What is Indian-Chinese food? An in-depth history of a unique hybrid cuisine
It all started in the 1700s, when Chinese travellers sailed to Calcutta
The salted fish fried rice is a simple dish, but the flavour and smell can take your breath away – quite literally. A Cantonese speciality, the cured flesh is chopped up into tiny pieces, lightly fried, then added to rice, which could have a medley of other ingredients in it, from chicken to pork and beef to seafood, depending on location and religious dietary requirements. It can be repulsive because of the acrid smell of the fish, but in Mumbai’s Ling’s Pavilion, this unassuming dish, pepped up with a generous dose of chilli oil, is an unforgettable explosion on the palate. It’s the closest to an authentic Chinese dish you can get in India.
How and why did Indian-Chinese food come to be?
As a prime British territory in Asia, India was the proverbial greener pasture, where everyone migrated to, from the 18th century. This included vast majorities of Chinese travellers from the south of the country – Cantonese and Hakka – who sailed to Calcutta (now Kolkata), the capital of India’s West Bengal state, and then moved to other cities like Mumbai. As they settled in and built a community in Kolkata, Cantonese and Hakka cuisines began to appear on menus across the city, in roadside stalls and hole-in-the-wall spots.
“Most people who migrated at the time were very poor and had to leave their families behind,” says James Lee, who runs Sei Vui restaurant in Kolkata. “Only a few women were present then, and they began to serve homely food with their husbands as a side business.” These mushroomed into hundreds of restaurants and, today, the city has India’s only Chinatown, which has emerged as the unofficial home of Indian-Chinese cuisine. “In my opinion, Bengalis are the only Indian community who like to experiment with food,” Lee adds.
“Indian-Chinese food is the preparation of Chinese food to suit Indian taste buds,” says Pemba Tsering of Kolkata’s How Hua restaurant. “Authentic Chinese food is generally supposed to be bland. Indian-Chinese food is prepared with additional spices like chillis, onions and so on.”
When we ask Baba Ling, the owner of Ling’s Pavilion, what exactly Indian-Chinese food is, he just laughs. “Coriander, mirchi [spice], pudina [mint] and black soy sauce,” he says. In practice, most dishes on menus across India have little to do with traditional Chinese cuisine, he suggests.
Ling’s is arguably the only authentic Chinese restaurant in Mumbai – a stark contrast to the myriad eateries in Kolkata – and an offshoot of Nanking, which opened in 1945. Nanking may have shut up shop in India’s largest city, but remains a roaring success in Ahmedabad and New Delhi, where it is an Indian institution; ambassadors of Asian countries, including prominent actors, businesspeople, entrepreneurs and artists swear by it. Ling’s Pavilion, however, is the only iteration of that restaurant which bears the family name.
The lack of authenticity across Chinese cuisine in India seems to be a bit of a sticking point for Ling. To demonstrate the general confusion, he recounts the tale of a Gujarati gentleman he encountered back in the 1970s. He wouldn’t eat the fried rice he was served because it didn’t have any coriander in it, and was dubious of its origin. “The poor man must have eaten at an ‘authentic’ Chinese shack on some beach in Mumbai and thought this is what Chinese food is,” he says.
A mishmash of ingredients
One of the main reasons this hybridisation of traditional Chinese food crept into the Indian dining scene was because migrants in the 1700s had to make use of whatever was available in the markets. And, as with anywhere in the world, the quality and variety of ingredients varied. For example, in east India, freshwater fish is a significant part of everyday meals, but these do not lend themselves to Chinese spices. A chilli fish dish will likely be prepared with basa, a common southeast Asian catfish, which isn’t particularly flavourful, so consumers tend to go for chicken and meat on the side. Prawns and shrimp are also popular, with crab and lobster verging on the exotic. Vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and bell peppers are common instead of native Asian greens like choy sum, gai lan and baby spinach.
The classic Indian-Chinese dish of fried rice and chilli chicken is ubiquitous and now, sadly, mass-produced. Commonly, it comes filled with a cornstarch-based gravy that is far from the real deal. But, Lee points out, if they were to serve authentic Chinese greens and vegetables today, Indian consumers would be put off by the unfamiliarity of ingredients.
