Chinese food is something we are all, in our own way familiar with. Yes, yes, I know that using words like `Chinese food’, `Indian food’, `Italian food’ et al are incorrect. It’s all about the regional variations like Sichuan, Cantonese, Mughalai, Chettinad, Northern Italian and so on and so forth. But that is not really my point here, so bear with me when I use the catch-all term Chinese food.
The Chinese have migrated and have now settled down all over the world. You have `Chinatowns’ in several cities, Bangkok, London, New York and San Francisco are some that come to mind. Many Australian cities too have large Chinese communities. The Chinese food in these cities is, firstly, quite good and, secondly, the Chinese localities have some really authentic regional Chinese food. In fact, the street signs in these areas are often in Mandarin and when walking down the streets you will find that many of the Chinese inhabitants barely speak the local language, they are, literally, as the cliché goes, `off the boat’. These Chinatowns have their self contained restaurants, grocery stores, dry goods stores, utensils and even local language newspapers. I have also been to Tangra, the Chinatown of sorts in Calcutta. Unlike all the Chinatowns in the rest of the world, the Chinese influence in Tangra has been much diluted over the years and the amalgamation or integration is far greater than in any other Chinatown I have seen. Many explanations for this but once again, that is not the point.
The Chinese food available in the cities with a largish Chinese population is, more often than not, of a very high quality, far higher than anything available in India. This may have to do with the fact that the ingredients they use outside India are better, may have to do with the fact that people eat things other than just chicken as we do in India, and, may have to do with the fact that they have authentic Chinese cooking the food unlike us in India, where any person with slit eyes is regarded as being `Chinky’. As a matter of fact, when HRH and I travel out of the country, one of the more exciting things to do is to go to Chinatown and have some meals there, the food is really good. It doesn’t beat the food we ate in China, but it sure does give a good run for its money
A few days ago, a schoolmate of HRH the Queen of Kutch was visiting Mumbai. She has lived out of the country for several years now, including in Hong Kong. She said that she would like to eat what she called `Indian Chinese’ food. With this request, we recalled conversations with other Indian visiting India where they talked fondly of `Indian Chinese’ food. Either they wanted to eat `Indian Chinese’ when in India, or said that a new `Indian Chinese’ restaurant had opened in say, Philadelphia or that they missed `Indian Chinese’ food. In other words, the Indian Diaspora has a picture of / classifies / has a clear demand for a cuisine they call `Indian Chinese’. In fact, HRH, the Queen was in the US a few months ago and attended a party which had on its menu only, I mean only, `Indian Chinese’ food! I was surprised by this. I did not realise that `Indian Chinese’ food was a category of Chinese food, so distinct, albeit among the Indian Diaspora, that they would be able to miss it, want it and identify it.
This got me thinking, and this got me writing.
We all know the stories of how Chinese food was Indianised. While there are many versions, one version is that Godmother of Indian Chinese food, or the person on whose doorstep the blame lies for creating `Indian Chinese’ is Ms Camelia Panjabi. She was the one who put two and two together by realising that the fiery chilli laden Sichuan cuisine would be loved by Indians and introduced Sichuan food at the Golden Dragon the Taj Mahal Bombay. The other version is that Nelson Wang is responsible for this. He was the one who invented `Man Chow’ Soup and Chicken Manchurian where chillies and coriander leaves were used. Both versions are correct. There are also several other factors that helped form this cuisine. This cuisine is looked on with much contempt by the food critics and intellectuals who dubbed it ‘Sino Ludhianvi’ food. I confess that I fall within this category!
To my mind, the question to be answered is, what is `Indian Chinese’ food, how can one define it, what are its characteristics? You cannot brand any Chinese food which has chilli and fresh coriander and `Indian Chinese’. There must be something more. Regional Chinese food does use chillies and coriander so that is not the answer. I decided to eat some `Indian Chinese’ food at what I consider `Indian Chinese’ restaurants and try and answer the question. These are my answers. I must confess that I am not a social scientist and I have not done any deep research. These answers are just rants, as the blog is supposed to be, and opinion. You can have your own. In fact it would be great if you shared your views here.
I am proceeding on the footing that `Indian Chinese’ is a clearly definable cuisine and most importantly, all Chinese food served in India is not `Indian Chinese’. In other words, there is Chinese food which you cannot call `Indian Chinese’. If you do not agree with this basic hypothesis, please don’t waste your time by reading further.
