Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Celebrating Chinese New Year - Chindian style

Chindian - second in the series on the culinary influences on my life.

Although I did not have further cooking lesson after Mom taught me how to make Chai, I must have absorbed SOME cooking skills by osmosis along the way, because they came to the fore on my brothers 16th birthday. A big party was planned for him. The guests had all arrived but the cooking was yet to begin! The planned menu was one of mom’s classic meals, a (Indian) Chinese meal of Sweet Corn Soup, Vegetables in a sweet sour sauce, Mushrooms and Baby Corn in a spicy sauce, Fried rice and Hakka Noodles. Luckily all the preparations had been made and I don’t know what drove me but that day but I successfully cooked and entire meal for 25 people single handed!

I can remember the precise moment when my palette awoke, with my first taste of Hot and Sour soup at China Garden. From that moment to now, thousands of meals and varied cuisine samplings later, it is still one of my favourite meals to eat out or dish up at home. Call it comfort food if you will. You could say I learnt to cook Chinese from Nelson Wang, albeit in an indirect sort of way. My father and Nelson Wang were friends. Dad was a frequent diner at China Garden in its heyday. (It was ALWAYS on the menu when there was an occasion to celebrate or we had guest in the home.) And mom learnt how to cook Chinese food from Nelson Wang himself, the creator of Indian Chinese or “Chindian” as it is affectionately called.

Mom’s Chinese meals actually came to mean a great deal to me growing up because my usually taciturn dad who loved them would help with the preparation. It gave us kids a rare chance to experience dad as a family man. Mom and dad would go shopping to Crawford market, for all the ingredients and on their return everything would be spread out on the table so tasks could be handed out. On holidays most of the family would gravitate to the large dining table to “help”. The more the merrier, because there was a lot of preparation involved; making a meal for the family in those days meant cooking for a joint family of upwards of 20 people!

Except for the soup almost everything required vegetables to be diced, chopped or julienned. Copious quantities of garlic and ginger were peeled and chopped or ground to puree. Meanwhile Mom orchestrated the meal from the kitchen. Soup was usually made first, cans of sweet corn cream style would be emptied into a large pot with equal measures of water and brought to a boil. Once boiling it would be seasoned and thickened with corn flour. A small quantity removed for my grandmother (she did not eat eggs, onions or garlic so everything else was cooked separately for her) and the rest would have beaten egg stirred in on the sly (ours was a gujarati vegetarian house so eggs and meat were taboo but the eggs rule was relaxed over the years). I remember, mom always had to make double the required quantity of soup because its quantities were severely depleted by the time everyone had tasted it to “check the salt”.

The rest of the cooking would plod along interrupted by endless cups of Chai (nothing can happen without chai in India!) The walls would resonate with the noises that emanate from a busy kitchen; the brisk glide of the spatula against the wok, the quick clunks of lids being lifted to check to progress of cooking dishes, and the occasional deafening clatter of something falling to the ground from fingers slippery with oil or vegetable juice. To this background score would be matched the happy chatter of my large family, punctuated by the rhythmic swish of carrots being peeled and knives clicking against cutting boards as vegetables were chopped. And everywhere would be redolent of that special aroma I associate with Chinese food. Of ginger garlic paste sautéing in hot oil and stir fried capsicum.

It was much later, when I read Rude food by Vir Sanghvi that I was enlightened by the fact that no Chinese person would recognise Chinese food in India as authentic Chinese food because the only thing that is Chinese about it is its name! Really, after eating Chinese in the China towns of Melbourne and Singapore I can confirm that there is no authentic version of the Chinese food we eat in India, so do not go to China expecting to eat Manchurian, Chilli chicken, Hot and sour soup or any of the dishes that we Indians love as Chinese food.

