In the last scene of Dwitiyo Purush – Pakrashi orders Chicken Chowmein and Chili Fish from a roadside vendor. That was with an elan and comfort, a satisfaction on his face after solving the biggest riddle of his life. Ordering a comfort food is spontaneous. Over the years, Chinese food has become comfort food from being a luxury.
It was Early 80’s, those long yellow packets started coming home. They came in the size of the dhup kathi baksho or incense sticks, albeit little fatter. Chow Chow was written in Chinese script on the box. The contents of the packet looked similiar to me. I had already started playing Pick up the sticks. Ma was as confused as ever. In an era of no internet, no TV, no Cooking show, the only other person who had made and treated us was my Boro Mami. After first few attempts, Ma could adapt the recipe in her own style. This was a celebratory meal. Once in a month or couple of months, at best.
Wang da to Nipu da to many dadas at the roadside, who made this a favourite
My first food pick up on the driveway (as the milennials will understand) was with Nipu da. He was a rickshaw puller earlier and midway, found his zen in making chow chow and egg rolls. I don’t know form where he learnt but definitely, didn’t import anything from China. Small celebrations meant, that I get this packed from him in a tiffin box. As far as I remember, the taste was very Indianised. Didn’t know what an authentic chowmein meant at that point of time. I can even remember him sprinkling some garam masala / chat masala from the top. Some tomato (Papaya loaded) and chili sauce in pouches came along. I experienced the other end of the spectrum in Chandanagore only.
Wang da had a shoe shop and started selling ‘Noodles’ in front of the shoe shop in the evenings. There was no Soy sauce here nor over dose of vinegar. Vegetables, noodles, chicken stock and slow cooking did the magic. We didn’t know the names of the dishes then but can figure out what was like a soupy chicken noodles with a heavy broth can easily be passed as. No, Wang da was no way related to Nelson Wang, the man to whom most of the ‘Chinese’ food sellers in India will remain indebted. Over the years, making Chinese food on the streets of Kolkata has been a way of earning livelihood for many Bengalis and Indians, who have never visited China.
Chinese and Indianisation of Chinese food.
Any write up on Indian Chinese food will remain incomplete without mention of Nelson Wang. The owner of China Garden can be largely contributed to discovering Manchurian style of woking. As noted food columnist Mr. Vir Sanghvi in one of the chapters of Rude Food writes about Nelson Wang, he explains the process of invention of Manchurian. He Indianised the Chinese dish with loads of Dhaniya, Chili, garlic, deep fried everything to produce Maida pakodas and dip them in maseladar sauces. Then started the era of Gobi Manchurian, paneer manchurian etc etc, By farthest means, these are not Chinese food at all. Ask most of them, they will agree that you cannot trace back the origin of these to China. India loved them, North to South, even some add Curry leaves in Noodles.
Who can forget these landmarks in Kolkata –
Then one day it was ban Chinese food
Very recently, there was disruptive tension in Galwan Valley between the military forces of India and China. While an incident like this needs to be condemned, a minister came up with a statement of ‘We should ban all Chinese food’. While there have been repurcusions across India, it gets sensitive for Kolkata even more. When you ban Chinese food in India, what are you banning? How is this a resentment against a country or diplomatic relations? Chinese food soon got Indianised and Kolkata Chinese is a separate cuisine altogether. Did you know you can get Sichuan Dosas also these days?
It has been some time that the Chinese have settled in Kolkata, Tiretti Bazar and Tyangra slowly became an integral part of the Kolkata chromosome. In Kolkata, Hakkas were the first one to reach and no wonder, Hakka Chowmein is so popular. Cantonese were the ones to open the eateries. We celebrate the dragon dance on Chinese new year as much as we celebrate any other festival in Kolkata. Chinese in Kolkata are more Indians than anyone else. Most of them are third and fourth generation Chinese. They are born here, have an Adhar card, pay taxes and have no links to China other than their ancestral heritage.
Chinese food made by Indians, Indian Chinese and Kolkata Chinese
Neel Dutt, a musician and a food lover has fond memories of Jimmy’s Kitchen and he can swear by the Fried rice, Fried chili chicken with bone, Cantonese noodles, to name a few. As he grew up with this taste, to him this is more flavourful than some of the fried rice he had in Singapore and few China Towns across the globe.
18 years ago, my father opened Golden Joy, confirmed Freddy Liao, who is now managing Golden Joy. Like many in Tangra, they owned a tannery, which closed and a restaurant was opened. A fourth generation Chinese in India, Freddy has been to Indian schools, has a voter ID and pays taxes like a dutiful citizen. The best selling on the menu of Golden Joy is Golden fried Prawn balls. When asked, Freddy confirmed that it was originated in India only. His Mom, Mrs Yuan, still supervises the kitchen. He feels, it’s ridiculous to target Chinese food for spoilt diplomatic relations.
Joel Huang , son of legendary Josephine Huang and Executive Chef of Eau Chew feels hurt. Eau Chew is the oldest family run Chinese restaurant in the country. Joel confirms his grand father – Late Huand Pao Lim, His father – Late Joseph Cheng Fun Huang and everyone from his generation was born in India. In his words, we ourselves are cursing China for the virus and whatever is happening in the border. Since cooking is our passion we cook the food here and since we cook the food which we eat at home, we cannot put excessive soy sauce or Vinegar.
As I look for some leftover of “Kolkata Chili chicken” loaded with capsicum, onion and green chilies and black brown in colour, I request please don’t get intimidated with any directive of banning Chinese food in India. Neither it’s Chinese nor it’s made by Chinese.