Ken Saburi: Seven reasons why Asian food in Estonia sucks

The Tartu-based Singaporean-Japanese professional, Ken Saburi, highlights seven reasons why Asian food in Estonia is still not up to scratch.

I was once an “advisor” to an Asian restaurant in Tartu (the second largest town in Estonia – editor) for a short time and I believe I have some insights why Asian restaurants in Estonia suck big time. There are exceptions – but as the word suggests, exceptions.

1) Greedy clueless incompetent bosses.

2) When you see “Asian” restaurants that claim to do Chinese, Indian and Thai cuisine, run as far as you can! It’s like a “European” restaurant somewhere in Asia that claims to do Italian, English and Finnish cuisine.

3) Most of these restaurants have 100 or more items on their menu. Ever wonder how their kitchens cope with it? By pre-cooking loads of meat, rice and noodles a day or two before. They will simply microwave most of them upon order. In other words, classic Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare practices.

4) The cooks are either lazy, fake or have their balls to the walls because of their dumb bosses, which lead them to cook pure rubbish.

5) Hard-to-get spices? That’s a myth. I lived with Indians and Pakistanis during my dorm days in Tartu and the food they cooked was as authentic as it can be. Needless to say – their food was way better than the restaurants’.

6) Customers not knowing any better. Just this summer, I was introduced to an Indian and Thai restaurant in Tallinn. I was sceptical, but I saw that it has a 4.8/5 rating on Facebook. Letting my guard down, I decided to give it a chance. Boy oh boy, I will never return to the restaurant.

7) Every single thing is doused or marinated in, or served with ketchup sauce.
Fried rice/noodles, ketchup.
Butter chicken, ketchup.
Curry sauce, the taste of ketchup in it.
Ketchup, more ketchup.
Can’t taste any quintessential Indian spices like turmeric, cumin or masala.

Editor’s note:

Asian and other ethnic restaurants in Estonia can only improve upon if the customers demand for better. More and more Estonians travel around the world and have a good comparison with other countries. Mediocre and overpriced food is just not acceptable – to demand €15 for a bland curry in Tallinn (while you pay €2 for a mouth-watering curry in India or €10 in London) is just ridiculously extortionate and greedy. The Asian restaurants in Tallinn and Tartu ought to offer better value for money – and last, but not least – tastier food.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Chicken biryani (the image is illustrative/Shutterstock).

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About the author: Ken Saburi

Ken Saburi is currently residing and working in Tartu. He's officially from Japan, but spent most of his life in Singapore. He graduated from the University of Tartu where he studied business administration.

  • SergeyMoiseev

    Number 5 is just ridiculous. Restaurant owner will never use in their kitchen something that wasn’t certified by food safety inspectors. Because you can just ruin your whole career, not just a single venue.

    • Zheng-hao Chen

      I think it has a faire point. I can get a lot of spices from super markets (I assume those products must have been certificated before they went on shelves, right?) … so it has nothing to do with the “lack of spices” if the restaurant cooks lousy food.

      • SergeyMoiseev

        A lot of spices v.s. correct spices for some kinds of food is quite different thing. I have to go to Helsinki every now and then to get my share of oriental food. Definitely I am not doing it just for love of sailing for 4 hours in one day and for staying in lines for another two.

        • Zheng-hao Chen

          you might have higher standard to pick the correct spices, my point is: the current asian food quality here, there are much bigger issues than lacking of “special/correct” spices…

          • SergeyMoiseev

            Greens, fish and sea food, pickled everything, kimchi with normal taste, not fake one. I can go forever. Find at least one hot pot spice mix in Tallinn for example. There is no market for those things, and there is no offer for them. So you may try to make any close to original, but you will fail. As pork and kama is not enough to do oriental food. No matter how much I love both.

          • Zheng-hao Chen

            You can learn to cook by yourself 🙂
            This one is a very good channel, you can cook Chinese with all western ingredients. (you can turn on English subtitles)
            https://www.youtube.com/user/amandaslittlekitchen

    • Vishal Desai

      I made Indian food with spices purchased from the Kaubamaja Supermarket in Tartu. Number 5 is as correct as it can get. The fact that 50g of Garam Masala will cost some €3.5 will push the owners off balance, hence, they resort to cheaper alternatives. Another situation is the perception that there is only one red chilli powder. Wrong! In Indian cuisine the type of red chilli powder makes a big difference. I will give one example, Kashmiri red has more flavour and colour than Degghi red which is sharp in hotness and with little colour. I only see “tsilli punane” in the supermarkets. One more example would be that there is no black mustard seeds in the supermarkets. This one is essential in preparing Indian food.
      One more situation was when I found Zucchini in Biryani eating in a restaurant. This is a ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ situation for Indian people.
      The author has done a good job in writing this article, absolutely to the point, exposing the fantasy that restaurants put their frequenters in, and by making them shed near to €15 on dishes which are in my opinion, nothing close to what they are supposed to be.
      Some of these owners who get offended by the article and try to respond sharply by accusing others of using food colourants and other stuff etc., should start looking at their own kitchens first and use this article positively to improve their restaurants rather than pointing fingers at random targets.

  • Liina Kurs

    I’m afraid the real reason is that there are no real chefs in those kitchens. Being a Pakistani or Indian doesn’t make you a great cook. I have had disappointing asian food in ‘authentic’ establishments in Asia too. Customers can demand better, but if there are chefs/cooks who don’t care to do better, there is no solution. It goes for all restaurants, not just Asian. The reason i avoid eating out in general.

    • Zheng-hao Chen

      You are right, although if customers demand better, those bad restaurants would be pushed out of market…unless Estonians really crave for asians food and are willing to get anything available here..that would be funny if that’s the case 🙂

      • Kairi Lints

        Yes, customers can demand better but… maybe they really do not want ‘authentic’ asian food? Maybe they like asian food in estonian way? I was once in a Finnish asian restaurant which local people sayd the best asian restaurant in the city. Food tastes for me like every other finnish food, I was disappointed and I sayd it’s asian food in finnish way. I’d really like to try real authentic asian food but… I’m not sure I like it more than I can get at the moment in Tartu. Most of us are used to eat what we are used to eat 🙂

        • Samuele De Pizzol

          Well said! If you are used to eat shit, this is what you should get. It would just be correct to name the restaurants as “Chinese restaurant that tastes like Estonian” or “Indian restaurant that tastes like Finnish” in order not to cheat those who are searching the real taste. If you like your own food why are you going to an exotic restaurant hoping to get the same tastes you are used to? Very weird indeed

        • Zheng-hao Chen

          I lived long time in western world, totally understand what you mean. The chinese food in every countries tasted a bit different. It’s just a style of cooking not sciences, so everyone is free to adapt and create his own version. If people are happy for what they get, that’s the most important thing. 🙂

    • runs with scissors

      Or you could go to a restaurant with a chef that cares and luckily we do have several.

      Haku in Tallinn is one such. Gotsu is another. They have one thing in common – the chef is also the owner.

      But otherwise the owner has to have a clue and exercise quality control over his staff.

  • Ivar Andreassen

    I know Bollywood which is a India Restaurant in Pikk street went to India to handpick his chefs,,,and i sometimes og out eat With my Indian friend and he said they have the best Indian Food in Tallinn there and we always eat there,,so some Places they really trying to make good also.

  • Ivar Andreassen

    Bollywood reastaurant in Pikk street have really tasty Indian Food..

    • Nick Cardoso

      That food is awful…

  • Tural Abdulla

    Well, I think there are also good asian restaurants, such is Himalaya. Whenever I eat there, I feel like it is fine asian food.

  • Toomas R. Raist

    Hello, I am one of the owners of New Thai restaurant. I am abit offended by this article to be honest. I agree that it might be true for some restaurants but we do try to make everything authentic in our restaurant. We, as owners, never say to our Thai chefs how to cook food. And yes, we only have Thai chefs. There are no Estonians in the kitchen. We ship produce by plane directly from Thailand. There just is no other alternative here. That makes the price higher than in Thailand also in London where you can already buy special ingredient locally. We have had some local customers that are saying that our food should be “Europeanised” because we are in Europe. We intend to do nothing like that ever. We are fans of Thailand with my business partner and we made the restaurant because we wanted real Thai food. We never made it for making money. you can even say its our hobby. I agree that not all people like our food. Its made I-san style and is a bit different from Phuket and Bangkok. I am not saying we are perfect. But reading that all restaurants are only making “crap” is also not true. younever find taste enhancers or food colour from our food. We are actually proud of our little restaurant that is competing with Asian chain restaurants.

    • Ana Poli

      Looking forward to get to know your restaurant!

    • Ken Saburi

      Hi Toomas,
      I am very glad that you decided to embark on a mission to showcase Thai cuisine and staying true to its authenticity as close as one can be in Estonia.
      I am also very well aware that certain essential ingredients such as lemongrass, certain types of Thai chili, dried seafood items, and galangal are almost non-existent in Estonia which make it a greater challenge to run a Thai restaurant. Let’s not start with quality coconut milk. It’s costly in this part of the world. Hence, I totally understand the position your restaurant is in and people should recognise the restaurant’s efforts in bringing Thailand closer to Estonia.

      Make no mistake, I am not oblivious to the fact that there are a few good and impressive Asian restaurants in Estonia, especially in Tallinn. Statistically speaking, there are about 60-70 Asian restaurants in Tallinn and the question is, how many are sticking to good practices? Probably 6 to 9 of them? That made up to be 12%-15%. That is why I did address in the article that there are exceptions.

      This opinion article is to explain the horrendous practices and horrid management that make most of the Asian restaurants out there to be sub-standard. I’ve also personally seen potential Estonian cooks reduced to cooking rubbish just because the boss or the head chef insisted to stick to their disgusting menu. It is extremely sad to witness these situations.

      I hope I cleared the air and do not take this article to heart as this is directed to bad restaurants and letting it be known to locals that they can have better things rather than pre-cooked food doused in ketchup sauce disguised as “Asian” cuisine.

      Cheers!

  • Madis Sander

    In general I agree but there are some restorans that stand out in Tallinn.
    Japanese – Haku
    Thai – Noknok
    Chinese – Dao Hua (their Sichuan dishes are excellent)
    Indian – Chakra

  • Dan D

    Restaurant fancy location, pricey ingredients…?

  • Triin K

    It can be that some restaurants are as you say, but not all of them. There are very good restaurants which make close to home made food.
    Thai – Noknok and New Thai
    Indian – KarriTehas

  • Ave

    This is not an article, but just a generalised rant, which offers absolutely nothing to the reader besides “its all crap”.