Rude Food: What happened to my Chinese?
The Chinese food I miss was the kind you got in the restaurants of Bombay and Delhi in the Sixties and Seventies, long before anyone in India had heard of Sichuan, writes Vir Sanghvi.brunch Updated: Jul 15, 2012 18:28 IST
These days we all know the difference between real Chinese food and Sino-Ludhianvi. Real Chinese food is usually cooked by real Chinese people who try and recreate the restaurant experience of Hong Kong or Singapore. Sino-Ludhianvi food is usually cooked by Nepali or Pahadi chefs who slave away in restaurants that are usually owned by Punjabis who have told them what to cook and how.
Real Chinese food is like Indian food – it is divided by regions. Just as a Tam Brahm has little use for
, so a big strapping Sikh is not over-enamoured of curd rice. It is the same with Chinese food.
Given that China is bigger than India and contains even more people, the range of cuisines is vast and diverse. The Muslim minority in the north of China likes its cumin, the people of Chengdu like their Sichuan peppercorns, the people of Hunan love chillies and so on.
Sino-Ludhianvi food recognises no region. As far as the average Sino-Ludhianvi restaurateur is concerned, there is a place called China somewhere to the East where a billion and a half people sit down and eat hakka noodles and Chicken Manchurian every night. As for variations in the cuisine, that consists of the waiter asking you “how much chilli you want in chicken?”
As the distinctions between Sino-Ludhianvi and the real thing have become clearer, the options have got even fancier. Now, we won’t just go to a ‘real’ Chinese restaurant. We’ll want to know what kind of Chinese food it serves.
Is it a dim sum place like Bombay’s Yauatcha? Does it serve the sort of authentic Hunan cuisine you get at Delhi’s The Chinese? Does the chef cook his Peking Duck on a wood fire the way they do at China Kitchen in Delhi or China House in Bombay? Do they make a Cheung Fan that is as delicate as the version at Delhi’s Royal China? And so on.
This is great but I have to admit that I do sometimes long for the days before we realised what real Chinese food was like or worked out that there were chillies and spices in Sichuan cooking. These days, because most of us know the difference, we make a deliberate decision to eat one or the other, either real or Sino-Ludhianvi.
But there was a time when Chinese food in India had nothing to do with Sino-Ludhianvi. Yes, it was inauthentic. But it wasn’t a branch of Punjabi cuisine either.
Till the early 1980s, Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine did not really exist. It was invented after the Taj famously opened the House of Ming in Delhi and told north Indians that Chinese food could be teekha. Once that message had sunk in, every
worked out that if you mixed ketchup and chilli sauce, you could create your own kind of Chinese menu.
The Chinese food I miss was the kind you got in the restaurants of Bombay and Delhi in the Sixties and Seventies, long before anyone in India had heard of Sichuan. I still remember the restaurants of that era. In Bombay we had Fredricks, Nanking, Kamling, Mandarin, the Chinese Room at Kemp’s Corner and Gazebo Oriental in Bandra. The Bombay restaurants usually had Chinese owners (not Gazebo or Chinese Room though – or so I think) and all of them had Chinese chefs. In Delhi, the restaurants tended to be Punjabi-owned but the kitchens were always Chinese-led: the Mandarin Room at the Janpath Hotel, Fujiya, Chungwa etc.
Most of these places were not overly expensive, so middle-class families could go in and order large meals without worrying too much about the bill.
I have done no research into what other people ate but my guess is that my family’s order was pretty typical: Sweet Corn Soup with Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, Garlic Prawns, Lemon Chicken and Egg Fried Rice. Dessert was usually ice cream with canned lychees. And if we felt like a starter, it tended to be Spring Rolls. If we drank liquor, it was always beer.
As far as I can recall, there was no pressure to order both rice and noodles as there is these days. But we did order dishes that seem quaint now. American Chop Suey (it came with a fried egg on top) and many kinds of chow mein.
