Taste of China
It could well qualify as India’s answer to Britain’s chicken tikka masala: the combo of Manchurian balls in a salty, starchy slush with stir-fried noodles or rice. Chinjabi or Sino-Ludhianvi cuisine is as much a part of our culinary consciousness as dosa-sambhar or chole bhature. Courtesy, the early Chinese immigrants to Kolkata’s Tangra district. Their use of local ingredients like mutton instead of beef and pork, spices such as chilli, ginger, garlic and ‘native’ cooking styles like deep frying, managed to stir up a gastronomic revolution of sorts that today demands a status of its own.
Enter Nelson Wang, whose chicken Manchurian and starchy curries with ginger and garlic became a rage in the ’80s. From the poor cousin of the kadhai, the wok evolved to the much-preferred option at dhabas and five-star restaurants alike. As Tangra Chinese started emigrating, their cuisine also crossed shores: from the ubiquitous grubby Chinese vans to upscale Manhattan joints like Masala Wok and Tangra Masala.
Indian restaurants, however, are now moving beyond the Schezwan dosa and chicken lollipops to hiring specialised dimsum chefs. “After a wave of Indo-Chinese, we are now witnessing one of contemporary Chinese restaurants. Upmarket Chinese joints are now trying to push the ‘authentic’ with the usual,” opines a Delhi-based food critic. For instance, The Chinese in Connaught Place with its separate Hunan menu and a designated chef. “People now want the real thing,” says owner Sanjeev Goswami, who has been running Indian restaurants in China for the past 14 years. Even as he admits to making the Hunan menu ‘palatable to Indian tastebuds,’ he insists it’s ‘authentic’. The stage is set for the next revolution, at least when it comes to the cuisine.
Neighbour’s envy, grower’s pride
Call it a hundred-year war that turned last year. For almost a century, India had pipped China to the tipple that’s tea. For most of the 20th century, we were the largest producers of the leaves that were supposed to have been brewed first in the Middle Kingdom more than 4,000 years ago. Last year, sure enough, China blasted India off the top by producing more than a billion kilos of the leaves — over 50 million kilos more than the Indian crop.
This was not the first time the history of the brew would have closed a circle. Tea — rather, the tax on it — was the factor that stirred the Americans enough to throw the colonising Brits out of their land. But the Brits had levied the tax to fund their wars in India. So what did the tea-loving colonisers do? They set up a scientific commission on the feasibility of farming tea in India, settled on Assam, smuggled in some leaves from China, and, in one of the largest promotional efforts of the time, made India the largest tea-drinking nation in the world.
Wait, we are not giving up on the origin yet. Dolly Roy, connoisseur and former ‘ambassador’ for the Tea Board, says, “In the 1830s, one Charles Alexander Bruce found tea to be growing wild in Assam. Though there is no record of brewing here, we cannot say whether it was used before that only in China.” Shall we invite the Chinese to a Cha-cha-cha party?
What lies beneath
It’s under our skin and on it too. China simply has a way of getting there. Take lingerie, for example. Think strapless, think backless. Talk about padded or underwired, lacy or embroidered. And it’s all there — flooding the flea markets or sitting prettily in swanky lingerie stores.
“I’ve been selling Chinese bras and panties for 25 years. The demand has only increased,” declares 45-year-old Daya Kashyap, waving at her booty on a Sarojini Nagar footpath. As though on cue, a shopper stops, rummages through the rows of colourful bras and before making a buy, double checks with Daya’s son Ajay: “Chinese hai na?” He replies, “Everything’s Chinese but for those rows.” Two rows of matronly black and white chikan bras stare back.
Daya draws attention to the more interesting lot from across the border: halter bras, T-shirt bras, bikinis, padded, pushups, plain, printed, thongs, g-strings, stripes, scarlet, turquoise, gold, black, emerald, mustard…. All available between Rs 25 and Rs 75. Many gents also come to buy Chinese bras,” she whispers conspiratorially.
The Oriental cut
If There’s one thing Kolkata swears by, it’s Chinese hairdressers. The 21-year-old Leong’s on Sarat Bose still has a Chinese leading lady, Lily Leong. And it still employs a Chinese hairdresser, Maria Liao.
“I was born in Mumbai where my parents own a beauty parlour,” says Liao, adding that she “loves” keeping up with the latest hairdos. Two girls from Nepal complete the picture at Leong’s. As for clients, those who’ve tried Chinese hairdressers seldom go to any other. Rajlakshmi Gupta, 23, agrees: “I think they’re more experienced and have a good sense of style”.
