With its shiny, luxurious new interiors evoking a maharajah’s private chambers, it might be hard to imagine there’s already an almost 50-year history behind BGC’s Indian restaurant Kashmir—and humbler beginnings too.
It all started at the basement of a pension house ran by three regal-looking ladies, the Sehwanis—Indra Merchandani, Kamla “Bebo” Singh, and Sita Advani. “We’re three sisters bored with being housewives and we decided to open a business, but the business we opened was not a restaurant but a guest house in Makati,” says Kamla.
Before the local hotel boom of ‘76, the First Lady Imelda Marcos was said to have encouraged people to open their homes to foreign visitors. “At that time there was a lack of hotels and these pensions were in demand.”
The sisters found a building along Makati Avenue to rent and transformed it into a 10-bedroom lodge they called Villa Cristo Rey, “a home away from home,” it’s tagline went. Located behind the former International School, it was “a few minutes away from the old Makati Commercial Center,” as it’s flyer described, and “a leisurely 15-minute drive” from the Manila International Airport.
The basement resto
The Sehwanis had a charming little setup, but then it occurred to them they also needed to have a small kitchen to provide meals for guests. Which led to turning the building’s basement space into a small restaurant. “My sister Situ loves to cook,” says Kamla. “And she cooks such good food and she has so many friends who loved her cooking.” Naturally, Situ, a pharmacist, was assigned to head the kitchen of their new project, leaving the operations to Kamla while Imla was assigned to the books.
The decision to hone in on home-cooked Indian dishes early on proved a smart move. After all, there was no other known Indian restaurant in Manila at that time.
Soon, the little basement eatery was becoming more popular than the pension house itself and needed its own home. Good thing the sisters found a space very near Villa Cristo Rey and in 1976 officially opened Kashmir. It was named after the Indian subcontinent’s impossibly gifted northernmost geographical region long dubbed as “paradise on earth,” beloved by tourists for its azure rivers and lakes that turn gold at dawn.
This rich, majestic vista must have inspired the flavors of Kashmir the restaurant. The ladies started with a small menu where the early stars were the Rogan Josh, the Palak Paneer, the dals and Tandoori chicken. They concentrated on Northern Indian fare, but added Middle Eastern, Singaporean and Malaysian dishes when they moved to a bigger space—the 200-sqm branch in
Pasay Road. In 1979, they opened a branch in Ermita, Manila, which catered mostly to Arabs in the area who were recruiting Filipino workers for jobs in Saudi Arabia.
But it was the opening of the Pasay Road branch that seemed to signify a kind of adulting for Kashmir. “We decided we could be more professional,” says Kamla on taking on the challenge of an increased capacity. They hired a decorator who upped the restaurant’s stately Indian vibe. They got someone to design their menu. They even hired a guy from India to cook Southern Indian food.
Happily, all their risks and sacrifices paid off. “We were able to succeed, people started coming, [the restaurant] became very very popular,” Kamla tells ANCX. The success of Kashmir, however, led to closing the pensione business. By that time, the Sehwanis had already opened another lodging house in Bel-Air—but it was clear Kashmir was the business the ladies truly enjoyed running. They would bring their kids to work even as they busied themselves with restaurant chores.
Because of its reputation for quality Indian food and good service, Kashmir became Manila’s go-to Indian place. “With a variety of sauces ranging from tomato cream and butter, to coconut milk with spices, to spicy tandoori, it’s no wonder Kashmir’s cuisine ranks among the top five in the city with locals and expats alike,” said an old Frommer’s review which recommended the place in the New York Times.
Norman Llaneta, who has had more than 30 years of experience with Kashmir since starting as a busboy in 1990, remembers spotting celebrities like Sharon Cuneta, Robin Padilla, Judy Ann Santos and Dawn Zulueta in the restaurant. He’s served all of the Indian ambassadors and remembers the time Kashmir catered for a party where Sushmita Sen, who was crowned Miss Universe in the Philippines in 1994, was guest of honor.
Kashmir was a blockbuster in the catering business. There was a point when they had two events in a day. There was a wedding that fed 1,500 people. The food was especially popular with the different embassies who would ask the sisters to prepare a feast for their varied gatherings and annual Diwali parties. But while Kashmir was a favorite among the expats, the restaurant also became a favorite of Pinoys. It won’t be wrong to say it helped open the conservative Filipino palate to Indian food and its unique flavors, bold colors, and distinct aroma.
From bored to bold
Because of Kashmir, the Sehwani sisters went from “bored housewives” to inspired restaurateurs. “We were three sisters who were very devoted to our work. We were there everyday. We saw to it the consistency of the food was there,” says Kamla. It was eventually this commitment, this obsession to always be around in all their outlets—just so they can make sure their food is consistently of the best quality—that led to them deciding to close the other Kashmir branches and keeping only Pasay Road in business.
After 45 years of running Kashmir, however, the sisters have handed over the reins to entrepreneur Leon Araneta who opened the beautifully pulled together Kashmir in One Bonifacio High Street after closing the popular Pasay Road branch pre-Covid. In his interviews, Araneta expressed his appreciation for what Kashmir stands for—not only good food but family and heritage. He’s introduced a few new things to the menu, like a vegan section which has been getting a lot of positive feedback. But he’s also kept many of the time-honored recipes from the Sehwanis. He’s brought in mementos from the restaurant’s past life, from the framed photos on the teal walls, the wall mouldings, the beautiful old dining chairs he had refurbished. He even took in some of the old Kashmir’s loyal staff including Llaneta.
Most importantly, it seems, Araneta has instilled the Sehwanis’ value for quality and consistency in the new Kashmir. It’s kitchen is designed like a workshop, where instead of a chef there are “craftsmen” coming up with dishes that place a premium on quality and consistency.
“We were so blessed that Leon bought it from us because he is such an amazing man and he has really worked hard to keep it as good as it can be,” enthuses Kamla. “And then he opened the one in BGC which he did so beautifully so we’re so blessed. We’re so grateful to God that Leon took over so the legacy of Kashmir still stays on.”