ties everything together no matter where I go.”
Vasenta’s top picks of cocktails under the Passport To Feast Menu at Bar Pahit: Buffalo Road, Honeydew and Made in Kolkata
Bar Pahit is located at 3 Jalan Sin Chew Kee, Bukit Bintang, 50150 Kuala Lumpur. It’s open from Tuesday to Friday (5pm to 1am) and on Saturday and Sunday (3pm to 1am). If you happen to be in Singapore, don't forget to check out The Elephant Room that's located at 20A, Teck Lim Road, 088391, Singapore. It's open daily from 6pm to 12.30am.