Gourmet Secrets: The magic cauldron
The Mongolian steamboat or hot pot, moved to China after the 13th Century Mongolian conquest, and is now found throughout the country with regional touches addedUpdated: Feb 03, 2019 00:03 IST
Chinese food is probably still the singularly most popular foreign cuisine in India. So much so, that it can hardly be considered foreign anymore. Multicuisine restaurants offer Chinese with as much ease and regularity as they do Mughlai and North Indian dishes. What exactly is Chinese food and how authentic is it in India? Is it just chop suey and chowmein, sweet and sour prawns and fried rice?
Well, if tandoori chicken, biryani and vindaloo can be passed off as ‘typically Indian’ dishes in the UK, then why expect the real Chinese Mc Coy to surface here. Incidentally, a Chinese chef in Hong Kong once told me that if it were not for his quality conscious Chinese customers, he would soon be out of business. “I can’t survive on what the Europeans, Americans and Australians order”, he lamented. “Their standard menu stretches to beef with green peppers (capsicum), sweet and sour pork, sweet corn chicken soup, a noodle, a rice and toffee apple. If they are really adventurous, they may try shark fin soup or stir-fried broccoli with Oyster sauce!
Rise of Chindian
For Europeans then, Chinese is a tangy, Oriental change. I dare say that it is much the same here, only we throw in a dollop or two of spice and call it Szechwan or Manchurian. Incidentally, the story of the origins of Manchurian dishes in India, as told to me by another one of my men in white (chef fraternity) is very enlightening. According to him, it was a cook at the NSCI club near the Turf Club in Mumbai who discovered Manchurian.
He was painfully trying to think up a new Chinese dish for his snack menu within the budgetary and taste constraints of a club. He had made some bhajias and was experimenting with a sauce based on fried onion, ginger and garlic. Into it apparently fell some soya, by mistake! This tasted pretty good, so he covered the bhajias with it. The next time he tried it, he made the bhajias with white flour instead of besan or gram flour and thickened the sauce with cornflour and hey presto, this was the birth of Manchurian cuisine in India as we know it. You will find no mention of any culinary achievements in Manchuria in any Chinese cookery book. This is because there are none.
Szechwan (Szechuan or Sichuan) is probably the most preferred style of Chinese in India, largely because it is spicy. There is some truth in this. Travellers brought Buddhism into the province more than 2000 years ago. These traders and missionaries carried Indian spices, herbs and cooking techniques with them as well as Buddhist teachings and consequently a strong vegetarian legacy as well. But it is not just the chilli and chilli oil that are used with gay abandon. This province also produces a fragrant black pepper (fagara), which gives Szechwan cuisine its distinct flavour.
Flavours of the Orient
The cooking of Hunan and Yunnan provinces next door to Szechwan are also highly-flavoured and can be intensely spicy. Foods tend to be braised, crisp-fried or dry-cooked, the seasonings and resultant flavours are complex and intense. There is an old Chinese saying which concerns the seven flavours necessary in provincial Chinese cooking. This is the first lesson given to a novice cook. All food must have sweet (honey or sugar), sour (vinegar), salty (salt or Soya), fragrant (garlic and ginger), bitter (spring onions or leeks), nutty (sesame seeds or oil) and most importantly for Szechwan, hot (chilli).
The dish that really appeals to me in the Chinese repertoire is the Mongolian steamboat or hot pot. It is similar in style to a European fondue. Introduced into China after the Mongolian conquest in the 13th Century and soon found throughout China with regional touches added. In the traditional recipe, thin slices of lamb and vegetables are simmered in a broth. Each diner cooks his own food at the table in the pot of stock. The cooked food is then dipped into various sauces before being eaten. Towards the end of the meal, bean thread (transparent) noodles are cooked in the remaining broth which is then drunk as a soup. The Chinese use a special charcoal-burning ‘firepot’ for this dish. It is positioned in the centre of a large round table over a charcoal fire. The pot is filled with simmering broth and everybody cooks their own meal by using wooden chopsticks or small wire baskets to suspend pieces of meat and vegetables in the hot stock. Plates with paper thin slices f lamb, bean thread vermicelli and different sorts of vegetables are arranged around the fire pot. The meat or other cooking ingredients are dipped into one or more of the seasonings, served separately in small bowls on the table. At the end of the meal all the remaining vegetables and side dishes are added to the broth and the banquet is finished off with bowls of the resulting rich soup.
By far the best Mongolian hot pot I have had outside China is at Pan Asian at the ITC Maratha in Mumbai where they offer a fiery, well seasoned spicy Sichuan broth called Hua Guo in addition to a milder more aromatic one flavoured with ginseng called Haemul Jeongol. This was the idea of Chef Liang, a veteran Chinese chef in India who strides the thin line between authenticity and what people want, with much care not to upset the integrity and authenticity of his beloved dishes.
I met Liang, the chef behind Pan Asian in July 2003. Pan Asian had just opened and was serving a marvellous array of Asian cuisines. They had and still have a teppanyaki, grill, a separate Yakitori counter, dim sum counter, a Japanese sushi counter and for the first time in India, a Mongolian barbecue brazier, which was in-built into each table. When I first met Liang a year before at the Maurya in Delhi, I thought of him as just another Chinese chef. Little did I know that he was an expert in both Cantonese and Sichuan schools of cookery and spent 10 years in each while at the Sheraton in Beijing. I went on to have the most delicious Korean bulgogi barbeque lunch with him which we cooked ourselves at the table on the said brazier. Thai and teppanyaki had been around for a while in India but authentic Korean barbecue like the famous Mongolian hot pot were firsts at Pan Asian. If you go there, make friends with Liang, one of the most congenial, smiling ready to please chefs I have ever met who will go the extra mile and put a smile on your face.
Mongolian Hot pot
Hot pot stock (the essential)
200g cooking oil,
75g chili bean paste,
75g chili paste
50g black bean
20g Sichuan pepper corn
30g chili powder
50g spring onion
50g dry chili
50g cooking wine
1.000g chicken stock
10g spiced star anis
5 g bay leaves
Soak spices in the hot water about 40 minutes and soak Sichuan pepper corn in the water for about 10 minutes. Slice ginger and spring onion into big pieces. Remove the soaked spices and strain.
Heat oil in a wok and stir fry chili bean paste, chili paste, black bean, Sichuan pepper corn, chili powder, spring onion, ginger, dry chili and chili powder about 15 minutes till little dry. Add chicken stock, cooking wine and sugar. Boil for five minutes.
Remove all ingredients only keep stock in the container . You can use chicken, lamb, prawn, different vegetables and bean thread vermicelli noodles to dip into the soup.
Soya and sesame sauce
Chili and sesame powder
Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.
This is a fortnightly column. The next column will appear on February 17.
From HT Brunch, February 3, 2019
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First Published: Feb 02, 2019 22:07 IST