Sitting in Five Spice in Bandra, one of the city’s most popular Chinese joints, Tom Lai, (45) Master Chef at Far East, Rodas Ecotel, Powai, glanced through the menu. "The preparations have been changed to suit Indian tastes," he said. "If a Chinese person saw this, they wouldn’t understand anything."
Having spotted the Chicken Satay, Thai Green curry and Teriyaki Potatoes, he figured that it wasn’t only a Chinese restaurant, as the dishes happened to be from Thailand and Japan too.
The "chef’s creations"
Some of the very few items on the menu that actually fit the authentic food bill, according to him, were — Fe Wontons, Cantons Wontons, Chowmein, Kung Pao Prawns, General Tao’s Prawns, Stir Fried Fish Black Bean Chilli, Chicken Talumien Soup, Roast Cantonese Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup.
The rest were all Indian Chinese; or what he chose to put in the category of the "chef’s creations." The first addition to that list was the Two Flavoured Chicken, which according to the menu, was double cooked chicken, sautéed in honey, with star anise.
"This dish does not exist in China. Spicy Chicken Fingers has also been created for Indians, because it’s spicy, as have Roast Chilli Chicken and Crispy Spinach Chicken."
Chopsuey, Burnt Chicken on Hot Wok, Chilli Garlic Noodles, Spicy Chin Chow Chicken, Chicken Manchurian, Prawns Dry Garlic, Soya Wine Chilli Prawns, Crispy Ginger Prawns, Fish Manchurian, Vegetable Spring Rolls, Veg Manchurian Dry, Crispy Vegetables, and Manchow Soup, made it to his list of the "creations."
Not remotely regional
"Manchow is a Cantonese word that means ‘mix’, but the soup does not exist in China," he said. Some of the food on the menu did not even originate in India. Sweetcorn Soup and Wooly Chicken came from the west, he said. Paneer and lamb dishes were beyond him, as neither is served in China. "Pork is the main dish, but is never on the menu," he said.
According to him, the dishes that had regional names from China, such as ‘Hunan’, ‘Manchuria’ or ‘Shanghai’ did not remotely represent the regional cuisine. "Hunan is a place in China, but I don’t think they eat Crispy Hunan Chicken there. In Hunan they eat sweet food. Likewise, Manchurian is not a Chinese dish," he explained.
The extensive range of fried rice also did not reflect any authenticity, nor did the many pages of vegetarian dishes. "Chinese have a very heavy-meat diet," he said.
"Cantonese food is bland. It includes steamed preparations, minimal salt and no spices. Fried noodles and rice are only served in hotels. Chinese homes serve steamed rice."
Common vegetables used in China are pak choi (Chinese cabbage), bean sprouts and bamboo shoots, none of which were spotted on the menu.
So what does Lai serve at his restaurant? “We serve both Indo-Chinese and Chinese food. It’s better to give the guests options. Most Indian people know only Indo-Chinese food as Chinese food.
They wouldn’t like the authentic meal, as it’s too bland. Most of the restaurants are run by Indians, not Chinese. It’s too expensive to keep their chefs here, and Indian chefs can’t make Chinese food. To make theses dishes authentic, you would have to completely change the recipes,” he added.
When asked if he enjoyed making Indo-Chinese food, he went quiet for a second and then said, “For me, it is business. I am more passionate about making Cantonese food.” But he admitted, though more fattening, Indo-Chinese food was definitely tastier.
The postmortem of the meal
The waiter looked blank when we asked him if there was a special menu for the Year of the Tiger. He said he came from Northeast India and did not know what the Year of the Tiger was.
So he brought a plate of pickled cabbage and raw vegetables.“We would not have this in China,” Lai said. “There we would have prawn crackers. But I guess they are not available or are expensive in India.”
Then our Vegetable Manchow soup arrived, accompanied by deep fried crispy noodles in a bowl.“This is another creation, which doesn’t exist in China. It only exists here. It’s mixed vegetables with soya protein and Monosodium glutamate has been added to make it tasty.
If you gave them this, they would say, ‘Give me noodle soup in a bowl.’ Chinese soups are clear, thin, watery and normally contain boiled chicken, root vegetables and less salt.” The Chicken Chilli and Vegetable Spring Rolls arrived next. “Not Chinese, again. There is far too much spice. You have to take away the chillies and fry it in oyster or soya sauce to make it Chinese,” he said.
The spring rolls also earned a similar reaction. “These don’t exist in Chinese cuisine. If we do wrap vegetables, we use transparent sheets, not thick fried flour sheets like this. Also, they would be steamed, not fried. But I don’t think Indians would like that.”
Next, the Peking Fried Rice appeared, a combination of red gravy, white noodles, white rice and crispy noodles. Lai looked perplexed, as it all appeared to be noodles, with very little rice. “I guess the concept is good to enjoy,” he said. “But, still…nothing Chinese.”
The Hakka Noodles, which arrive fried with spring onions, were to his liking and done, as they were in China, he said. It was, apparently, a Chinese dish. Finally, we dug into Chicken Manchurian, the most popular Indian Chinese dish.
“It is done, as it should be for India, but they would have to take the chillies and coriander out and use soya sauce to make it all Chinese,” he signed off.
Where to celebrate the Year of Tiger
At Emperor’s Court at the Renaissance Hotel in Powai, Master Chef Tso Kim Fu has created an exotic festive menu, on offer until Thursday, February 18.
Appetisers include Fresh Crab Meat with Caviar and Double Boiled Chicken Soup. Main Course includes Grilled Lamb Chop Cooked in Honey Pepper Sauce and Sliced Potato Cooked in Black Bean Sauce.
China House at the Grand Hyatt will host a special lunch and dinner menu on February 28. Dishes include Steamed Spinach and Shredded Chicken with Ginger Sauce, Sichuan Pickled Eggplant and Steamed Dumplings Stuffed with Pork.
Ming Yang at Taj Land’s End has created a specially crafted menu. Dishes include Vegetable Tofu Corn Cake and Apple Sweet Bean Pie.