As Indian as Chinese food

  • Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 29, 2015 13:20 IST

Many decades ago, I coined the phrase ‘Sino-Ludhianvi’ to describe the Punjabified ‘Chinese’ food we got in India. Somewhat to my surprise, the phrase caught on.

When Rajiv Gandhi went to China, his trip attracted global attention because he was the first Indian Prime Minister in something like 25 years to visit the People’s Republic.

But, for me, the highlight of the trip was this exchange between a Chinese official and Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was then not as famous as he is today but was a Joint Secretary in Rajiv’s PMO.

Chinese official: "Do you have any Chinese food in India?"

Aiyar, "Oh yes. We do!"

Chinese official: "Oh really? Cantonese? Hakka? What region is the Chinese food in India from?"

Aiyar: "Oh it’s something you’ve never heard of. It’s called Sino-Ludhianvi. And it’s from the Ludhiana region."

There is no record of what the Chinese official said in reply. But according to Mani, he looked completely befuddled. (The Chinese did not know what to make of Aiyar who then went on to congratulate them on their achievement in genetic engineering when the menu at the official banquet included "Prawn Balls". That, he said, was the one part of the prawn we did not eat in India.)

As time went on, I began to routinely use the phrase "Sino-Ludhianvi" because it seemed to me to sum up what we had done to Chinese cuisine in India. And eventually, I decided it wasn’t an insult but a compliment. We had created our own school of Chinese cuisine; not quite Sichuan or Hunan, but proud to be Sino-Ludhianvi.

There was just one problem: I had never ever been to Ludhiana!

Oh yes, I’d been to Punjab (well, Chandigarh). And later I went to Amritsar. But my reference to Ludhiana was based on nothing more than my experience of Punjabis in other parts of India. (Including Delhi, which could well be regarded as the unofficial capital of Punjab.)

So imagine my elation when, a week ago, I finally found myself shooting a TV show in – yes! – Ludhiana. Many decades after I had first appropriated the name of this fair city for my little joke about Punjabi-Chinese food, I was here!

My first thought was that I should find out if my accolade had been undeserved. I asked people on Twitter to suggest the most famous Sino-Ludhianvi dishes.

Batter than all the rest: When I asked for suggestions for the best Indian Chinese dish, one recommendation was for golden friend prawns A surprisingly large number of people picked a dish I had never heard of: Triple Schezwan Rice. Others just called it "Triple Schezwan". And some people left it at "Triple".

So here was my test: I would check if anyone in Ludhiana knew what this dish was. If they did not, then perhaps I had been wrong to term the whole cuisine ‘Sino-Ludhianvi’.

Did they know?

My God, of course they did!

In fact, they looked shocked at my ignorance. ("Saala, apne aap ko food-writer samajhtaa hai aur itna bhi nahin janta!") Some people even told me that the dish had been invented in Ludhiana. (But then Ludhiana is a little like Texas; the natives think that everything they have is bigger, better and completely original!)

I got various explanations of what a Triple was. But the most common seemed to be that it had a layer of noodles, topped with a layer of fried rice, topped with a layer of vegetables and paneer in gravy, and then garnished with crispy noodles.

Some people said that the rice should constitute the bottom layer but as you are expected to mix everything up before eating the dish, I doubt if it matters very much how the layers are arranged.

Triple Schezwan! Great name! This beats anything they can come up with in Cheng-du.

Such was the pride that the people of Ludhiana took in their Chinese food that some even claimed to have invented ‘Manchurian’ which, I know for a fact, cannot be true.

Whether or not we accept my friend Nelson Wang’s claim that he invented it in the Seventies at Frederick restaurant in Bombay, there is little doubt that the dish was created in India’s commercial capital.

What the Ludhianvis can take credit for, however, is the tendency to eat it with noodles rather than rice.

Like all good Punjabis, they prefer wheat noodles to steamed rice when it comes to Chinese food.

And if rice is ever consumed, it can’t be the boring steamed rice they eat in China. It has to be fried rice with each grain still glistening from the oil it has been cooked in.

But as I listened to the Ludhianvis brag about their food (people in Ludhiana are as proud of their city’s cuisine as are the people of Amritsar; except that the Ludhianvis are much richer), I began to wonder if our own Indian Chinese cuisine had begun to be sub-divided on a regional basis.