Chinese food is meant to be eaten hot as and when it’s prepared
Pemba Tsering, How Hua restaurant, Kolkata
Red chilli powder, peas, mint, coriander and even noodles no longer than a finger have therefore become viable additions. In the process, essential ingredients get left out. Noodle dough, for example, should have eggs in it, to give the noodles length and elasticity, says Lee. Sichuan food is spiced up in India with red chilli powder and sauce, but the provincial cuisine actually gets its flavour from the Sichuan pepper, as well as Chinese five-spice, which has a distinct aroma and hits the palate hard. Authentic joints use sesame oil and light soy sauce – the first brew, which is much more expensive – as opposed to the black variety commonly used across India.
Cooking techniques differ, too. Chinese food is generally cooked on a very high heat, and vegetables and meat are removed from the flame as soon as their juices dry up. This ensures the food is not overcooked, retaining flavour, succulence and freshness. “The biggest misconception in people’s minds about Chinese food is that it’s pre-prepared like Indian dishes such as biryani and curry,” says Tsering of How Hua. “People think it’s similar to fast food and thus expect it to be served fast. This is not the case. Chinese food is meant to be eaten hot as and when it’s prepared.”
Sticking to traditions
Tsering is a stickler for traditions, and claims his restaurant only uses vegetables and meats that are meant to be used in Chinese dishes. It’s been this way since How Hua first became one of Kolkata’s prime Chinese eating houses in 1969, when it was opened by Tsering’s grandfather, Liu Pao Hua. It shut down in 2008, only to be reopened in a different part of the city two years ago by Tsering and a relative. The How Hua chimney soup was and still is their most famous dish. Ideal for six to 10 diners, the soup gets its name from the aluminium vessel it is served in and the tiny fire located at its base to keep the broth simmering. It is light and tasty, full of freshly cooked fish, seafood, meat, vegetables and greens, then thickened with stock and a cracked egg. “The recipe has been passed down for years and it has not lost its authentic taste,” says Tsering.
Ling also prefers to keep his food traditional. “Cantonese is natural-flavoured food, with natural meats and accompanied with rice, while in Hakka cuisine, fried rice and noodles are supplementary,” he explains. He also emphasises the difference between taste and freshness, where the former is unique to each individual while the latter is a universal given. “I focus on freshness – rotten fish will be rotten in India and in America.”
For this reason, Ling’s Pavilion not only attracts savvy Indian diners but also Chinese tourists, thanks to its wide-ranging menu. The fish ball soup and stewed chicken are only two of the delicacies people queue up for. In fact, the restaurant’s popularity has spread so far and wide that China Central Television visited for a shoot last month, and superstar chef David Chang has also included the restaurant in an episode of his Netflix show Ugly Delicious.
Back in Kolkata, Sei Vui, which is based in Tiretta Bazaar, opened two years ago, when 25 Chinese families chipped in to set up the restaurant so that the century-old building it is housed in can be maintained. The one-storey structure used to be a dorm for bachelors from China, with rooms for families on the upper floor, and also houses a Tao temple. “The food we make is as Indian-Chinese as it gets,” says manager Lee.
In the UAE
Despite the proliferation of Chinese restaurants in India, however, cities in China have not embraced Indian cuisine in the way Kolkata and Mumbai have. Not only are the flavours too rich and spicy for most of the population, but the Indian community in that part of Asia has also never been big enough to have an impact. The hybrid cuisine has, however, made its way to the UAE’s shores, courtesy of the sizeable Indian diaspora here.
Over the years, the Emirates has been home to several authentic restaurants, but Imperial Dragon in Mankhool, Dubai has by far notched up the most loyal following. The restaurant boasts four branches in the UAE, but the Mankhool venue has been around for two decades, although it will soon relocate to the Spinneys centre in Bur Dubai.
Run by Patrick Ranee, who’s been in the country for more than 40 years (and who is, incidentally, James Lee’s brother-in-law), the eatery is often full with Bengalis craving a taste of Kolkata’s famous Indian-Chinese food. Not to mention Arab diners who are also more partial to the hybrid cuisine over China’s traditional flavours.
Much like Ling’s Pavilion in Mumbai, Imperial Dragon’s fame has spread by word of mouth. But what do people eat when they are there, we ask? “The Cantonese noodles with gravy, momos and dried chilli chicken are my Kolkata imports,” Ranee says with a laugh.
Updated: July 11, 2019 12:10 PM