The Hakka Route
I was probably all of 3 or 4 then. Remember, the Sunday trips in our grey Morris Minor from Ballygunj to my "Mama'r Bari" in Shyam-Bazar. Abba - my father - would take the slightly longer route via Central (now Chittaranjan or CR) Avenue. On the way up we'd stop by - the now Chandni Chowk Metro Station - to pick up packed Fried Rice and “Chilly Chicken” from Chung Wah - for Amma (my Mother)’s kid sister Tukun – my doting Mashi-moni - who loved "Chinese".
Chinese Dentist Association
Those were my first memories of Calcutta's Hakka Chinese. Hakka - I later learnt - means 'itinerant' (‘guests’ in the host country) – who migrated out of China. Thus there are ‘Hakka’ Chinese and ‘China Towns’ all over the world. Calcutta's Chinese date back to the late 18th century and their original Chinese settlement (in Achipur) is believed to be one of the oldest - outside of China. The Chinese of Calcutta led a very insular existence – a Chinese teacher of my school compared themselves to the Amish people of the West. He took pride in claiming they are the purest “Hakka Population” in the world (excluding those in China, of course).
Today, by China Town one understands the locality called "Tangra" – close to the Eastern Metropolitan By-pass behind the ITC Sonar Hotel. But, Chinese Restaurants there are a relatively recent phenomenon. This was the area - where the Chinese had tanneries. The effluent of leather washeries (containing lethal amounts of carcinogenic Chromium) would flow out into the sewerage grounds of Dhapa close by. A Supreme Court order forced the tanneries to shift out of the city – though many actually shut-shop. Simultaneously, the younger generation of the Indian Chinese started migrating abroad to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Some moved to other cities in India – mostly in the restaurant trade. Those who stayed back in Calcutta discovered an opportunity – almost fortuitously - to convert the abandoned factories to restaurants, sauce and noodle factories.
Till the 80s, Tangra had just a few "Eating Houses" catering to the Chinese owners and staff of the leather factories. When in College - we would go on the occasional adventure in Motor Bikes for lunch to Tangra.
I wrote 'adventure' because Tangra was considered "out of bounds" for the Police and was notorious for crimes. The Opium dens still existed. One evening, I took 2 of my Mamas - Ajit (visiting from Allahabad) and Mukul - to buy dinner from Tangra for an "adda"sessions at our place. Though both of them were quite "dare-devil" (as the Bengali expression went) even they were rattled to see old Chinese Men smoking Opium under gas-lanterns in small shanties and shady characters hanging out. After that, their impressions about their pet 'Bhagne' sure slipped a few notches, but they decided to be discreet at home – afraid that Abba – known for his sharp temper - would blow his fuse hearing about places the son was frequenting.
The Eating Houses were run by the Ladies of the family. The drill was they started cooking only after you placed the order. The portions always had to be large - for example they would only make a full Chicken (usually bought fresh in the morning) as freezers weren't still common. While one waited - Beer or some cheap Whisky were on offer. The Menu was limited to Rice, Noodles (Hakka-Noodles - Chow mein ("Dry") or Chow-chow (with “Gravy"), Chicken and Pork. There were essentially 2 kinds of sauces – the Black Bean (Dark Soya) with onion, garlic and green-chillies or a red sweet and sour gravy with loads of Garlic. All items would have a generous dollop of corn-flour and a large pinch of Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG or aji-no-moto) . Fried shrimps balls or sometimes tiger-prawns would be an indulgence -when one was feeling rich.
Prior to this, the “original” or old China-Town was in Tiretta Bazar - the area lying between Bentick Street and the Police Head-Quarters at Lal Bazar on the West and Central Avenue Calcutta Medical College (close to the ‘Central’ Metro-Station – which should have been named old China-Town, if you ask me).
‘Nan-King’ in Phears Lane (which Bengalis thought was “Fears” Lane – as there was quite a bit of ‘fear’ associated with the area which ‘non-locals’ would avoid in the evenings) – was probably the first ‘proper’ Chinese Restaurant of Calcutta – dating back to early 1900
Nanking (Courtesy Rangan's Blogspot)
till it closed down in the 80s. The same area also had Kunga – Calcutta’s only Tibetan Restaurant, (will talk about it someday in my ‘Momo-affairs’).
