While the Chinese have been visiting India for millennia in search of Buddhist teachings, Yang Tai Chow was the first recorded Chinese to migrate to India for better material prospects. In 1778, he put down roots in Kolkata. Known at the time as Calcutta, it was the then-capital of British India and the most easily accessible metropolitan area from China by land.
Over the years, many like him came, mostly Hakkas, and by the early part of the 20th century, a Chinatown had developed in Kolkata and it thrived and buzzed with enterprise. Chinese served with distinction as dentists, tannery owners, sauce manufacturers, beauticians and shoe shop owners, but it was as restaurateurs that the Chinese found their fame and glory in India.
As all immigrant communities tend to do, the Chinese assimilated Indian sensibilities and beliefs. They even acknowledged one of our goddesses, Kali, as their own, and offered noodles, chop suey, rice and vegetable dishes in rituals as a sign of unity.
And so it was with food that the Sino-Indian cultural fusion began.
About 85 years ago, the Indian culinary world was affected by a new cuisine. The first Indo Chinese restaurant Eau Chew opened in Kolkata. Presumably hordes came out satiated and impressed, beaming their approval to the next lot of people who hadn’t tried this new fangled cuisine of foreign origin, yet spicy and tasty like their own.
New restaurants mushroomed all over Kolkata, and legends like Fat Mama and Kim Fa were born, offering newer dishes with fancier combinations and names like August Moon Rolls and Fiery Dragon Chicken. Before you knew it “Indian Chinese” had tickled the taste buds of folk in every small town and city across India. No small feat for a foreign cuisine.
Indian Chinese food wasn’t just served by restaurants big and small, but also by handcart owners, highway food stalls and mobile Chow Mein vans boasting imaginative names like Hungry Eyes and Dancing Stomach. Classic Mumbai street food now even has Chinese versions with “Chinese bhel” and “Sichuan dosa.”
Why is it so popular?
What is it that makes Chinese food so spectacularly popular? The answer lies with Indian food.
Quick to figure out that Indians love spicy, oily preparations, the Chinese merely masala-fied and greased their cuisine into a glutinous, winning combination.
Paneer (Indian cottage cheese) turned into Sichuan paneer with Chinese spices. Chicken curry was substituted with chili chicken. Aloo bhindi? Kung Pao potatoes with okra in a sweet and spicy tomato based dry sauce cured the craving and the curiosity. Pepper chicken reminded people of south Indian style fried chicken.
Non-vegetarian pakoras (batter fried dumplings) chicken or lamb or prawn Manchurian, dry or gravy. And since there’s usually at least one vegetarian in an Indian family, Manchurian sauce was poured over gobi (cauliflower). To some, Gobi Manchurian is the outer limit of Indian-Chinese food friendship.
But wait a minute. Manchurian? Is that even a dish?
Not in China, no. But in India, it’s practically synonymous with Chinese food. The result of a request by a customer at China Garden, Mumbai’s original Indian Chinese restaurant, to create something different from the menu, and owner Nelson Wang (then caterer of Chinese food at the Cricket Club of India) took cubes of chicken, coated them in corn flour and deep fried them. Wang then prepared a red sauce with onions, green chillies and garlic, and slapped some vinegar and soy into it.
He popped the fried chicken dumplings back into the sauce and gave it a quick stir so that the flavors came together and served it with steamed or fried rice. The customers loved it. As Nelson says, “word of mouth” spread the acclaim of this dish and today it is found in almost every menu that serves Chinese food in the country.
This word-of-mouth publicity inspired Nelson Wang to start his own restaurant China Garden, which is a veritable Mumbai institution, even today.
Expanding out of Kolkata
Nowadays his son Eddie, a third generation Chinese Indian, spearheads the restaurant’s expansion to Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune and Goa. Not bad for a man who began his career eking out a modest living doing odd jobs, including limbo dancing at clubs in Kolkata, which, by the way, he was also very good at.
The feel-at-home comfort of Indian Chinese food is accentuated by the garnishes. Most dishes are covered with fresh coriander leaves, and depending on the dish, sliced onion rings too.
But it’s the ingredients that distinguish Indian Chinese food from real Chinese food.
While the cooking methods remain the same, what goes in is quite different. Besides the use of locally available vegetables and meats, it’s the use of condiments like garam masalas (a selection of hand pounded or whole spices used to cook Indian meat dishes), corn flour for thickening and coating, monosodium glutamate to enhance the “Chinese” flavor, an overdose of chilli, garlic and ginger, and generous portions of soy sauce to top it all off – which is what gives Indian Chinese food that special robust, spicy flavor.
Who needs the bland original Chinese food when you’ve got a pungent chili garlic prawn in front of you? Or hakka noodles? Noodles tossed with garlic, lots of chillies, cabbage, capsicum, carrots, ajinomoto, soya, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and garnished with spring onions. Or a chicken lollipop? Chicken wings artfully stuffed with more meat, dipped in a red batter and deep fried. Or crispy fried shredded lamb with red chillies camouflaged so well that there’s danger in every bite.
Firmly established in the Indian culinary milieu now, these dishes define the Indian Chinese food experience. Today, restaurant menus also offer a selection of dishes from different regions of China – steamed and delicate like the original, but there’s always the Indian Chinese touch sitting on the same page.
As the second and third generation of Chinese Indians grew up they migrated to other parts of the world. And they did what they knew best. Cook Indian Chinese food. Even in Europe and America these days, if you want that extra punch from your home delivery boxes, the recipe probably originated in Mumbai or Kolkata.
Blame it on Yang Tai Chow. Or thank him. Depending on how much you like your mouth breathing chili garlic fire.
Sanjiv Khamgaonkar’s top six picks for authentic Indian Chinese food:
China Garden, Om Chambers, Kemps Corner, Mumbai
Ling’s Pavilion, Mahakavi Bhushan Road, Apollo Bunder, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai
Mainland China, Branches at Andheri, Powai, Bandra, and Haji Ali, Mumbai
Chopsticks, 90-A, Manik Mahal, Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate, Mumbai
Kamling, Veer Nariman Road, Churchgate, Mumbai
China Gate, 155, RK Patkar Marg, Khar (West), Mumbai
Sanjiv Khamgaonkar is a writer, filmmaker, foodie, and digital artist.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2010. It was reformatted and republished in 2017.