The origins of Indian-Chinese food can be traced to Kolkata, where Nelson Wang was born.
Dishes like chilli chicken, hakka noodles and vegetable manchurian have been common on menus at Chinese restaurants and also at some dive bars across India. Indian-Chinese food could be described as Chinese food that’s modified to suit Indian tastes or food that mixes Chinese condiments like soy sauce and vinegar with local Indian ingredients.
The origins of Indian-Chinese food can be traced to Kolkata, where Nelson Wang was born. Wang has been credited with the creation of manchurian, after a customer requested something different from the dishes that were already on the menu. Then caterer of Chinese food at the Cricket Club of India, Wang deep fried chopped chicken coated in corn flour. He then added a fiery sauce made with onions, garlic, chilli, soy sauce and vinegar. And that’s how manchurian was born. He went on to establish his own restaurant China Garden in Mumbai. Wang’s creation, chicken manchurian, became a popular favourite on menus at Indian-Chinese restaurants across the country with vegetarian versions that popped up later. He also popularised dishes like chicken lollipops, and hot and sour soup.
Yang Tai Chow was the first Chinese immigrant in India, and others from his country followed him. They worked as carpenters, shoemakers, dentists, launderers, tannery owners, beauticians and shoe shop owners. Near the end of the 19th century, Hakka-speaking Chinese people immigrated to Kolkata and established India’s only two Chinatowns. They opened Indian-Chinese restaurants in Tiretta Bazaar and Tangra. The first Indian-Chinese restaurant opened in Kolkata and was called Eau Chew. It catered to people who found comfort in this new cuisine that was also familiar in some ways.
Now, Indian-Chinese food has become popular across India, but its roots have always been in Kolkata. It’s India’s favourite ‘foreign’ cuisine, according to a survey conducted in 2007.
Robust flavours dominate Indian-Chinese food. It uses garam masala, cornflour, monosodium glutamate, and lots of chilli and soy sauce. The taste is spicy, salty and often greasy. Indian-Chinese food has intermingled with other Indian cuisine and produced variations like szechuan dosa (vegetables stir-fried in soy sauce and spicy szechuan sauce are used instead of the traditional spiced potato filling), chilli idli (pieces of idli stir-fried with onion, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and chilli sauce) and Chinese bhel (deep-fried noodles mixed with fresh vegetables and a chilli-garlic sauce).
As Indians have migrated to other countries, Indian-Chinese food has spread globally. The US, the UK, Singapore and Malaysia have seen a surge in restaurants that serve Indian-Chinese food. Restaurants that serve Indian-Chinese food abroad aim to provide a slice of home to people who crave it and provide them with a sense of comfort that can only come from food.