Indian Chinese food is every now and then getting compared to authentic Chinese food. There is no doubt that the latter is indeed India’s spicy and a more vegetarian version of the original.
How did Chinese food come to claim such a wide monopoly in the minds of Indian diners? How did a whole generation in India grow up savouring its bowl of Sweet Corn Soup? Is there a place I can find the best of Indian Chinese food and authentic Chinese food?
Yin Yang meets bright yellow taxis
There was a big Chinese community in Kolkata, a big bustling city in east India with yellow taxis called the Hakka Chinese Community. They were settled in an area called Tangra where they had numerous tanneries. Being a large community, they introduced Chinese food to Kolkata with hints of Bengali spiciness in it. Tangra is still famous for the cheapest and most delicious Indian Chinese food at the lowest of prices. Slowly and steadily, this unique cuisine spread across the country through Tangra.
What’s cooking so different?
The cuisine has spread across the country changing forms based on the spices popular in different states. Chinese food in South India would be very different to that in East India (Kolkata) or in North of India (New Delhi & around).
Chinese food functions on the principles of Yin and Yang, that is all flavours are complemented by each other in a typical Chinese dish. While the Indian Chinese food has decided it only likes the Yin. Of course, Yin here is a particular spicy flavor that you can taste in the Indian Chinese food followed by the peculiar after-taste.
So, what really is that after-taste? The secret ingredient widely used in the Indian Chinese food is mono sodium glutamante by ajinomoto. It is originally Japanese, not Chinese. It’s known that authentic Chinese food has quite an array of outlandish meat, e.g. – cubilose, bear palm, monkey brain, tiger bones etc. While the Indian Chinese would only have Chicken for non-vegetarians. Although it can extend to beef or prawns in some areas.
In India, the line between what really is Chinese, Tibetan, Thai is hazy. Needless to say, unless the dish has the word – Thai or Tibetan in it, all Indian Chinese restaurants would serve the basic Thai and Chinese dishes.
There is factual myth that the dish – ‘ Schezwan Noodles/Rice’, the spicy sister of all the Indian Chinese dishes came up because Indians thought that Sichuan. In the west province of China, which had relatively spicier food which in fact is the southern province Canton in China.
However, Indian Chinese food is widely popular as street food these days. It’s easy to find a moving cart with a steel steam box of vegetable and chicken momos (originally more Tibetan) with a very spicy garlic and chilli sauce. Or that small hut against on a city main road, serving small plates of vegetable chowmein.
It’s a growing competitor to the age old Indian street food dish – Paani Puri a.k.a Gol Gappa. Gol gappas are tiny balls made with flour that are eaten with potato filling and spicy water. It’s easy to find a small cart carrying a basket of these flour balls, ready too serve you a plate of at least 5 Gol gappas. These days Indian Chinese food stalls can also be found on every nook and corner of almost any city in India.
Are all hopes lost?
So is it impossible to find authentic Chinese cuisine in India? No. India has played the part of empathizing neighbors very well and since recently you can almost find authentic Chinese at restaurants. Gourmet restaurants, mind you. But it would still be limited in terms of the meats and the vegetables used, conforming to the religious restrictions on various meat served in India of course.
Let’s eat Indian Chinese food today
From mouthwatering chicken Manchurian to the delectable garlic and soy sauce filled manchow soup. Indian Chinese food menu is for sure extremely extensive and innovative. There are a few peculiar dishes that you should take a bite of if you get a chance. Let me introduce you to some of them.
Chicken Manchurian – It’s small balls of chicken battered corn flour and it contains garlic, ginger, green chillis, soy sauce and vinegar. It comes both with gravy and without gravy (dry). It has a beautiful hint of after-taste typical to the Indian Chinese. Yum!
The birth of Manchurian was a lucky chance! During the mystical 70s, a young guy – Nelson Wang who was an Indian with Chinese descent was asked to make a something new by his Chef Boss. He started with making a regular Indian dish with garlic, green chillis, ginger. Instead of adding the mixture of Indian spices called Garam Masala in Hindi, he put in soy sauce, followed by cornstarch and the regular chicken. And voila! He became the great inventor of Chicken Manchurian! Wang is now the owner of the famous China Garden Restaurant in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner.
Gobi Manchurian – Another perfect example of a real ‘Indian Chinese Dish’. The Chinese probably wouldn’t believe it exists. It’s cauliflower balls battered in corn flour, spring onion, capsicum, soy sauce, chili sauce, minced garlic and ground pepper. A heavenly dish for vegetarians!
Chicken Schezwan Rice or Noodles – Super spicy form of the deep fried noodles or rice with vegetables and chicken. The taste can vary from one road side stall to another on the same street for sure. The portions served are generously massive!
Chicken 65 – Generally, served as an appetizer. It’s small pieces of fried chicken; definitely not 65 in number. There are plenty of mythical stories about where the 65 came from. Some say it’s prepared in 65 days which is for sure not true. Some say that it was a menu item no. 65 in one of the restaurants in Chennai.
For the vegetarians, the number 65 brings you Paneer 65 on any typical menu. It’s just as good as its non-vegetarian counter part.
Chow mein – A corrupted form of the original chāu-mèing. These are stir fried noodles with oodles of cabbage, bamboo shoots, pea pods, green peppers, and carrots. Some even serve it with paneer too.
Soups –Manchow is one example which contains loads of veggies or chicken with lots of garlic and soy sauce. Tom-Yom is another example. It is spicy and sour clear soup inspired from Thai cuisine but added in the Chinese menu generally. Sweet Corn and Wonton are two other typical ones. Again, these are both for vegetarian and non-vegetarians.
So, where can we find Indian Chinese food in India?
Chung Wah, Mainland China, Far East, Yo!China are some of the famous chains for Indian Chinese food in India having an extensive menu and flavours slightly closer to the Chinese taste; although it’s barely there. Unarguably, it’s an entirely different kind of experience to be eating a plate of said – Chow Mein from a paper plate with a plastic fork on the road side while hearing auto rickshaws.
Indian Chinese food is an entirely unique cuisine, which despite its origins stays true to where it’s currently found. All it takes is a little bit of that after-taste for the cuisine to become your next favourite!