China, beyond Sichuan
India’s Chinese community has been here for at least a century. So why is it that we hardly ever get to eat the food that our local Chinese eat at home when we go to restaurants?
It is a complicated question and there are no easy answers. Many (if not most) of India’s Chinese-origin citizens are Hakka, part of an adventurous wandering Chinese community whose members have spread out all over Asia and the world. It was possible (and perhaps it still is) to get the food they eat at one or two places in Calcutta’s old Chinatown.
But the Chinese-Indians quickly came to the conclusion that Indians had no interest in eating the food that the Chinese actually ate at home.
So, the Chinese-Indians who opened restaurants – first in Calcutta and then, all over India – fell back on a global Chinese menu that had been invented in America. This comprised dishes that they would rarely (if ever) eat at home: garlic prawns, chop suey, sweet and sour pork, sweet corn soup and the like.
The Chinese had arrived in America during the Gold Rush in the middle of the 19th Century and many had been hired to work on building the railroad. They were paid poorly, treated badly and subjected to the worst kind of racism – often backed by the force of the law.
Like many immigrant communities in the West who found it difficult to secure jobs, they took to running restaurants that served food at low prices. Recognising that authentic Chinese cuisine may be a step too far for Americans, they created a new menu that incorporated some Chinese flavours.
This menu travelled around the world and came to be regarded as “Chinese food”. It was these dishes that India’s Chinese served at their restaurants.
If India’s Chinese community had continued to serve this version of American-Chinese food, I doubt very much if Chinese cuisine would have been as popular in India as it is today. The great transformation occurred in the mid-1970s when the Taj group opened two seminal Chinese restaurants: The Golden Dragon in Mumbai and The House of Ming in Delhi. Both restaurants had the same origin: they were staffed by chefs and a manager from a Hong Kong restaurant called The Red Pepper.
Even in 1970s Hong Kong, The Red Pepper was relatively unusual because it served the fiery cuisine of China’s Sichuan province. The Taj’s Camellia Panjabi ate there and hired the team pretty much on the spot. The Taj then battled restrictive Reserve Bank regulations to bring the Hong Kong Chinese to India.
Sichuan food – and in the early days, the Golden Dragon and House of Ming food was largely authentic – came as a revelation to Indians. The idea of spicy Chinese food was irresistible and both restaurants became phenomenally successful.
In the 1970s, the furtherest east that most Chinese-Indians had been was Chowringhee. They were largely Indian-born and were as stunned by the flavours of Sichuan food as the rest of us. They had never encountered this kind of Chinese food either.
But within a few years, they had adapted. The most famous example of the extent of this adaptation is the creation of Chicken Manchurian, probably by Nelson Wang at the old Frederick’s restaurants in Mumbai’s Colaba. (To be fair, others claim to have invented the dish too.)
The instant popularity of Chicken Manchurian (it turned up on every menu in just a few months) meant that India’s Chinese restaurateurs now had carte blanche: they could simply make up vaguely Chinese dishes with lots of chillis and Indian spices.
But once they did that, a second phenomenon occurred: if the whole cuisine was going to consist of made-up dishes, then why bother with Chinese cooks? Bit by bit, the Chinese restaurant business slipped out of the hands of the Chinese-Indian community. Today, more Punjabis own Chinese restaurants than do ethnic Chinese. And more Nepalis cook at Chinese restaurants than do actual Chinese people.
By the beginning of this century, Indian-Chinese (or Sino-Ludhianvi) was a cuisine in its own right, as much a complete school of cooking, as Nelson Wang bragged, as Cantonese or Beijing or Hunanese.
Hotels tried to serve a more authentic kind of Chinese food. But that depended on what you regarded as “authentic Chinese.” The Oberoi hired overseas Chinese chefs from Singapore for Delhi’s Taipan. Others found Chinese cooks in Malaysia. The original House of Ming team had come from Hong Kong and that remained a source of many Chinese chefs at deluxe hotels. Except that the cuisine of each of these cities was different and so the flavours varied from restaurant to restaurant.
Nothing really significant happened to the Chinese restaurant scene in India till the Hyatt chain opened China Kitchen in Delhi and China House in Mumbai at around the same time over a decade ago. The Hyatt used an English-speaking Singapore-Chinese chef called Jack Aw Yong who had worked at the Beijing Hyatt to marshal a team of six chefs from the mainland for Delhi’s China Kitchen. Jack created a menu of crowd-pleasing, but largely authentic, Chinese dishes from all over China with an emphasis on spicy Sichuan flavours. The restaurant’s signature, however, was the Peking Duck, cooked in an oven with an open flame, that soon became Delhi’s most famous Chinese dish.
China Kitchen remains the most influential Chinese restaurant in 21st Century India. It is still the standard against which other Chinese restaurants are judged. And its success suggests that more and more Indians are willing to go beyond Sino-Ludhianvi.
The three Chinese restaurants that have recently opened in Delhi and threaten China Kitchen’s dominance are offering more than just the fiery flavours of Sichuan.
The Shang Palace is the Delhi outpost of a great Shangri-La brand whose other branches have won Michelin stars around the world. The Shangri- La chain is owned by an overseas Chinese family and headquartered in Hong Kong. The three chefs it has sent to Delhi focus on the kind of food China Kitchen does not do: barbecued skewers from the North of China, Hong Kong-style roasted meats, etc. I have eaten there often and the food has always been sensational and technically perfect.
The Andaz is a Hyatt brand so when it decided to open a high-glam, spectacular Chinese restaurant in Delhi, it was careful not to compete with the China Kitchen’s spicy, Sichuan flavours. Its massively glamorous new Hong Kong Club serves Cantonese food, a gutsy positioning in a market where Chinese food is often equated with spice. I have eaten there only once and the food was terrific. But even if the food was not this good, my guess is the restaurant will flourish because of the glamour factor. It is now the most talked about restaurant in Delhi.
The Indian chains have always needed to up their game. I don’t eat Chinese food at a Taj hotel if I can help it: a sorry decline for the chain that started it all. And the Oberoi’s Taipan used to be horrible.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that the newly renovated Oberoi (I will do a separate piece on the reopening of India’s most influential hotel) had taken the out-of-the-box decision of getting Andrew Wong from London’s A Wong to open in the old Taipan space.
I have written about A Wong before. It is the best Chinese restaurant in London because Andrew, who owns it and cooks, has taken a cerebral approach to the food of China. Brought up in the UK in a family of Chinese restaurateurs, he has gone all over China picking up dishes he likes and has refined their presentation for the 21st Century.
I had the best meal I have had in a long time at Baoshuan (as the restaurant is called) with translucent soup dumplings, delicate pork and prawn siu mai, the lightest Wasabi prawns imaginable and even a modern riff on that old British-Chinese restaurant standard: Crispy Aromatic Duck.
This is not a big restaurant like Hong Kong Club or Shang Palace. But it is going to be the Chinese restaurant where everybody who is anybody in Delhi will eat.
It is all a long way from Sino-Ludhianvi. And (fingers crossed) perhaps the influence of these restaurants will finally edge out the thick red sauces of Punjabi-Chinese cooking.
From HT Brunch, December 31, 2017
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