We heard that! That collective snigger from the reserved seats at the back reacting to the news of an Indian restaurant specialising in Chinese cuisine opening shop soon in China. Deep fried baby squid with chilli sauce, the cognoscenti will remind us, is as ‘Chinese’ a dish as chicken tikka masala is desi. That may be the case. But that is also not the point of ingesting food. The point is whether the palate gains any kind of pleasure in the food on the plate or not. Mainland China opened their first restaurant in 1995 in the melting-pot town of Bombay. Since then, fuelled by the success measured in terms of both cash registers as well as hosannas from food critics, Mainland China has opened branches in Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune. Now Mainland China wants to go to mainland China. And yes, those occupying the reserved seats at the back are sniggering at the prospect.
Okay, so even Mainland China prides itself for serving authentic Chinese food to Indians. One can be sure that even ‘Indian Chinese’ cuisine has its gradations of taste. The roadside noodles and cabbage and ketchup affair sold as ‘Chinese food’, after all, is indeed less grotesque to taste than the dishes served in Indian Chinese (Bengali-Chinese, Punjabi-Chinese etc) eateries. So in the department of authenticity, Mainland China and other ‘authentic’ Chinese restaurants in India do their best to get the right Sichuan, Cantonese, Yunan or Hubei flavours. But the truth is that like Miles Davis’ Birth of Cool — an album that saw the birth of a classic sound cobbled out of unorthodox instrumentation, traditional jazz and a ‘throttled’ (and, therefore, ‘wrong’) trumpet sound — Indian Chinese cuisine became a genre menu of its own. It wasn’t about right and wrong, authentic and unauthentic; it was about it suiting the tastebuds of Indians not settled in Sichuan, Canton, Yunan or Hubei.
For some unexplained reason, however, people tend to make a whole toodle-loo about being ‘authentic’ — as if we all have a little Nazi Minister of Culture inside us intent on wiping out any cultural — gastronomical included — miscegenation. As the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges said in a different context, “The original is unfaithful to the translation.” So the bottomline: will the Chinese take to the dishes of Mainland China? We think they will — if only some of the subtle, subliminal Indianness goes into that delightful fried rice with XO Sauce and shrimps. And maybe some sauf right at the end.