‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ or the world is one large family – probably nothing encapsulates the inclusiveness of India better than this ancient Sanskrit saying, a motto that the nation has extended to its myriad cultures and the epiphany of its culinary extensiveness. In sync with its beautiful mantra of living, Indian cuisine has wholeheartedly accepted the ancient finesse of Chinese cooking, leading to the emergence of modern Desi Chinese, a true ambassador of which is the spicy and combustive Chicken Manchurian.
‘Over the years, the Chicken Manchurian has transformed into an iconic snack or dinner delight, served best with a plate of steaming fried rice or chowmein. The dish is prepared with cubed boneless fried chicken sautéed in a thick gravy made from soy sauce, ketchup, and corn starch, loaded with ginger, garlic, and a whole lot of green chillies that provide the heat and authentic Bengali flavour.
‘This brings us to the question of why a Chinese dish cooked in the traditional way of the Manchu cuisine has a Bengali condiment and an Indianised taste palette. This is because, contrary to the general assumption, Chicken Manchurian originated in India and was popularised in the Chinese eateries of Calcutta. Ellen Oxfeld, in her book Encyclopaedia of Diasporas, claims that the first Chinese immigrant to the Indian subcontinent was a sailor by the name of Yang Dazhao, or Atchew as called in English, who arrived at the port of Calcutta from China’s Guangdong province in the 1770s. Atchew ensured more of his countrymen, especially the oppressed Hakka merchants, sailed to Calcutta for a better life, who, with time, dispersed in the common populace and started diverse means of livelihood, especially home eateries, that gave rise to the famous Hakka cuisine and Kolkata’s iconic Chinatown.
‘A third-generation Chinese born in Calcutta, Nelson Wang became a chef at the prestigious Cricket Club of India in Mumbai and quickly became a members’ favourite due to his unparalleled cooking skills. It was here in 1975 that, on the insistence of a club member, chef Wang tried something new by tossing Pakoras (flour-coated fried chicken) in a spicy gravy of soy sauce and green chillies, an ingredient picked up from his Kolkata childhood. The result was the flavour-packed Chicken Manchurian that immediately became the talk of the town, and later the star dish of Wang’s restaurant China Garden in Mumbai’s Kemps Corner and one of the most recreated dishes in Indian culinary history.