We do have a Chinatown in India as well, in Calcutta. And while the Hakka Chinese settled in Calcutta and spread out over the country hundreds of years ago, the cuisine they popularized via the first Chinese restaurants in India was a bland one influenced by Cantonese cuisine that made liberal use of corn flour. This is where Rude food – which is a compilation of Sanghvi’s columns on food comes in – to tell us the story of the evolution of Chinese food in India. In the first section “enter the dragon” he eruditely tells the tale of the evolution of Chinese food through two stories. The tale of Sino Ludhiana cuisine in which he unfolds the initial discovery and eventual import of Sichuan cuisine by Camelia Punjabi and its subsequent evolution into a spicier version by Chef Arvind Saraswat at Golden Dragon and the next chapter, in which Sanghvi, tells an even more interesting story …

“The Nelson Wang story” is a culinary fairytale in which a second generation Chinaman, who had never seen a Sichuan peppercorn married a chicken pakora with a masalafied cornflour gravy and christened it “Chicken Manchurian” after the Manchu barbarians that once occupied a piece of China. Nelson Wang went on to conceptualize the landmark China Garden which opened at Om Chambers in Kemps Corner in 1984 and changed the face of dining in Mumbai. And that Munchurian became iconic with the “masaledar” fried and gravyied version of Chinese food that has inspired street food stalls on every corner of every road in India!

Besides mobile carts that ply the streets of the city, with woks going 24/7 over portable gas burners, Indian Chinese food is available just about everywhere in Mumbai. Most restaurants have a Chinese section on their menus, no matter if their forte is Idli Sambhar, Butter Chicken or Daal Rice and no matter what a client will order for his meal, he will begin with a Sweet corn, Manchow or Lung Fung soup. Usual suspects on the menu include Manchurian, Szechwan or Soy sauce over everything from Gobi to Paneer and Hakka noodles have made their way to the tiffin boxes of schools all over the city.

My favourite places for VFM Chinese – read easy on the pocket and generous on the plate - are the Radio club (where Wang once catered and the food still meets the standards set by him) and the Cricket Club of India (where the Hot and sour soup is one of my favaourites), Dynasty at Santa Cruz (huge portions of innovative starters) and Mahjong at the Ramee Guestline hotel, Khar which offers a unique “personalised buffet” concept; each table has the option to choose a spread of Chinese dishes including two salads, eight starters, six main courses, rice, noodles and four desserts.

However, ever since I became conscious of what I eat, I have come to realize that each time I give in to this craving for Chinese food, I consume unnecessary calories. Just to check I got some expert input. According to my friend nutritionist Naini Setalvad, “an ideal restaurant meal should total upto 500 – 800 calories, but in the case of Indian Chinese, which comprises of deep fried, corn flour gravy smothered dishes like Manchrian, Chilli chicken, and fried wontons, your calorie intake can shoot up to a whopping 2-3000 calories at a single meal. Factor in the buffet format, and you can cross all limits!”

By this time I had also tasted real Chinese food on my travels and started cooking it as well so forays to places like the above are extremely rare. I now chose to eat Chinese more upmarket places where there is more refinement and I can make healthier choices with food selections. Like Chinese Room (where the Hot and Sour soup and Corn Curd are very good) and Five Spice where I have yet to taste the Hot and sour soup (but love the Burnt Garlic Fried rice and Tofu Manchurian.) But my absolute favourite place for Chinese nowadays is China house at the Grand Hyatt, Vakola.

Another, Perhaps lesser known and less prolific version of Chinese food is Tangra Chinese. Tangra is a district in north-west Kolkata that was home to a large tanning industry and as a result became Calcutta's Chinatown because the Chinese in Calcutta specialized in leather. The Chinese cuisine that evolved here is a distinct cuisine on its own, in which traditional Chinese food was blended with Indian ingredients and adapted to the Bengali palate. There are a handful of Tangra Chinese dishes on the Menus of Oh Calcutta restaurants in Mumbai.

Links to other posts by me on Chinese food,

A full Chindian homestyle meal, my review (with a recipe) for Knorr make a meal, my review of China House for Outlook Envy and my most recent trial of steamed fish Kylie style

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Gonzalez Lewis said...

WOW (impressed look). Your version looks so yummy.

Here I bought a sauce pack for mapo tofu so as to skip all the seasonings! and i will try this friday after work.

The knife said...

Royal china is pretty good from a 'Refined chinese' point of view. We had some lovely 'original' chinese at Kamling this afternoon