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Indian Chinese Cuisine’s WOK of Fame

Fusion Indian Chinese recipes, with touches of familiar Indian spices became one of the most addictive food trends in India.

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Indian Chinese Cuisine’s WOK of Fame

During the late 1980s and early 1990s when Americans were replacing steak and potatoes with healthier options, such as raw veggie sticks and sushi, the foodies in India were celebrating another culinary coalition between India and China. If U.S. yuppies were trading ice cream for low fat yogurt, their Indian counterparts were biting into gratifyingly greasy and flavorful versions of Indian style dimsum and Manchurian.

Fusion Indian Chinese recipes, with touches of familiar Indian spices became one of the most addictive food trends in India. Oblivious of the legacy behind the overlap of two cooking cultures, middle class Indians satiated on intensely flavored honey chilly potato and chowmein off food carts or Chinese catering vans. This new comfort food became available everywhere from Kolkata to Mumbai, was served in non-pretentious settings and at pocket friendly prices to suit the average Indian foodies’ fancy. 

Salil Mehta, of the Chinese Club: “I really do believe that the best food in the world is the one sold on the streets as it captures the essence of the people and the region. Photo: Chinese Club
Historically, the first Chinese to come to India, in 1778, made Kolkata (then Calcutta) their home. As more Chinese, mostly of Hakka origin, began settling in Kolkata, a gradual intermingling of cultures, food and flavors emerged. By the early 20th century Chinatown was established in Kolkata, visibly marking the influence of the community. Indians loved the Chinese preparations, but were looking for more familiar flavors for their palate and the techniques and ingredients began fusing. Cumin and coriander began sharing space in the wok along with sesame oil and soy sauce. Today, the unique potpourri of flavors in Indo-Chinese version that most Indians are familiar with is significantly different from the Chinese food the Chinese and the rest of the world know.

Chef Nelson Wang, an Indian chef of Chinese descent, who started the famous China Garden chain of restaurants in India, is often credited with creating the now celebrated Chicken Manchurian. The story goes that, Wang who was a cook at Cricket Club of India in 1975, was asked to create a new dish for a customer. So he began by taking the most commonly used Indian ingredients, ginger, garlic and green chillies, but skipped the India masalas and added soy sauce and cornstarch to the chicken. The result was Chicken Manchurian, a dish that’s now become eponymous with Chinese food in India. 

Salil Mehta who along with his wife Stacey has opened Chinese Club, a restaurant celebrating Kolkata-Hakka-Chinese inspired food in Brooklyn, NY, says, “The place is a platform for us to provide Kolkata Chinese food for those who miss this special type of cuisine that is native to India without compromising the quality and their health, as well as educate the ones who haven’t tried Hakka Chinese-Kolkata Indian food before.”

In a strange paradox of sorts, this new cuisine that gained mass popularity because it became associated as a lari food (food served in mobile kitchen carts equipped with wok and burner and plied on city streets) was also hindered in its movement from streets to the savoir faire of fancy restaurants.

However with a new rustic chic ideology entering the gastronomic world, restaurateurs are feeling confident enough to trot out this conspicuous new cuisine on high-end tables.

So, we have Tabla restaurant in Orlando, touted as the best Indian restaurant in the region, serving street classics such as Chinese Bhel and Chili Paneer, to Spice Symphony, which opened late last year in New York, serving Paneer Schezwan and Chicken Lollypops. It describes its cooking as Chinese with an Indian accent.

Chef Lauah Ban, specialty chef at Chi Ni, one of the most premier Chinese restaurants in Delhi, India, says: “Indian ingredients often mash up Chinese food with their own distinct flavors, resulting in dishes tailored to the local palate. Kolkata Chinese is a famous example, which is very popular among Indian and Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore and North America. It tends to be flavored with spices, such as cumin and coriander seeds. There are various Indian spices, which influence Chinese food. My vermicelli noodle with Singaporean sauce has curry powder and turmeric as key spices.”

However the cuisine remains largely unexplored and unknown.

Alpa Bhagat, who owns the Pan Asia restaurant in New Jersey that serves an interesting fusion of Indo Chinese with Thai elements, says: “Unfortunately there has been no education about this food so far. Italian food became so popular that today we have a pizza joint around every street corner because it was promoted well.”

She says of her clientele: “We definitely have huge number of Indians, but also Malaysians, Filipinos and Singaporeans who find familiar flavors in the food. Also, as more Indo Chinese joints are coming up, primarily to cater to South Asian community, there is an increasing intrigue. We do get a lot of Middle Easterners and even Americans now who want to discover the cuisine.”

Even as the cuisine travelled from carts to fast casual restaurants it didn’t quite become hip. Chinjabi (a neologism for Chinese-Punjabi) or Tandoori Chinese was often mocked in a la mode food circles. That can be a major mistake.

Often it’s the romantic repertoire of street food that bears the unmistakable imprint of a culture at a particular period in time. Salil Mehta, of the Chinese Club, says: “I really do believe that the best food in the world is the one sold on the streets as it captures the essence of the people and the region. I also believe when you take that the same form of food and churn it out in an international setting it becomes unique and inviting.”

The setting may well give a food a gourmet stamp, but Mehta says: “Whether we need to have it in a gourmet setting, or not, is not ultimately important to me, but the most important component is cooking authentic Kolkata Chinese food with the freshest ingredients, and also experimenting with flavors which was what our forefathers did, as they created a unique type of food culture ultimately.”