Stylist-beautician Bidgette Jones, who owns an upmarket parlour in South Kolkata, rues that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find professional hairdressers. “I have only four girls left in my parlour. Many Chinese families have already left the city,” she says. “They’re hardworking and professional. And
along with hairdos, they’re good with skincare too,” says Jones.
The Hong Kong life
SUDIPTO DEY travels to Hong Kong four times a day. Hukto Sema moves out of Hong Kong during the day only to relieve himself while Lakmen Kharmalki sleeps in Hong Kong everyday, except on Saturdays and Sundays. None, however, has ever taken a flight.
Dey lives on the outskirts of Siliguri in northern West Bengal, Sema is a resident of Chumukedima beyond Dimapur on the way to Nagaland capital Kohima and Kharmalki hails from Umroi near Shillong. They make a living in Hong Kong, the common name for foreign — mostly Chinese — goods market across the Northeast and the Chicken’s Neck corridor.
“Hong Kong market is our life,” says Kharmalki. His counterpart Lalbiakliana in the Mizoram capital Aizawl agrees somewhat. There is no “official” Hong Kong market in Aizawl, but a cluster of five-six shops at Foreign Lane in the Dawrpui area is invariably referred to as Hong Kong.
There’s a similar cluster in Bangladesh Market in Tripura capital Agartala. It has garments from Bangladesh and electronics and toys from China. It is also called Dead Sahib’s Market after a large section on second-hand clothes believed to have donned by dead white people.
Kicking back in ishtyle
If not in films focusing on crouching stars with hidden spiritual or historical baggage, the only end-to-end kung-fu action you are likely to see in contemporary Chinese flicks is in parodies such as the 2002 film Kung Pao: Enter the Fist, or 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle. Kung-fu as the post-Bruce Lee art is dying; long live kung-fu as post-Jackie Chan laughathon, or post-Jet Li speed-rush.
Indian filmdom, in which every stunt master worth his grunt still pays obeisance to ol’ man Bruce, has taken note. And it says thanks, but no thanks. Peter Hayne, 32-year-old action director for Tamil hits such as Sivaji (2007) and Anniyan (2006) and one who used to run a Vietnam-style martial arts school, often advises filmmakers against using too much kung-fu. “In the 1980s, when stunt master Judo Ratnam used to work with Rajnikanth, there was a lot of Chinese-style action onscreen. These days, even Chinese films look more Hollywoodish.”
Rashid Mehta, head of Mumbai’s 500-member Stunt Association, agrees. “The Chinese do unbelievable stuff these days — leaping between trees and flying …. Our public can’t digest that,” says the 47-year-old fall guy. “We are moving towards more natural action.” That’s why, except in a kick or two, the only kung-fu in today’s Hindi films is after the style of the foo-fawing Shakti Kapoor in Andaz Apna Apna — more as a sidekick to the meatier dhishum-dhishum in the middle.
Shoeing away competition
The big deal about Chinese shoes is that they are hand-stitched, made of genuine leather and that the shopowner “will never speak with a forked tongue,” says Jude Yep. “My regulars know that I can be objective even about my own shoes, that I know what I am talking out,” says Yep, who owns John Bros, one of the oldest and finest shoe shops in Connaught Place.
Yep, like most Chinese, has adjusted to all shades of local — and reigning — taste. “We don’t dictate style. We even make Peshwaris, jootis and maujris,” he says as Mohammed Haroun, a businessman, walks into his shop. He swears by Chinese shoes because “they are soft and durable”. He may have just hit the nail on the head: Chinese shoes last for years, so each shoe could well be passed from mother to daughter, brother to brother, father to son. “My father opened the shop in 1938. And I’m still here running it in 2007,” says Yep.
CALL IT a Chinese invasion if you please, but when it comes to gadgets and gizmos, it’s surely a welcome one. Digital cameras, iPods, MP3 players, cellphones, DVDs … you name it and it’s all there. But of the lot, mobile phones are what steal the show.
“Over the last five months, a whole new range of Chinese mobile handsets, with enviable looks and features, has swamped the market,” says Gurpreet Singh, who sells Chinese electronics in Gaffar Market. The recent Nokia battery scare saw sales shoot up even further.
Prices too are a steal: Rs 6,500 for a video-enabled handset.“The same goes for Chinese mixer-juicer, steam iron, ceiling fan and other home appliances, though their quality remains questionable,” says RP Singh, a Mayur Vihar shopkeeper.
China sells. And anything that sells finds fakes. “So take it with a pinch of salt when vendors between Kokrajhar (Assam) and Katihar (Bihar) go ‘China Vicks, China balm’,” says Siliguri-based foreign goods trader Gopal Roy. “A real Chinese balm will have a pagoda on the cap, a fake will have a tiger or a bamboo leaf,” he says.
(with inputs from Rahul Karmakar)