Origin Of Chicken Manchurian, A Culinary Whodunit
Image Credit: Chicken Manchurian | Image Credit: Google.com

In recent years, the internet has been ablaze with controversy over the origins of the popular Chinese-Indian fusion dish, chicken manchurian. This debate came to a head when The New York Times incorrectly attributed the dish to a Chinese restaurant in Pakistan, sparking outrage among foodies and historians alike. But where did this delectable dish really come from?

Nelson Wang, the man credited with inventing chicken manchurian, was born to Chinese immigrants in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and moved to Mumbai in the 1970s to work as an assistant cook at the Cricket Club of India. Wang had learned to cook from his father, who had brought his family's culinary traditions with him when he migrated to India. However, in Mumbai, Wang found that he had to adapt his cooking to suit the Indian palate, which favored spicier, more heavily flavored dishes. Wang is believed to have invented the chicken manchurian during his tenure at the Cricket Club of India, after being put on the spot by a customer who wanted something different from the canteen’s typical fare.

To make chicken manchurian, Wang combined Chinese cooking techniques with Indian spices and ingredients, such as cumin, coriander, and green chilies. The dish consisted of bite-sized pieces of chicken that were first marinated in a mixture of spices and corn flour, then deep-fried until crispy. The fried chicken was then sautéed with garlic, ginger, green onions, and a spicy tomato-based sauce that included soy sauce, chili paste, and vinegar. The result was a flavorful, spicy dish with a crispy texture that quickly became a hit with customers.

After leaving the Cricket Club, Wang opened his own restaurant called China Garden in Mumbai's Kemps Corner neighborhood. It was there that he began experimenting with Chinese and Indian flavors and techniques, eventually creating several different variations of his signature Manchurian using different vegetables and proteins such as cauliflower, paneer, mushrooms, et al.

Despite Wang's undisputed role in popularizing chicken manchurian, some argue that the dish actually has roots in the northeastern Chinese region of Manchuria. However, others contest this claim, pointing out that the dish does not exist in Chinese cuisine and was likely invented in India.

One theory is that Chicken Manchurian is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese dish called "Tang Jiao Ji," which translates to "sugar vinegar chicken." This dish features fried chicken pieces served in a sweet and sour sauce, not dissimilar from the sauce used in chicken manchurian. However, the Indian version is much spicier and has a distinctive blend of Indian spices, demonstrating that Indian cuisine had a significant influence.

After Nelson Wang's invention of chicken manchurian in the 1970s, the dish rapidly gained popularity in India and has since become a beloved favorite in many countries. Over time, different variations of the dish have been created, leading to a wide range of flavors and textures.

The original recipe consisted of crispy chicken bites coated in a tangy and spicy sauce made with Indian spices, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and cornstarch. However, variations of the dish include the use of vegetables, such as capsicum, onions, and carrots, to add flavor and texture.

Today, there are two distinct versions of chicken manchurian: the street-style and gourmet versions. The street style version is the more popular one, commonly found in Chinese restaurants and street food stalls. It is a quick and easy-to-make recipe with a thick and flavorful sauce and crispy chicken bites. Street vendors often serve it with rice or noodles, making it a filling and satisfying meal.

On the other hand, the gourmet version of chicken manchurian is a more refined and elaborate dish. It is typically found in high-end restaurants, and the recipe often involves marinating the chicken before frying it to achieve a crispy exterior while keeping the meat tender and juicy. The sauce is usually made with higher-quality ingredients, such as premium soy sauce and sesame oil, and is served with steamed rice or noodles. The gourmet version of the dish is usually more expensive than the street style version due to the use of higher-quality ingredients and the extra time and effort required to prepare it.

Regardless of its true origins, there is no denying the popularity of chicken manchurian, not only in India but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries with sizable South Asian populations. It has even made its way onto the menus of Chinese restaurants around the world, demonstrating the far-reaching influence of this beloved dish.

The origin story of chicken manchurian is a complex and fascinating one, full of twists and turns. From its humble beginnings in the kitchen of a restaurant in Mumbai, it has grown into a well-loved dish that people all over the world enjoy. While the debate over its true origins may never be fully settled, what is clear is that this fusion of Chinese and Indian cuisine is a testament to the power of culinary creativity and innovation. And as we continue to enjoy chicken manchurian and other fusion dishes like it, we can be grateful for the cultural exchange and cross-pollination that have enriched our palates and our lives. So let us raise a forkful of this delicious dish and toast to the mystery, the magic, and the deliciousness that is chicken manchurian!