‘Chaineej’. Or ‘Chini’. Or ‘Chiniss’. Even ‘Chinase’ …
Whilst the Chinese have been visiting India for millennia in search of Buddhist teaching, Yang Tai Chow was the first recorded Chinese to migrate to India for better prospects. In 1778 he put down roots in Kolkata, or Calcutta, then the capital of British India, the easiest accessible metropolitan area from China by land.
Over the years, many like him came, mostly Hakkas, and by the early part of the 20th century, a Chinatown had developed and it thrived and buzzed with enterprise. They served with distinction as dentists, tannery owners, sauce manufacturers, and shoe shop owners but it was as restaurateurs that the Chinese got their fame and glory.
As all immigrant communities tend to do, the Chinese assimilated Indian sensibilities and beliefs. They even acknowledged one of our goddesses, Kali, as their own as a sign of unity, and offered noodles, chop suey, rice and vegetable dishes in rituals. It’s no surprise then that they were influenced by Indian food too.
About 85 years ago, the Indian culinary world was enriched by a new cuisine. The first Chinese restaurant – Eau Chew – opened in Kolkata. And hordes of hungry came out satiated, beaming their approval to the next lot of people who hadn’t tried this new fangled cuisine that was of foreign origin yet spicy and tasty like their own food. And new restaurants mushroomed all over the city, and legends like Fat Mama and Kim Fa were born, offering newer dishes with fancier combinations and names like August Moon Rolls and Fiery Dragon Chicken and before you know it ‘Indian’ Chinese had grabbed the culinary fancy of millions upon millions in every small town and city across India. And it wasn’t just served by restaurants big and small, but also by handcart owners, highway food stalls and mobile ‘Chow Mein’ vans boasting such imaginative names like “Hungry Eyes” and “Dancing Stomach”.
So what is it that makes Chinese food so spectacularly popular? The answer lies in Indian food. Quick to figure out that us Indians love spicy and heavy food, the Chinese merely ‘masala-fied’ their cuisine and lo and behold you had a winning combination.
Feel like eating paneer (Indian cottage cheese)? No problem. Order Sichuan Paneer, quite the same but with Chinese spices. Want a chicken curry? Why not order Chilli Chicken? Feel like an Aloo Bhindi? Kung Pao Potatoes with Okra in a sweet and spicy tomato based dry sauce will cure your craving. Want south Indian style fried chicken? Go for the Pepper Chicken. Feel like vegetable pakoras (batter fried dumplings)? Order a Gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian. Feel like non vegetarian pakoras? Pick from Chicken or Lamb or Prawn Manchurian, dry or gravy.
Wait a minute, ‘Manchurian’? Is that really a dish? Not in China, no. But in India, it’s almost synonymous with Chinese food. The result of a request by a customer to create something different from the menu, Nelson Wang (then caterer for Chinese food at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai) took cubes of chicken, coated them in corn flour and deep fried them. Then he prepared a sauce with onions, green chillies and garlic, and slapped some vinegar and soy into it. Then he popped the fried chicken dumplings back into the sauce and gave it a quick stir so that the flavors came together. And he served it with rice. And the customer loved it. As Nelson says, “word of mouth” spread the acclaim of this dish and today it is found in almost every menu that serves Chinese food in the country.
This very “word of mouth” publicity inspired Nelson Wang to start his own hugely popular restaurant – China Garden. Today his son Eddie, a third generation Chinese Indian, spearheads the restaurant’s expansion to Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune and Goa. Quite a feat for a man who began his career eking out a meagre living doing odd jobs, including Limbo dancing at clubs in Kolkata, which he was very good at.
The comforting, ‘feel-at-home’ emotion of ‘Indian’ Chinese food is accentuated by the garnishes. Most dishes are artistically covered with fresh coriander leaves, and depending on the dish, sliced onion rings too.
Clearly the ingredients are what distinguish ‘Indian’ Chinese from real Chinese food. While the cooking methods remain the same, what goes in is quite different. Besides the use of locally available vegetables and meats, it’s the use of condiments like garam masalas (a selection of hand pounded or whole spices), corn flour for thickening and coating, monosodium glutamate to enhance that ‘Chinese’ flavor, an overdose of chilli, garlic and ginger, and generous portions of soy sauce to top it all off that gives ‘Indian’ Chinese food that special robust and spicy flavor.
That’s right, who needs the bland and ‘original’ Chinese food when you’ve got a good Chilli Garlic Prawn in front of you? Or Hakka Noodles? (Noodles tossed with garlic, lots of chillies, cabbage, capsicum, carrots, ajinomoto, soya and Worcestershire sauces, vinegar and garnished with spring onions). Or a Chicken Lollipop? (Chicken wings artfully stuffed with more meat, dipped in a red batter and deep fried). Or Crispy Lamb? Or a Sweet Corn Chicken Soup? (So famous that multinational food companies market this as instant soup). Firmly established in the Indian culinary milieu now, these dishes define the ‘Indian’ Chinese food experience. Today, restaurants also offer a selection of dishes from the different regions of China. All with an Indian touch, of course.
As the second and third generation of Chinese Indians grew up, they migrated to other parts of the world. And they did what they know best. Cook Indian Chinese food. And it’s becoming quite the rage in Europe and the Americas these days. And why not? It’s far tastier than the bland ‘westernised’ version of the Chinese food available there.
‘Indian’ Chinese cuisine. You could blame it on Yang Tai Chow.
Or you could thank him.
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My Top Six Picks – Authentic ‘Indian’ Chinese Food – Mumbai
China Garden. Om Chambers, Kemps Corner. Tel: +91 22 23630841/42, 11am – 3pm, 7pm -11.30pm
Ling’s Pavilion. Mahakavi Bhushan Road, Apollo Bunder, Behind Regal Cinema. Tel: +91 22 22824533. 12 noon – 11pm
Mainland China. Branches at Andheri, Powai, Bandra, and Haji Ali. Tel: +91 22 32221038. 12.45 pm – 3.30pm, 7.30 pm -11.30pm
Chopsticks. 90-A, Manik Mahal, Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate. Tel: +91 22 22049284. 12 noon -3.30pm, 7pm -11.30pm
Kamling. Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate. Tel: +91 22 22042618. 12 noon -11.30pm
China Gate. 155, RK Patkar Marg, Khar (West). Tel: +91 22 26459711. 12 noon -3.30pm, 7pm -12.30am
This story appeared on CNNGo