How Chinese food has taken over the Indian palate

Updated on May 08, 2015 07:46 PM IST

Indian-Chinese food has stir-fried its way into our lives. But we’ve wasted too much time defining it by what it is not (‘it’s not authentic’) instead of what it is

Hindustan Times | By

I went last week to have dinner at The Duck and Rice, the long-awaited new venture from Alan Yau. You may have heard of Yau. He created Wagamama, Hakkasan, Yauatcha and many other ‘high-concept’ restaurants before selling them off and moving on to new ventures.

The Duck and Rice, not far from the first Yauatcha, in London’s Soho district, is a conversion of a pub formerly called The Endurance. Though not all London critics have liked it (Fay Maschler, the city’s most respected critic, normally a booster of Yau’s ventures, was underwhelmed), the place was full anyway the night I went.

Many of those who had come were intrigued by the idea of a Chinese pub. Yau serves Chinese bar snacks downstairs and runs a full-fledged restaurant on the first floor. How inventive, I was told, to run a first-rate pub but to give it a Chinese theme!

Well yes, I responded. But we’ve been doing that for a long time in India. Go to any bar (even a bar at a club) and you’ll find that even if the beer is from Holland and the whisky from Scotland, the snacks menu will always include many Chinese items.

In fact, I continued, Chinese food is so much a part of the Indian eating scene that nearly everything is Chinese-influenced. Even the original Moti Mahal in Delhi’s Daryaganj, which invented butter chicken, has a Chinese section.

The most popular dish at the iconic ‘coastal’ restaurant Trishna comes from the Chinese menu.

It has got to the stage where the food trucks outside offices serve Chinese food; where roadside hawkers cook up noodle dishes; and where even such street-food favourites as bhelpuri now have variations such as Moti Mahal.

The pub with the eastern tuoch: The Duck and Rice, the long-awaited new venture from Alan Yau in Soho, London, is a Chinese pub. But we’ve been doing Chinese-style bar food and snacks for a long time in India

And that’s before we get to the noodle-filled Chinese dosas or the Chinese pizzas. Even the fast-food chains, I explained, do a Chicken Manchurian burger and try and introduce Chinese flavours into their menu.

So yes, it was clever of Alan Yau to open a pub with Chinese snacks. But, you know what? We did that years ago.

Of course I was being somewhat liberal in my interpretation of Chinese cuisine. I doubt if any Chinese person has ever had a Chicken Gold Coin with his drink in Shanghai.

And of course, our most famous Chinese dish, Chicken Manchurian, was invented in Bombay. Chinese people would not necessarily recognise our Chinese food as something they ate at home.

But I reckoned that this was okay. No Indian would eat the so-called Balti rubbish that Brits call Indian food in the Midlands. And which self-respecting foodie of any nationality would want to eat Chicken tikka masala? And yet, the Brits thought of it as Indian food.

So I had no reason to apologise to them about our own Sino-Ludhianvi.

It was as Chinese as their Indian was truly Indian.

But afterwards, I sat down and thought about it. No matter what I

might tell the Brits, we all know that our Sino-Ludhianvi food is nothing

like real Chinese food.

Nevertheless have we wasted too much of our time defining it in terms of

what it is not (‘it’s not authentic’) and made too little effort to try and

work out what it actually is? I’m beginning to think we have.

If someone was to ask me what characterises Indian Chinese, I’d have

to say noodles. Until the Chinese food boom of the 1980s, Indians ate very few noodles. Now we eat them all the time.

Most Indians who go to a Chinese restaurant will order both rice and noodles. The food trucks that sell Indian Chinese to office-goers specialise in noodle stir-fries.

The Chinese dosa and the Chinese pizza all have a noodle component. Even the boom in instant noodles (some of which now have masala flavours) could never have taken off in say, the Sixties or Seventies. It was the familiarity of Chinese-style

noodles that made Indians love packet noodles.

So far, so good. It has long been a theory of mine that Indians love carbohydrates so much that any foreign cuisine that is carb-based will work here. That’s why we eat pasta, pizzas, burgers etc.

Even when we want Japanese, we shun the real thing and look for sushi rolls, which are basically (usually inauthentic) wheels of rice with some tangy ingredient at the centre.

But what about the flavour profile? Is there a particular set of flavours that can turn, say, a dosa or a pizza or a burger, into an Indian-Chinese dish?

We know of the classic favour profiles for Thai food (chili-lime) or Italian (tomato plus herbs) and the like. These may caricature their parent cuisines but they do act, in food industry terms, as an acceptable shorthand for the real thing.

If you had to come up with a flavour profile for Indian Chinese then it would have to be soya-tomato. Just check out any roadside guy as he makes his ‘Chinese noodles’.

It is the soya sauce (light not dark) that gives the dish its Chinese character. And tomato ketchup provides the red colour (and sweetness, though we don’t necessarily realise this) that makes it look like Indian-Chinese.

To this basic combo, you add chilli (either real chilli or commercial chilli sauce) to taste. And suddenly

you have an Indian Chinese dish.

I find this fascinating on so many levels. One: it demonstrates how much our commercial kitchens

are becoming dependent on packaged ingredients (chilli sauce, soya sauce, tomato ketchup, etc)

over the fresh ones. (Not so unusual; this is a global trend).

Two: it shows us again how influential the tomato has become in Indian cooking over the

last half-century or so. And finally: there’s the umami factor.

Let’s take the tomato first. It is a colonially introduced ingredient that we’ve cheerfully adopted. But

I wonder if we realise how much it has influenced our restaurant cooking.

The black dal that every Indian restaurant serves is a variation of the basic home-style Punjabi dal with the addition of much more tomato. Butter chicken, a dish invented in the 1950s, gets its flavour not just from the butter but also from the tomato.

And the one foreign cuisine that’s really taken off in India, Italian, depends (at least in the stuff that works here) on the tomato. The most popular pasta sauces are red from tomato puree. (There are few takers for a pesto sauce in middle India). The pizza has tomato paste. And so on.

Which brings us to umami. If you are a regular Rude Foodie then you may have read the pieces I’ve written on it. (I’m something of a bore on the subject.) Umami is what the Japanese call a basic taste (like sweet or salty).

Westerners have resisted this claim because umami is hard to define. It is the taste of chicken broth, of dried shiitake mushrooms and of soya sauce. More significantly, it is also a major component of the flavour of tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.

Umami has never been a very important factor in Indian cooking. But my theory is that, even without realising it, Indians began, from the 1950s onwards, to enjoy umami flavours.

That’s why tomato turned up in dal. That’s why tomato ketchup became so popular that many of us prefer to eat our samosas with ketchup rather than chutney.

But we didn’t get a full umami fix till Indian Chinese took off. We’ve fallen in love with the taste of soya (the king of umami flavours) sauce without realising it. Add another umami heft in the form of tomato and pour it into a mound of carbs (noodles or rice) and how can you go wrong?

Bizarrely this is why the people who like Indian Chinese also like pizzas (lots of carbs; umami flavour in tomato and in the Parmesan). And that’s why Indians love monosodium glutamate (Ajinomoto), which is essentially a concentrated umami flavour.

Not only do Chinese restaurants use Ajinomoto, but even Indian chefs sprinkle it on their dishes and it turns up in many packaged foods. Our fondness for sushi rolls is accompanied by a desire to dunk them in soya for an umami hit.

So, as I sat at The Duck and Rice, I finally knew how to characterise Sino-Ludhianvi. The idiom may be Chinese, but the cuisine is Indian.

And it is the love-child of the mating of India’s carb-rich tradition with the umami flavours of the East.

Makes you respect Chicken Manchurian more, no?

From HT Brunch, May 10
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