China to Ludhiana
It was Vir Sanghvi who had coined the term Sino-Ludhianvi Cuisine. But, Butter Chicken had reached the nooks and corners of India much before Chow-Mien had meandered across to Punjab, I suspect.
Outside of Calcutta, “real Chinese” was available mainly in some of the 5 Stars – though not all. As a kid we used to hear stories about the Golden Dragon in Taj, Mumbai – which was the first to introduce Sichuan or Szechuan Cuisine (spelt as Shezwan – almost like Kashmiri Wazwan) in India. But, that was a distant dream. The closest, we humble Calcuttans managed to get was to The Ming Room on Park Street, which too allegedly served Szechuan Chinese. I remember going there for one of my earliest dates. Many years later – when I had the opportunity to visit China one discovered Sichuan food was nothing like what was palmed off in India and also not as hot as it was reputed to be. Food from other regions – Yunan for example was far more fiery (almost tongue numbing). Indian Shezwan – essentially used a lot of red-chilly powder or even chilli-paste (seldom the original Sichuan Peeper-corn) to make tangier for the desi-palate. In a way, I think this was the inspiration for Ludhianvi or Punjabi Chinese.
Strangely, of all places, Ranchi had small Chinese community and a couple of nice Chinese Restaurants near Doranda. We were told of them by by Ajit-Mama’s partner, Jimu-da (Dr P K Sur) of Allahabad – whose wife Binita-boudi was from Ranchi. We went there on a road-trip from Calcutta to Daltongunj and still remember the Chop-Suey I had at a place also called Chung Wah. But, now those restaurants are extinct and the Ranchi Chinese people must have also moved elsewhere. On recent visits to Ranchi, I have tried looking in vain for true Hakka Chinese.
(Photo courtesy: Trip Advisor)
Dravidianisation of Chinese
My earliest recollection of a proper Chinese Meal outside of Calcutta was at Shinkow’s in Ooty. It was probably in 1973 or 74 and I was 13-14 then. Those days – people could still take long vacations. Like most Bengalis Abba too would try to club his annual leave with the Durga Puja holidays spilling over Kali-Puja / Diwali, which would give us a cool 4-5 weeks break when we would go and camp in a place for a month. For these long holidays – we usually teamed up with my Aru-Mama’s family – as he and my Dad (both difficult people in their own way – but extremely methodical and stickler for order) got along famously. In Ooty, we were putting up at the house of A V Ananthakrishnan – a tycoon of the Shipping Industry of Madras and son in law of the legendary Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer–a friend and business associate of Aru-Mama (Captain Ronnie Ghosh), who was in the merchant navy. Like good hosts, the Ananthakrishna’s drove down all the way from Chennai to settle us into the house and took us out for the first meal to Shinkow’s.
At Shinkow’s we were quite amused to find – one had to place the order by writing the item number from the menu card on a chit-pad (a practice which they still follow). We later discovered this was common in South India and Chicken 65 derived its name from being the 65th item on the Menu at Buhari’s restaurant.
Inside Shinkow's and Roast Pork Contrary to our impression of all “Madrasis” are vegetarian – the Ananthakrishnas weren’t. But, the Chilli Chicken that arrived, much to our surprise, was not brown in colour (as we had expected) but red – much like Chicken 65, I would say. One can possibly call that - the Dravidianisation of Chinese.
Shinkow’s still remain our favourite and a mandatory stop in every visit to Ooty-Coonoor, which has now become quite regular for us. But, now we gorge on the pork and beef more – both, especially the latter, not easy to find in most Chinese restaurants. Shinkow’s have a limited range of cooking style. Most items have the red “masala” – called by various names. But, we like it that way – asfor us that’s what characterizes Shinkow’s or Nilgiris Chinese.
After Calcutta – Bangalore emerged as major centre for Indian Chinese. This is partly because of the large Tibetan settlement there. In fact, there used to be a restaurant near the junction of Brigade Road and MG Road – which local legend had it was owned by a sister of the Dalai Lama. Doubt if there was any truth to that rumour – but they made a very good fried acrid chicken, the only other place I had it was Kunga in Old China-Town Calcutta (they also ran the Chinese kitchen at The Calcutta Swimming Club in the 70s). The great Nelson Wang – is also supposed to have briefly worked at a restaurant in Bangalore’s Church Street area before moving to Bombay to make history.
Photo Courtesy: Samil Malhotra
The origin of “Punjabi Chinese” was, I believe, from Nirula’s in Connaught Place (also credited with invention of the Indian “Espresso” Coffee, which - milky and sweet – made frothy and ‘mouth scalding’ hot by injection of steam from a pressure jet - is nothing like the Italian Espresso ). I first went to the Nirula’s Chinese Room in early 70s. We were on a family holiday in Delhi – when Mesho-babu (Amma’s elder cousin’s husband) was visiting on work from Calcutta and staying there. I was too young to understand – the shades of difference between Calcutta and Delhi Chinese. It was only much later did I realize – Nirula’s had started a whole new sub genre of Indian Chinese.
That leaves the stories of the 2 Last Emperors of Chinese in India Baba Ling and Nelson Wang - but they deserve more than a chapter.
Recipe: Cheat-Sheet - Sweet & Sour Vegetable:
- Mixed Veggies (anything goes) : carrot, rench beans broccoli or cauliflower florets, button mushrooms (the more adventurous can try ribbed gourd or very tender bitter gourd too);
- 1 medium bell pepper - red, green or yellow, chopped or cut into 1 inch square and finely chopped celery;
- 1 medium onion quartered and layers separated;
- 2/3 garlic cloves, ½ inch ginger;
- While Vinegar (Or apple Cider); Dark Soya Sauce; Tomato Ketch-up;
- Blanch Veggies and set aside in cold water to preserve colour (keep the veg stock for later use)
- lightly fry the onion, garlic and ginger;
- add the blanched vegetables;
- pour the sauce ingredients (soy, vinegar, ketchup - to taste) - add tea-spoon of sugar, salt and a pinch of pepper (can cheat with ready-made chilly-garlic sauce/paste or Tabasco);
- Mix 2 heaped tsp of corn-flour in half a cup of water; mix and stir (don't let lumps form);
- add some more vegetable stock if you need more sauce;
- a pinch of aji-no-moto (MSG) always helps :)