When you tell the Chinese about Chicken Manchurian, they wonder if it is a cousin of Chicken Makhani.(ThatIndianCurry/Instagram)
When you tell the Chinese about Chicken Manchurian, they wonder if it is a cousin of Chicken Makhani.(ThatIndianCurry/Instagram)

The Taste With Vir: Go Manchurian Go

It is foolish for a minister to call for a ban on Chinese restaurants in India without thinking through the consequences.
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUN 19, 2020 11:37 AM IST

I am sure you are familiar with the golden words of the Minister for Social Justice Ramdas Athawale. “My suggestion is that restaurants and hotels that sell Chinese food should be shut down. I also request those who eat Chinese food to stop eating at them, boycott them.” Warming to his theme, the Union Minister added, “My request is that everyone should stop eating Chinese food. All the states must give an order to ban Chinese restaurants and hotels.”

My first thought when I read the Honourable Minister’s statements was that he should not be using food to promote hatred among communities. The community that had invented these dishes would now be the subject of public ire and anger.

I refer, of course, to Punjabis.

As we all know, the Chinese food served at restaurants in India (the ones Mr. Athawale would have shut down) is not even remotely Chinese. No Chinese person would recognize it as Chinese.

When you tell the Chinese about Chicken Manchurian, they wonder if it is a cousin of Chicken Makhani. If you make them taste our desi Chow Mein, they are puzzled. And if you served them Chicken Lollipops, they would probably scream in terror and run out of the room.

Almost all of these dishes were created in the late 1970s and the 1980s and most were invented by Punjabis who still own a majority of North India’s ‘Chinese restaurants.’

In fact, just as Peking Duck comes from Peking (Beijing now), our Chinese food also has a capital.

Ludhiana.

Long ago, I called the cuisine Sino-Ludhianvi, because of the Punjabi influence in the food, and the name has stuck. An alternative name is Chinjabi, combining Chinese and Punjabi. Nobody at any Sino-Ludhianvi restaurant pretends that the food is authentically Chinese.

We have got to the stage where we proudly claim it as a cuisine of Indian origin. We are no longer apologetic about it and we regard it as a matter of pride that thelawalas and small, unpretentious dhabha-type restaurants offer Fried Rice or noodles on their menus.

When an Indian sees “Chinese Dosa” on a menu, he is no longer very surprised and knows what to expect: a filling that includes noodles, chilli and soya, usually. Same with Chinese Pizza. And how about Chinese Bhel?

The problem with ministers is that they don’t get out much. So Mr. Athawale probably has no idea of how many street vendors and small restaurateurs, most of whom are broke anyway because of the lockdown, will be completely ruined and be thrown out on the streets along with their families, if his nasty little advice is taken.

Is this the kind of social justice his ministry advocates?

It may be wrong to generalise about government policy as a whole on the basis of what one minister says. After all, Mr. Athawale is the chap who kept shouting “Go Corona Go” way back in February. At first I thought it was some kind of rah-rah sports cheer (“Go India Go!”) meant to encourage the virus. But later it was explained to me that it meant that the virus should leave India.

But presumably, the virus misunderstood the cheer too because in the four months since the minister shouted his little slogan, Corona has not only made itself at home in India but has been emboldened enough to spread to every corner of our country.

That ultimately, is the danger with every ministerial remark, no matter how silly it may seem at first.

It can always be misunderstood.

A campaign against Chinese restaurants can soon be twisted to target anyone who looks “Chinese” to the mob. That includes the many Nepalis who slave in the kitchens of Indian Chinese restaurants and the North Easterners who often work in the front of the house.

Our record in these matters is not very good. During the 1962 war with China, Chinese restaurants were attacked by violent mobs. The Indian Chinese community was targeted and many were detained though they had Indian passports, had lived in India for decades and hated the Communist regime in Peking as much as we did.

It got to the stage where the Japanese embassy had to paint signs declaring that Japan and India were friends on the sides of its cars to avoid attacks from mobs who could not tell the difference between the Chinese and Japanese.

In those days, India was much less of a melting pot than it is today. Cities and towns tended to be dominated by one community. There were not so many Nepalis. The people of the North East had not yet spread out beyond their own region. And yet, there was so much unpleasantness and violence.

Think what a campaign against Chinese restaurants would do today. It wouldn’t affect the Chinese at all. I don’t think a single Indian Chinese restaurant is owned by anybody from the PRC; they don’t even identify with the food and would refuse to eat it.

The campaign would harm Indians and turn us against each other. It would be predicated on the ignorant notion that Chinese food in India has something to do with the PRC or mainland China, when any moderately intelligent person could have explained the reality to the minister.

And where would it end? If Chinese restaurants are to be boycotted what about the “Chinese” food we make at home. Would we have to abandon that too? For years, we have been told that the instant noodles we all make at home are Chinese. Do we boycott them too?

Do we stop frying left over rice? Are momos Chinese? (The Chinese would argue that they are because Tibet has now been annexed by the PRC.)

In fact, the origins of food are too complex for the tiny brains of some politicians. The so-called ‘Chinese’ instant noodles we make are not Chinese at all. The best known brand in India, Maggi, is owned by Nestle, a Swiss multinational. The technology is Japanese --- instant noodles were invented by a man called Momofuku Ando. And the flavourings we use are often Indian masalas.

So it is with momos. They are of Tibetan origin. They were given a makeover by the Nepalis and have now been adapted all over the East. It started with Darjeeling and Kalimpong but now most North Eastern states have their own kinds of momos.

And how far do you take food boycotts anyway? The Chinese conflict had been simmering for months, after the Chinese came and occupied our territory. The government denied the intrusion till a violent clash erupted.

Nepal has now also claimed a part of Indian territory. If that situation escalates, are we going to call for a boycott of all Nepalis working in the food sector? Mr. Athawale’s logic suggests we should.

I am not against the idea of boycotts. For many years I did not touch anything made in South Africa or Rhodesia because of my objections to their racial policies. I broke with the liberal consensus to support a sporting boycott of Pakistan when tensions were high. And, if I can be persuaded that a boycott of Chinese goods would harm China and help India, I would support that too.

But there is an important difference. You can boycott goods or sporting events. But once you start boycotting people and extend the boycott to the insides of your own country, you are treading on dangerous ground.

Assume for a moment that our Chinese restaurants served real Chinese food and not a Punjabi version. Would I support a boycott? No, I wouldn’t because it would do China no harm and would hurt lakhs of Indians who were employed by Chinese restaurants or who supplied the products that the kitchen used. And that’s even before considering the social consequences this would entail in a multi-ethnic country like ours.

Mr. Athawale’s call for a boycott of Chinese restaurants demonstrates all the subtle and sophisticated thinking that went into his unintentionally encouraging cheer of “Go Corona Go”. It makes no sense because Indian Chinese food is not Chinese, anyway. But it fails also because it would end up doing no harm to China at all. Instead it would tear apart the lives of lakhs of Indians.

Follow his advice and you do China’s work. Why worry about external enemies when our thoughtless politicians would turn us against each other in a misguided effort to show how patriotic they are?

To read more on The Taste With Vir, click here

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