He adds, “The reason we have opened the Chinese Club and also featuring Kolkata Chinese dishes was nostalgia for myself and honoring the heritage of our parents and grandparents. I grew up in India and my wife Stacey who is half Hakka Chinese and Nepalese, grew up in India and later moved to the U.S.”

Nostalgia is often behind the growing awareness of this cuisine in Europe and North America, places where the flavors of this cuisine are furthest away from the local tastes or spices.

Sunil Fernandes, who has been running Bombay Wok, an Indian Asian fusion and Thai restaurant in New Jersey, says: “I am from Mumbai and during the 1980s this Indian Chinese variation was very popular. When I came here I craved for this street food and hence I opened this place, which is more of a passion project.”

ost chefs and restaurateurs serving Indo Chinese food have no misplaced notions about the popularity of the food. Indians are their largest patrons. Fernandes says, “Often the Chinese who come are confused because they are used to the authentic version and it comes as a culture shock to them.”

The new-age restaurateurs therefore are taking care to introduce the newer palates to this street food version in a measured manner. Mehta says, “Chinese food is widely accepted in the United States and its easier to get a person to try a variation of Chinese food and if you have a Beer-Battered General Tso’s Chicken dish it attracts guests and later it’s up to us how we introduce the menu to the clientele.”

But given the strong Indian cultural influences throughout South East Asia, the cuisine is also popular in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and even Indonesia. The Indian zeal to get creative with Chinese food even resulted in unbelievable dishes, such as Sichuan dosas, Gobi Manchurian and Chicken Jalfrezi. Mehta, says, “Another staple dish, the Vegetable Manchurian, was actually created in Mumbai.”

Lauah Ban: Any cuisine worthy of its name does not come froma single tradition, it instead amalgamates and selects the best from local traditions.
Photo: Ch Ni
Though Americans are more used to the milder Cantonese style Chinese food, Indian Chinese chefs say the newer adaptations are especially being tried out in major metropolitan places. Chef Lauah Ban of Chi Ni, says: “Any cuisine worthy of its name does not come from a single tradition, it instead amalgamates and selects the best from local traditions. The same is true for Chinese cuisine that has influences from different regions of China as well as neighboring countries such as Japan, Singapore and Malaysia.”

The Chinese cuisine has been adapted not just in India, but across continents too. Another version, popular in Pakistan, called Pakistani Chinese, has adapted Cantonese cuisine, resulting in dishes such as Chinese Broast and Chinese Pulao. In Trindad and Tobago Chinese style chicken is a popular eating out option that can trace its roots to the earliest Chinese who came in the 19th century.

Often the intermingling happens even before one becomes aware. For instance, in American Chinese households it’s common to replace bok choy with lettuce, because it is readily available.

Award winning chef and author of Cooking Without Borders Anita Lo serves inventive modern American cuisine with flavors from Asia, inspired by her roots at her restaurant Annisa in Greenwich Village, N.Y. At Chi Ni in Delhi, the chefs who trained at the Michelin star restaurant Kai, in Mayfair, London, follow its pattern of introducing Singaporean and Malaysian influences and exploring modern interpretations. At Kai, Chef Alex Chow has been doing traditional comfort recipes in contemporary fashion, such as Sarawakian Street Noodles, inspired from Malaysia.

Chi Ni Chef Ban says: “We do Chinese cooking from the heart. The food is a true representation of influences from China and its neighboring countries. For example, Wasabi Prawns or Wasabi Mushroom is not a traditional Chinese dish. It is an amalgamation of Chinese and Japanese cuisines and is one of the most popular. Seaweed Chicken, Wasabi Mushroom, Citrus Shrimp, Blanched Spinach with Gomadare Dressing and Baked Yoghurt are a few other interesting adaptations.”

While it may still be some time before Indo Chinese becomes mainstream in America, there is no denying that Asian fusion is emerging as a major trend.At Shangri-La on Seventh Avenue, New York, Asian and Western ingredients are brought together interestingly, often taking inspiration from the street food of South East Asia. There are dishes such as Tom Yum Empanada and also Crab Stuffed Avocado to give a feel of American dining fused with Asian.

For Europeans or Americans, who know a more vapid form of Chinese, the experimentation may jar initially, but chefs insist that once you get past preconceived notions it can be a journey of discovery.

Partly short-sightedness or the tendency to defer to the local delicacies prevented Indo Chinese from making its appearance for so long. While Singapore Chinese secured the acceptance of aficionados and French Chinese is celebrated as par excellence, Indian Chinese is only now beginning to be noticed. Westerners not only have to get past the notion of it being just hot and not flavorful, but they also have to recognize it not just as an experimental fusion, but a cuisine with its own identity.

Salil Mehta says: “The term fusion has been outplayed and over-used where most Indian Chinese restaurants refer to themselves as fusion restaurants and I completely disagree with the notion. Kolkata Chinese food evolved into what it is today and is as Indian as the kebabs, which also came from Turkey, Persia and so on and was later adapted by the local population. It’s just that it happened further back in history and is usually forgotten.”

At long last, Indian Chinese cuisine is beginning to step out of the shadows.

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Food | Life | August 2016

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