Answer 1 – Invented food
The simplest answer to the question is that `Indian Chinese’ is food which is wholly an Indian invention, unauthentic and unknown in any other country. Case in point the famous Manchurian Chicken and its Khandelwal friendly version Veg Manchurian or even Gobi [Cauliflower] Manchurian. This is a dish that Nelson Wang claims he invented. It consists of a black Soya Sauce based sauce flavoured with chopped garlic, chopped chilly and garnished with fresh coriander leaves. In the sauce you could have deep fried chicken meatballs/chicken nuggets/Paneer fingers or in the vegetarian version mixed minced vegetable balls deep fried. The batter coating helps thicken the sauce. This dish just does not exist in Manchuria or in any part of China.
Please note that you have to say Veg Manchurian. This is the correct dish. You never say vegetarian Manchurian, just Veg Manchurian.
Another example is the Szechwan Sauce. This is a lurid red sauce that is oily and extremely spicy. This is used like a French mother sauce to make several dishes.
Triple Szechwan Fried Rice is another deadly creation, generally made at road side stalls. This is a dish comprising of rice and noodle and vegetables, sometimes chicken, all stir fried together with lashings of Szechwan Sauce.
All dishes with names like Chow Chow, Man Chow, Hakka Noodles are all completely unknown in China.
These dishes are made-in-India and exist just here and in the minds (and homes?) of the Indian Diaspora.
Answer 2 – Gravy or Dry
Let’s face it. All of us have been brought up on Daal and rice. Say what you want about South Indians eating only rice and North Indians only wheat, a liquid Daal is always part of a meal. We require liquids in our meals and our food is quite wet and runny. Do you not find it amazing how little sauce is put on dishes made in the Masterchef series [Australian not Indian]? Yes we need our Daal. So when we are eating `Indian Chinese’ food what do we want most – gravy, sauce to make up for our loss of Daal. Most `Indian Chinese’ dishes are available in two versions - Dry or Gravy. We generally order the dry version with our drinks. The Gravy version is what we order for our `main course’.
Not only do we have to have Gravy, but we have to have masses of it to douse our rice or noodle. Quite often when eating `Indian Chinese’ we order carbohydrates - rice and noodle - along with a gravy dish. The Gravy helps us swallow all that carbohydrate. The Gravy has to be thickened with corn flour and has to have lashings of Aji No Moto in it. The fancy pants crowd does not like this at all. The fancy pants crowd believes that Corn flour clogs your stomach and Aji No Moto is poison. In fact there is often so much Gravy that you have to fish for pieces of your `Gobi’ in the Manchurian.
Answer 3 – Deep fry everything
Lets also face it, anything deep fried tastes good. One of the characteristics of `Indian Chinese’ is that all food is deep fried and then doused in gravy. If the dish is dry, it’s deep fried anyway.
Take your pick, Prawns, Fish, Chicken, Paneer, Tofu and the delectable Chicken Lollypops, everything is coated in a batter and then deep fried. Then this is simply put into a Gravy of your choice and the dish is ready. No real skill required. Ask some low level cooks to make basically `bhajiyas’ of everything and keep them ready before service time. At service time simply make a gravy, throw in the `bhajiyas’ and go.
Do observe this the next time you are in an `Indian Chinese’ restaurant. The dishes are all interchangeable. Prawn could be served in Black Bean, Szechwan, Garlic, Sweet Sour, Chilli Garlic, Green, Hunan or Chilli sauce. Chicken could be served in exactly the same way. Paneer too. See what I mean?
Answer 4 – Use of `English’ vegetables
At an `Indian Chinese’ restaurant you will not get Chinese vegetables. By Chinese vegetables I mean a simple Pak Choy [Bok Choy], Chinese Cabbage, Kalian or Morning Glory [which is known in Mumbai as `Pani Bhaji’ – water vegetable]. No chance. Mind you all these are available easily in most markets. What you will get is Broccoli, Baby Corn, Mushroom, Carrot Cabbage and Asparagus. None of these are in any way authentic. You could order your vegetable in almost the same sauces I have listed. The heavy sauces just kill even these robust vegetables. A simple Soya sauce, un thickened with a bit of stock and garlic is all you really require to allow the Chinese Vegetables to shine thru. But no, we insist on these English Vegetables with the heavy sauce which could also be used as a Daal of sorts on the rice.
So folks, that is my set of answers. Am I correct? Do you have any more? I would be happy to read them.