There were hardly any bright red sauces. The one spicy dish used to be Chilli Chicken. (The moment you ordered it, the waiter snapped: “You want boneless?” The correct answer was always “Yes”). No Indian masalas were allowed into the kitchen. There was no tradition of garnishing everything with coriander leaves.
If you wanted your food spicy, then they gave you a small bottle of so-called Chinese chilli sauce, made in Calcutta with a suitably Chinese-type name like Yung Chung Pung Sauce (okay, I’m making this up but they really did all have names like that).
The great Sanghvi family tradition used to consist of staring intently at a bowl of Sweet Corn Soup and then destroying its golden complexion by adding soya sauce (which darkened it), Yung Chung Pung chilli sauce (which gave it a reddish hue) and then, like cherries carelessly strewn on top of a dessert, a few slices of chopped vinegared green chillies as a garnish.
Was any of this genuine Chinese food? Probably not. Years and years later, when I started writing about food I read up on the origins of Chinese cuisine in the West. It turned out that – till the Seventies, at least – the menu of nearly every Chinese restaurant in the English-speaking world had originated in America, not China.
At the turn of the century, Chinese workers who had been taken to the US to work on the railways, opened small cheap restaurants in American cities. As Americans did not like spicy flavours, the early Chinese restaurants stuck to a menu of inexpensive, starchy foods with a low meat content. Many dishes were invented in America (such as Chop Suey and later Mooshoo Pork) but were based on Cantonese cooking, among the mildest of China’s many cuisines.
The Chinese who ran the Bombay and Delhi restaurants of my childhood and teenage years, had been in India for so long that most of the cooks had never been further east than Chowringhee. They knew that Indians would not like the food that they ate themselves at home, so they served an American-style menu with a few local variations.
Sweet Corn Soup has never been as popular anywhere in the world as it is in India. And Chilli Chicken was a bow to local tastes. But most things were of an inauthentic global standard.
Then, in the Seventies, the party ended. The Taj introduced Sichuan food to India and horrified the local Chinese who had forgotten where Sichuan was and had certainly never eaten this kind of food before.
To see it in context, think of an expatriate Sikh community which has lived away from India for three generations and is then suddenly confronted with dosas, appams and spicy Kerala fish curries. As far as the sardarjis are concerned, this is certainly not the Indian cuisine they know. It might as well be Thai or Malaysian.
Local Chinese restaurateurs tried hard to cope with the new unfamiliar teekha flavours. Nelson Wang invented Chicken Manchurian. (As he later admitted to me on a TV show: “If Chairman Mao had tried the dish, he would have had me executed!”) Others tried to do their own kind of Sichuan food by putting Indian masalas into thick red sauces and abandoning their old restaurant dishes.
Once this happened, the game was up. Canny Indian restaurateurs worked out that our local Chinese knew as little about this cuisine as they did. So, out went the Chinese cooks. Out went the old American Chop Suey-type menus. In their place came the bogus dishes that characterise Sino-Ludhianvi. These could be cooked by anyone: a Nepali just off the bus, a
at Nariman Point, a
in Lajpat Nagar or a
in a dhaba. Chinese food became Sino-Ludhianvi or just another kind of Indian restaurant cuisine, available at bhelpuri-
, dosa-restaurants and, incredibly enough, at Moti Mahal!
For a long time I clung to the belief that you could still get the old Chinese menus of my childhood at today’s restaurants. But that was a false hope. At most places you either get red-sauce Chinese or you get some Chinese restaurateur who has flown to Singapore or Hong Kong, checked out the food and upgraded his old Sweet and Sour Pork-Chop Suey menu to something more authentic. Even Nelson Wang now serves real Chinese food at his restaurants.
So yes, I’m delighted by the Peking Duck at China Kitchen, the Cheung Fan at the Delhi Royal China and the expert stir-frying at Hakkasan.
But sometimes – just sometimes – I feel a pang of regret at the passing of the simple but wonderful Chinese food of the restaurants of my childhood. That cuisine is now dead, murdered by Sino-Ludhianvi. Long may my garlic prawns rest in pieces.
From HT Brunch, July 15
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