A quick analysis of the responses on Twitter seemed to confirm this. In Delhi, Chicken Manchurian seemed to be the top dish. In Bombay, oddly enough, it did less well.

A different take: The Indian version of the Hot and Sour soup is nothing like the original

The responses from Bombay were more varied (Mini Mathur picked ‘hatensar’, or hot and sour soup on the grounds that our version was nothing like the real thing). Some people suggested Golden Fried Prawns (among them Udayan Bose).

Lots of people (Prachi Joshi, Tejal Despande, Hiral Malde and others) nominated Chinese Bhel. The Ludhianvis pushed for "Bullets" ("a classic Ludhiana-Chinese invention"), whatever that may be.

As always, when you crowdsource info on Twitter, there are discoveries. The "Triple" turned out to have a Bombay following because roadside Chinese stalls had picked up the dish.

Someone (his handle is Stardrader9) suggested "Chinese idli". When I said that I’d never heard of the dish, I got an explanation: "Idli fried and quartered, served in a Chinese soup bowl with capsicum, chilli sauce etc."

Because I still seemed sceptical, I was directed to find Sanjeev Kapoor’s recipe. I looked on the internet and damned if Stardrader9 was not right. It wasn’t just Sanjeev who had a recipe for Chinese idlis. There were hundreds!

It was Sanjay Hegde who pointed me south. He picked Gobi Manchurian, which, he said, "now makes it to south Indian funeral feasts as Kobi Manchuri". And indeed, other south Indians seemed to agree with Sanjay. Not Chicken Manchurian. Not Paneer Manchurian. But Gobi (or Kobi).

The Calcutta responses were different. Priyashmita Guha tweeted: "In Calcutta it has to be Prawn Balls though now hardly anyone makes it." (Prawn Balls again! I shall inform Mani Shankar Aiyar!) By and large, the Calcutta tweeters seemed to pick a less Ludhianvi-style of Chinese food: Sweet Corn Soup, Chow Mein and, inevitably, Chilli Chicken.

Some consider Chinese Bhel to be the best Indian Chinese dish

It was the last of those suggestions that gave me pause for thought. The Sino-Ludhianvi craze really began after the Bombay Taj brought Sichuan food to Indian in 1973/74.

Nelson Wang has said that he created Chicken Manchurian because the customers at Frederick kept demanding teekha Chinese after having eaten at the Golden Dragon.

It was after the Taj took Sichuan food to Delhi and opened The House of Ming that Punjabis moved beyond Fujiya, Chung Wa and Aka Saka.

But the Calcutta Chinese had already done their own experimenting with Indian variations on Cantonese dishes (the chefs were usually Hakka but rarely cooked their own cuisine in their restaurants).

And the single greatest dish to come out of those experiments was Chilli Chicken. Looking back, it is easy to see what the Calcutta Chinese did. They took Indian ingredients like red chilli powder, black pepper, garlic, onions, capsicum and green chilli, and then added a hefty dose of soya sauce to make the dish seem Chinese.

But they did it so well that soon Chinese restaurants all over India were offering endless variations on Chilli Chicken: with bones, boneless, dry, with gravy; as an appetiser; as a main course with rice, etc. Nowadays, many restaurants use ginger paste as well, completing the Indian flavour profile.

And even now I think the battle for the greatest dish of Indian Chinese cuisine must be fought between Chilli Chicken and Manchurian (whether it is Chicken, Paneer, Gobi or whatever).

Most Indians, when asked to pick one, would probably go for Manchurian. But that is at least partly because we don’t realise that Chilli Chicken is completely inauthentic; created not in Canton but near Chowringhee.

So where does that leave my friends in Ludhiana with their glorious technicolour thick red sauces and their piles of starch-on-starch (noodle over rice over noodles etc.)?

Despite my tendency to call Indian-Chinese cuisine Sino-Ludhianvi, I don’t think they really come off as inventors of all Indian-Chinese dishes.

But by God, they eat enough of them to be declared the biggest consumers of the school of Chinese cooking that bears their name!

From HT Brunch, June 21
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