But, for the middle-class Calcuttans” Chinese meant Chung-Wah on Central Avenue and Peiping on Park-Street until Waldorf appeared on the scene in the late 60s. Waldorf Food was slightly different from the “Hakka” cuisine and had a Cantonese touch to it. They probably used less of corn-flour than the regular Hakka cooking that was greasy and over-fried and the sauces were sweeter – which I think appealed to the Bengali palate. For the middle-class Bengali – who could not were intimidated by the snooty Skyroom, Blue-Fox or Trinca’s (even Flury’s wasn’t quite for the ‘junta’ – except their confectionery counter) – Peiping and Waldorf (and, perhaps, Kwality’s for North Indian or ‘Punjabi’) was as far as they could infiltrate Park-Street.
For us a trip to Waldorf was always an occasion – usually to celebrate some relatives’ Wedding Anniversary (generally from my Mother’s side of the family – her large bunch of cousins for whom she was the favourite ‘sister’) or when my ‘Santa-Claus’ Ajit Mama was visiting from Allahabad and would be badgered (by the same cousins) for a treat – which he’d succumb to after some initial (mock) resistance. On one of those outings, I remember (must have been 7 then ) my Mukul-mama announced Bulbul mami was pregnant. And, a few months later my dearest cousin Tushita was born.
Those days – one never had ‘clear’ soups unless you were sick or had an upset tummy. So people would get split into 2 groups – those who liked Sweet Corn Soup and – the slightly evolved among them – who would go the for more exotic crab asparagus soup (both heavily laden with corn starch). Similarly, there were Noodle lovers and the Rice lovers. It was always Fried Rice – no one would go to a restaurant and waste money on steamed rice, which one had every day at home. The idea of enjoying the pristine subtle flavours of the food was alien (actually, it still is. Remember many years later I was ticked off by my father-in-law for ordering Steamed Rice at the Chinoiserie in Taj Bengal).
The standard order along with the Rice and Noodles would be Shrimp Balls (more like Pakodas) for starters, Chilli Chicken, Manadarin Sweet and Sour Fish, at times Chicken with Cashew-Nuts. Mutton and Pork - certainly not Beef - was not common on the Menu. The now ubiquitous Darsan or Date Pancakes hadn't yet arrived on the scene - so the meal would end with Vanilla or Tooty-fruity ice-cream with a Wafer wedge stuck on top - that was a primary attraction for the kids.
Vegetarian entrees were hard to find on a Chinese Menu. Credit for Vegetarian innovations should squarely go to Nelson Wang of China Garden fame in Mumbai – who introduced Chinese to the Gujaratis of Mumbai. ‘Veg Manchurian’ is believed to be his invention. The Marwaris of Calcutta were late converts to Indian Chinese.
For the affluent and higher echelons of Calcutta Society - The Chinese Room at the Great Eastern Hotel was popular. Have faint memories of going there only once - after the wedding of Mashimoni (Tukun) - for a dinner in the honour of the 'jamai' and the new "in-laws" by my Mother's Kaka-moni who was the head of my Mamar-bari family.
Chung-wah still exists - probably have changed hands several times - but now has been
converted to a somewhat seedy "cabin restaurant and bar" in the old wing and a sleazy Dance Bar at night in the Sooterkin (Prafulla Sarkar) Street section. But, they still make a mean Chilli Chicken (try the ones with bone - they use only spring chicken not the heavy broilers) and Fried Rice - tho' I wouldn't trust their Pork anymore. Waldorf (probably also with new owners) has now relocated to Russel Street
next to Sutton Seeds across Bengal Club. They run either a Hilsa or Duck Festival round the year - which I find a huge turn off and have never stepped into the place since they closed down their original place on Park Street.
The action has now shifted to Tangra and the "Tangra Style" restaurants all over the city and the more up-market Mainland China and Red Hot Chilly Pepper. But, still a few old gems - like Eau Chew and Jimmy's Kitchenremain tucked away. But, what's most significant is "Chow-Mein" has become the national food of Bengal - perhaps only after Chicken-Egg Roll and Biriyani - available at every street corner and now, even on trains.
Amma’s Quick and Easy Chilli-Chicken:-
- 1 full dressed chicken (without skin) diced into small pieces (less than 1 inch);
- Marinate with Dark-Soy-sauce, ginger, garlic and a sprinkling of corn-flour for 30 mins - 1 hour;
- Blanch (par-boil) with a little water and pat dry;
- Deep fry in boiling oil (refined sun-flower)
– add diced onion and green-chillies
– add some more soya-sauce with a pinch of MSG (optional);
- Serve hot;
(Recipe can be adapted for fish and Duck – while Fish would require little time for marinating – duck needs to be soaked for 3-4 hours or preferably over-night in the fridge and more of pre-cooking than chicken)
(to be continued - watch this space)