The first-ever Chinese Restaurant in Mumbai opened in the early 1900s. The British, who ruled the city, traded with China, and thousands of Chinese labourers and sailors had landed and settled here. As is with migrants anywhere, once they settle, they start missing their home food, and you need just one enterprising fellow with one good cook to start a culinary revolution.
That revolution for Bombay started in the flagrantly nefarious red light area of Kamathipura, in a seedy lane called Shuklaji Street. The year, I’m told, was 1895, and the first-ever Chinese restaurant was called Lok Jun. I’m not sure whether ‘Lok Jun’ means anything in Chinese, but it sounds quite like Hindi.
Traditional Hindus or Muslims, though, wouldn’t be caught dead in these Chinese establishments, which were slowly spreading to Colaba. My Hindu grandmom swore they cooked dogs and cats.
Colaba became their Shanghai. Beauty parlours, shoemakers, dentists and restaurants; all Chinese. Starting with Nanking Restaurant, opened in 1945 by Yick Sen Ling. His family — Baba and Nini Ling — now run Ling’s Pavillion on the same spot where once stood Frederick’s, a popular Chinese restaurant of the ’60s-’70s. Ling’s Pavilion still serves some of the finest Cantonese food. Out of the thousands of dishes in Baba’s head — pig trotters, belly, cheek and ribs; seafood, including a mean fish ball soup, and pots of rice — only some feature on the menu. You need to coax him into feeding you off-menu. I still think his best dish is the sweet and sour pork, Nanking Style.
Thams, one of the other old Chinese families in Mumbai, bought Kokwah, a hot-spot of the ’40s right across from Nanking, and opened Mandarin, a restaurant I used to eat at nearly three times a week. It was reasonably priced and served huge portions. I miss their stewed wontons and their thick, generous sweet corn crab meat soup. In their last days, a few years ago, you could sit at the Royal Bombay Yatch Club across the road and order off the Mandarin menu. If you had a window seat at the Yatch Club Bar, you’d see the waiter cross the busy Apollo Bunder Road dodging cars, balancing a covered tray with your order.
Tham Mon Yiu’s family also owned a stake in Kamling at Nagin Mahal on Churchgate Street. It stood alongside stylish restaurants, such as Gourdon’s and Bombelli’s, that served European food to British residents and up-market Indians. Kamling still stands eighty years later, while the others are gone.
When at Kamling, keep it simple. Egg fried rice, honey chilli meat, chilli fried potato, fried onion pancakes, fried pork ball garlic sauce, barbecued spare ribs and, what I cannot resist, American chop suey.
All the early Chinese restaurants in Bombay were Cantonese, the milder cuisine from the Canton region. It was Camellia Panjabi who started India’s first Sichuan restaurant at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Legend is that Camellia tasted spicy Chinese food in a restaurant in Hong Kong, and poached the cook. The Golden Dragon was born and, with it, spicy Chinese food with red gravy; the only way most of us like our Chinese food today. The Golden Dragon still makes the best Golden Fried Prawns in the world. I’d also order Moo Shu Lamb, Char Siu Rou (barbequed roast pork) and Lobster Butter Chilli Oyster.
It took Nelson Wang to come in and create Indian-Chinese by supposedly inventing the ‘Chicken Manchurian’. What he actually did was spice up Chinese food with coriander and all the other flavours that suited the Indian palate. He was a rage. You were not socially acceptable unless you had your personalised reservation plate in brass waiting at the China Garden. Or till Nelson himself came to the door to usher you in and order on your behalf. I miss the hospitality of Nelson. The last time I went, I was refused a table for being dressed in shorts, at an empty China Garden at 7pm.
Today, with China House, Hakkasan, Yauatcha, and Royal China, Chinese food in India has evolved to world standards. Yauatcha here is nearly as good at it is in Soho, London. It would have been better if it were not for our resistance towards certain meats and bans on others. Hakkasan’s Singapore Chilli Prawn compares to best in Singapore; China House’s Beggar Chicken is spectacular, and Royal China does a mean duck. But one of my favourites will always be ‘Hungry Eyes’, a roadside Chinese van at Nariman Point.
Author and TV show host Kunal Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar