Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: China versus Punjab

What are the defining characteristics of Indian Chinese food? A guide to Sino-Ludhianvi style ‘Chinese’ food
In India, rice and noodles are preferred with every dish and the gravy is thick using battered ingredients
In India, rice and noodles are preferred with every dish and the gravy is thick using battered ingredients
Published on Aug 22, 2021 08:34 AM IST
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By now, we all know that the Chinese food we get at most Chinese restaurants in India is roughly as Chinese as Yogi Adityanath, which is to say, not Chinese at all.

But I am forever being asked by people why it is regarded as inauthentic. What, they ask, is real Chinese food? What makes Indian Chinese so different?

Well, here are some of the most obvious differences:

Bring on the noodles

In India, a Chinese meal is incomplete without rice and noodles. (Yes, both together!) In China, there may or may not be rice as part of the meal. It is not regarded as an essential accompaniment to all dishes. I have been to Chinese restaurants in Shanghai, for instance, that don’t have a single rice dish on the menu.

Even the older Chinese restaurants in Kolkata run by the Chinese community are rarely authentic
Even the older Chinese restaurants in Kolkata run by the Chinese community are rarely authentic

The emphasis on rice dates back to the invention of ‘international’ Chinese food in San Francisco over a century ago. Facing enormous discrimination, early Chinese migrants to the US found it impossible to get good jobs and opened little restaurants to survive.

In those days, Chinese food was regarded as a cheap option by white Americans. All Western food focussed on meat. But, by using lots of vegetables, rice and noodles, and only using shreds of cheaper meat cuts, Chinese restaurants were able to keep prices low.

In much of China, fried rice is not eaten with every course. It is usually a dish by itself, often served at the end of the meal as a ‘stomach-filler’. But Chinese restaurants in America started serving rice or fried rice with the main courses, a practice that other ‘international’ Chinese restaurants have followed ever since.

The preference for eating both noodles and rice with every dish however, is purely Indian. Nobody would do it in China, or even in most of the Western world. It stems from the Indian tendency to consume every dish with a carb: sabzi with roti, curry with rice and so on.

We have just extended that principle to Chinese food.

Chef Liang says it is bizzare to make every dish with a gravy
Chef Liang says it is bizzare to make every dish with a gravy

The gravy train

Because Indians like to eat Chinese food with rice (or noodles), every dish must have a gravy. This is regarded as strange by Chinese people. I asked Chef Liang of Mumbai’s Pan Asian, who is from the mainland, and he said that while there were gravy dishes in Chinese cuisine, it was bizarre to make every dish with a gravy of some sort. And besides, even when real Chinese dishes had gravies, those gravies were nothing like ours. Indian Chinese food always has thick gravies.

Fry me to the moon

While the Chinese use a variety of cooking techniques, one of the most popular is stir-frying in which the raw ingredients are cooked quickly at a very high heat in a wok. Stir-frying requires exceptional skill because the Chinese like their food crisp (for vegetables) and tender (for meat). Even a few seconds too long in the wok and the dish is ruined.

At Indian Chinese restaurants, however, nobody bothers too much about the quality of the stir-frying. Often the food is first battered and then deep-fried. The deep-fried pellets of meat and vegetables are then dunked in a thick sauce. This is not something you would normally find in China.

Oye! Masala kithe?

Chinese food in India has never been particularly authentic. Even the old Chinese restaurants of Kolkata run by Hakka migrants, (especially in Tangra) and the rest of the city (run by people from Canton and other regions) nearly always made concessions to local tastes and also borrowed heavily from the Americanised (‘international’) menu which included such dishes as Chop Suey. Rarely did they serve the sort of food Chinese people ate in China.

At Indian Chinese restaurants, no one bothers too much about the quality of stir-frying unlike Chinese who like their vegetables crisp and meat tender
At Indian Chinese restaurants, no one bothers too much about the quality of stir-frying unlike Chinese who like their vegetables crisp and meat tender

But, even a pretence of authenticity was dumped in the 1980s when India discovered ‘teekha’ Chinese food. This was, theoretically, influenced by the food of the Sichuan region which can be very fiery. But it always eschewed such authentic ingredients as Sichuan peppercorns and used the traditional Indian base of ginger-garlic with chillis. The Calcutta Chinese had pioneered the use of tomato ketchup in gravies and this became an integral part of Indian Chinese cuisine.

Many of the new Chinese restaurants that opened from the 1980s onwards were owned by Punjabis who did not bother with Chinese cooks. Instead, they took the racially dubious step of asking Nepalis to staff the kitchens. As many of these cooks had never eaten a Chinese meal before in their lives and had previously worked at Indian restaurants, the food they turned out was just another branch of Indian cuisine, full of masalas.

Soya soya chaand

The one Chinese ingredient in the kitchen of all Indian Chinese restaurants is a bottle of soya sauce. Indian Chinese food consists of Indian flavours and masalas with tomato ketchup and then, to make it taste a little different, some soya sauce. Take away the soya sauce and there is nothing Chinese about the flavour.

But, as Indian hoteliers and restaurateurs have discovered, no expatriate Chinese chef will agree to use Indian soya sauce. I asked Vikramjit Roy who studied soya sauce while researching Chinese cuisines for his Hello Panda restaurant. Indian soya sauce, he found, usually made in Kolkata, is dense, thick and has a curiously crude quality about it. The flavour is strong with none of the refinement of real soya sauce. This could be because we use a cheaper, rough-and-ready method of producing it.

But while no mainland Chinese chef will use it, the slightly crude taste of Indian soya sauce gives Indian-Chinese food its distinctive flavour.

Chef Vikramjit Roy believes Indian soya sauce is dense, thick and has a crude quality to it
Chef Vikramjit Roy believes Indian soya sauce is dense, thick and has a crude quality to it

To summarise

So, here are the basic differences.

Real Chinese food uses a variety of techniques, of which stir-frying is among the most popular. Indian Chinese food consists mostly of deep-frying or shallow-frying battered ingredients and putting them in a thick gravy. Cornflour goes into the batter and thickens the gravy.

Real Chinese food has subtle and delicate flavours. Indian Chinese food amps up all flavours — and often those flavours are desi masalas. Authentic Chinese ingredients are frowned upon.

Real Chinese food has many dishes that are eaten on their own. Indian Chinese food is designed to be wet and to be eaten with rice and noodles.

Which is better?

You tell me? What is better: Kerala food or Punjabi food? There is no right answer. It depends on what you like. It’s the same with Indian Chinese food versus real Chinese food. It is up to you to decide which you like.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, August 22, 2021

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