My taste buds have been simmering in Indian-Chinese flavours for over two decades, ever since I inhabited my mother’s womb, as her pregnancy cravings featured generous servings of Hakka-style chicken noodles from the streets of Kolkata, the birthplace of Indian-Chinese food.
My long-standing relationship with Indo-Chinese cuisine can outshine the bond between Paris and Helen, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, and Adam and Eve. Fat-shaming relatives will attest to the fact that my alternate Sundays were spent devouring menus buried deep in the gullies of Tangra, an East-Calcuttan neighbourhood that is the life source of Indianised Chinese food.
The seismic influence of Calcutta’s Chinese diaspora is unmissable. To locate the impact of Tangra’s culinary legacy in India, one need only visit their closest street food vendor for a taste of “Chinese bhel” or find Hakka chow and “manchurian” gracing even South Indian kitchens. But, not enough is known about the traumatic history and unputdownable work ethic of Tangra’s residents.
Monica Liu, the owner of Tangra’s famous Beijing restaurant, told me that the area became an industrial hub for the leather industry after the second world war sparked incoming immigration to South Asia. This was news to me, so I researched further. I learnt that upwards of 20,000 Chinese immigrants first travelled to China’s southern province of Guangdong, a hotbed for port trading. Newer generations born after this initial move dwelled in Hunan as hakka, meaning guest, and eventually travelled to India to work in Calcutta as shoemakers and leather manufacturers.
“When the Chinese came to India in the 1950s, we didn’t have anything… We just wanted to survive because life was very, very tough especially because we had large families,” Monica, a Hakka herself, said while telling me that her father dabbled in Calcutta’s leather industries because he only earned only 10 rupees a month otherwise.
“When I was married in 1971, my husband also had a leather business. So, I moved to Calcutta,” she said. For Monica, adjusting to a new life away from her family was difficult and the lack of professional prospects other than tanning leather compounded her problems. But, she would soon learn that Hakka women are particularly hard-working people. “I would wake up at 4 am to go to the small Chinese bazaar in Tangra to make friends and get vegetables to cook for the house,” Monica laughed recalling how difficult it was to wake up at that time, instantly making a friend out of yours truly, who struggles even with 10 am wake up calls.
By the 1970s, word spread like melted butter on toast that Tangra women like Monica cooked flavourful Chinese at home, which played like music to the ears of Indians who enjoyed a break from dal, roti, and sabzi. “A few Chinese restaurants had opened and would serve dinner late, after 6 pm, for the young boys who would come home from work with their fathers. Then, they only served pork fried rice and fried chow. No schezwan or chilli dishes,” Monica explained.
Naturally, I was curious about how Indian-Chinese menus evolved to include dishes like “Schezwan chicken lollipop” and “Chilli chicken in hot garlic sauce.” So, I went to Alfred Hou, a third-generation link in a family of restaurateurs, who now manages China Gardens, a quaint two-storey joint in Tangra.
Alfred told me of a story similar to Monica’s. “She came here around 1960 because she saw better options for herself. China was a poor country then,” he said as he recalled the life of his grandmother. He also told me about his late father who opened the famous 50-year-old establishment called Golden Dragon that sits stately amidst the hustle of Park Street, the culinary hub of South Calcutta. When I asked why his family and Calcutta’s Chinese community was so involved in the food industry, Alfred laughed and sighed, “We had to do something to eat and we only knew how to cook.”
Alfred and Monica both said that as the Chinese stewed in the gravy of Indian society, they invited Indian friends for dinner to these restaurants; and, about a decade later, Indian-Chinese cuisine as we know it today, would make its debut. Now, Tangra’s narrow lanes are trimmed with strings of red Chinese lanterns, breadcrumbs for Kolkata’s Hansels and Gretels, seeking the heat of Szechuan sauce, a quintessential feature of every Indian-Chinese restaurant.
Interestingly, other than cuisine, Tangra’s restaurants are familial even in interior design. Their unique red décor, whether synthetic Chinese dragons spread across walls or lanterns dangling from the ceiling, is almost always paired with dim, yellow lighting, creating a demure ambience of dancing crimson shadows. As a visitor, I imagine that this aesthetic is Tangra’s way of clueing me into an ancient secret without telling me it has one.
However, I have another theory: the writer in me would like to believe that the abundance of red colouring in these dining halls is symbolic of the distinctive spiciness of Indian-Chinese cuisine. Although Alfred didn’t confirm this in so many words, he did say, “Bengali people love this type of food- spicy, deep-fried...” and that was confirmation enough for me. Sanjiv Khamgaonkar would agree with me because he wrote that the Chinese “masalafied” their cuisine to suit Indian tastes, fusing onion, chillies, garlic, garam masala and oil with cornflour coated vegetables and meat to bring us traditional dishes like Manchurian paneer, dishes that exist nowhere else, not even in China.
Although Indo-Chinese cuisine is stages ahead in its evolutionary process since its inception in the 1960s, it is still freshly steamed in the legacy and perseverance of Chinese immigrants, especially the Hakka, who settled on a culinary expression of their dual identity. The viscosity of sweet corn soup, the sharpness of Szechuan chilli chicken, and crispy sweetness of darsaan are millenia-old results of Indian-Chinese collaboration existing in the space of oscillating Indo-Sino relations.
While a modern India struggles to celebrate its diversity, its residents must know that this promptly enjoyed alien cuisine is built on the bones of immigrants who struggled to fit in. The immensely delicious Indo-Chinese dishes we consume today are born from the economic and social hardships that East Asian immigrants were confronted with, and often still are, leaving Indian sub-cuisines richer and tastier than ever before.
Feature image by: Pinterest.com
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