When My Love For Desi Chinese Took To Me The City Of Joy
Image Credit: I learnt how we call it Chilly Chicken and Chilli paneer in Delhi whereas the suffix is followed by the prefix in Mumbai.

Just a year before the pandemic locked us all in our homes with the fear of Coronavirus, life was quite smooth. In fact, it was the December of 2019 when the news of the outbreak had begun to spread that I was vacationing in two different cities of India, one after the other. Honestly, when I look back I’m glad I did because we were oblivious to the pandemic that was awaiting us in the new year. Coming back to my vacation, so I was in Mumbai, the city of dreams for a week and then within a day’s gap had to travel to Kolkata for a family trip. During the course of these two trips, I made several revelations, the most important one being the similarity between the two cities. While vada pav is the quintessential Mumbai street snack, I was amazed to see the craze for Chinese food. 

Situated on the broad streets of Colaba, the Leopold Café is as much known for its tragic 26/11 memory as its Chinese food. While there were several options to choose from like keema pav, bun maska yet my friends and I opted for chilli garlic noodles, a semi-gravy manchurian and some crispy spring rolls. It was only when I landed in Kolkata the next week that I was filled in on the fact that Manchurian was actually invented in the City of Joy. Hold your horses while I narrate to you the origins of this Indian-Chinese fare now. 

Go back to your history lessons and you would recall that Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, was the first colonial capital of the British in the 18th century when they invaded India. The East India Company was setup amidst the brimming silk route trade from China and so when the Britishers came to India, a large scale migration of Chinese workers took place. Now, we have seen in the past how the migration of a group of people leads to formation of new communities and the evolution of a hybrid culture. 

Such was the case with these Chinese immigrants too. They setup leather tanneries and made use of their skills as carpenters and silk traders to settle in our homeland. With them, they brought their Chinese food to town and in no time started selling street food with the local ingredients. Gradually, the Indians developed a taste for their cuisine but since the land of spices cannot tolerate bland food, these Chinese immigrants had to mend their ways. 

Pumped up with green and red chilies in place of the traditional Sichuan pepper corn, what was being served at Kolkata’s first Chinese restaurant, Nanking, in 1924 was a fusion of Indian and Cantonese cuisine. Little did we know that this was just the beginning because what awaited us was a whole new Indian-Chinese cuisine catered to the Indian palate, spread across the two Chinatowns (yes they are called so because they were inhabited by the Chinese community at that time) of Tirretta and Tangra. 

Having heard so much about the origins of this hybrid cuisine, it would have been a sin to skip the Chinese fare at its birthplace. On the third day of the trip, we headed to the Tangra area for lunch. A mere glance on both sides of the narrow lanes would leave you in a huge confusion. From Golden Joy to Ching Wah, the signboards made us feel that we had actually landed in a China town. Spoiled for choice, we finally settled for a Beijing restaurant (it was recommended by our driver who was a local). Intricate carvings of the Chinese dragon and the aroma of Schezwan sauce (it is originally called Sichuan) meant that I was in the right place. Then the usual lineup of manchow and hot and sour soup, followed by hakka noodles, fried rice, chicken in black bean sauce and butter garlic prawns for main course comprised our hearty lunch. 

The idea of fried meat dunked in a thick spicy sauce/gravy along with soy-sauce flavoured noodles and fried rice is far from what the traditional Chinese cuisine looks like. Nevertheless, as long as chilli potato and chilli chicken keeps hitting our taste buds, this fusion food will continue to strike a chord with the natives.