What happens when two great cultures, with distinct ethos and culinary traditions, meet?
A new cuisine in born, incorporating the best of both worlds.
We Indians love our ubiquitous version of Chinese food. Most people like it more than authentic Chinese food found in China and all over South-East Asia.
We aren’t bothered by the fact that it’s not authentic, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s highly unlikely that us Indians would appreciate dishes we can’t comprehend, pronounce or spell. This equally applies to the Chinese when it comes to Indian food. So how is it that Chinese food, which consists of some ingredients that would send shivers up the average Indian’s spine, came to be our favourite?
Most cities in the world attribute their local Chinese cuisine variations to various “Chinatowns”. San Fransisco, New York and London all have one. These ‘Chinatowns’ came up when en masse migrations took place after the Treaty of Peking in 1780.
Chinese immigration into India can be traced back to the 18th century, with their arrival in Calcutta, parts of Assam, and later to Mumbai.
Calcutta was their first home, where even today early Chinese remnants can be found in the oldest parts of Calcutta, around Tiriti bazaar and Boubazar. Later, as businesses and employment opportunities grew, many settled down in Tangra, an area which was famous for its leather tanneries.
Back then, Chinese settlers ate their own food which suited their tastes and preferences. Their food wasn’t meant to be eaten by us. Gradually, as generations passed, the Chinese palate grew accustomed to the flavours and ingredients of its new home. These came to be incorporated within an emerging form of Chinese cuisine. Still, very few Indians took to this, mainly because of the use of certain proteins that Indians weren’t used to.
To make it “Indian-friendly”, it needed a makeover.
Along came Nelson Wang, a Tangra native himself. He is considered to be the modern-day godfather of Indo-Chinese gastronomy. He realized that the only way Chinese food would be appreciated by Indians is if it tasted Indian.
He started an Indian-Chinese food renaissance of sorts when he invented a spur-of-the-moment dish at the Cricket Club of India, Mumbai, in 1975. The dish he invented immortalized himself and this new hybrid cuisine.
Chicken Manchurian. (Ironically, Manchuria was under Russian rule in 1975)
This simple dish used Indian garlic, ginger and green chilly as the base, much like most dishes are made nowadays. Vinegar, soya sauce, ajinomoto, and white pepper made it taste Chinese. Deep fried chicken was added and the sauce was reduced using cornstarch.
In all likelihood, this dish probably wouldn’t be classified as Chinese in China. But it doesn’t matter! Wang started a fire that would engulf the entire country. Indians immediately loved dishes such as pan fried noodles, chilly chicken, lemon fish, ‘sweet & sour’, manchow, and sweet corn soup. Blazing woks and spring roll wrappers became big businesses. This opened up job opportunities for many people who took this cuisine to all parts of India, making subtle changes wherever required.
Making a cuisine flexible in India is essential if it needs to be successful and marketable. In order to make this possible, one needs to have vegetarian options. A vegetarian in China maybe hard to find but Indianized vegetarian Chinese food, created ostensibly out of necessity, is actually quite creative. We see this today at hawker stalls all over the country. Chilly potato, “veg. manchurian” and crispy glazed lotus roots are street food staples all over India.
As time went by, these chefs started Indianizing dishes from other Chinese provinces such as Sichuan (Szechwhan), Hunan, Canton and Shanghai. Some combined North-Eastern/Tibetian dishes with Chinese ones (momos). We started seeing complicated and authentic dishes such as Peking duck and dim sum appear in fine dining menus — suitably modified to appeal to Indian taste-buds, of course.
Having realized the way to tap into this country’s market, the delightful synthesis of Chinese cuisine with Indian paved the way for lesser known cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan to find their way to Indian shores. Patrons pay big bucks to experience “gourmet” Oriental food in India.
Nevertheless, We love it. There’s no denying that.
Nelson himself is no more Chinese than we are. His food initially used very few Chinese ingredients. He’s lived his entire life here and grown up finding ways to make his cuisine sell in India. Imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t added soya sauce to his first Manuchurian dish. It would’ve been completely Indian!
“Authentic” is a very subjective term. To be “authentic”, dishes need to use native ingredients and be cooked by natives, who are discerning about how to bring out native flavours. Only big establishments that can afford to import ingredients and a chef can achieve this. This is easier said than done. Everything can’t be cooked by one person all the time, every time, can it? Realistically, from a practical point of view, the only authentic cuisine in India is Indian cuisine.
We see a marriage of cuisine and the resulting harmony right here in Tangra. The natives of this place are responsible for some of the finest Chinese restaurants in India. All they needed was a way to connect. And it wasn’t rocket science. To be successful, all they did was express themselves by using their strengths. In the long run, they created the most inexpensive and popular cuisine in India. This is why when someone comes across the Chinese Kali temple, it doesn’t seem like that much of an abomination.
Even the Goddess of Death and Destruction doesn’t mind offerings of hakka chowmein and fried rice.